My trip in time was to 1996 and another venue meant to resemble a ship. That was the year the Empress Lily riverboat at Disney’s Pleasure Island was rechristened Fulton’s Crab House with a registry under the Levy Restaurants flag. Fulton’s chef had a passion for a variety of fish and delighted in bringing the freshest to Central Florida.
But a few years after it opened, the restaurant shifted course. It still specialized in seafood, but its manifest was more mundane, sticking to the snapper, tuna and salmon that one could find in any other restaurant.
So when I visited The Oceanaire and saw its list of fish that included wahoo, coho salmon, hogfish and marlin, I was heartened. And when I discovered that the quality of the seafood was good and the kitchen had an expertise in cooking it, I was pleased that Central Florida finally had another fine seafood restaurant.
Not that everything here is first-rate. In fact there were some mind-numbing stumbles and some annoying service policies. But overall, The Oceanaire offers an exceptional dining experience.
The menu, which is printed daily, as it should be in any fresh fish restaurant, requires some explanation from the servers. The top of the menu has a roster of 20 or so fish, but only those with a checkmark next to them are available.
Those that are checked may be simply grilled or broiled. Or they may be featured as one of the special preparations, such as the stuffed Alaskan halibut ($29.95) I enjoyed on my first visit. It featured a firm fillet wrapped around a satisfying mixture of shrimp, crab and creamy brie.
I also liked the black and blue swordfish ($28.95). The fillet wasn’t as thick as you might find in some swordfish, but it was deliciously tender and nicely blackened. The blue was provided by a splotch of Roquefort butter served atop the fish. Underneath was a confit of sweet onions.
Cioppino ($24.95) was a bit of a disappointment. Although ostensibly a stew, this cioppino had precious little broth, though I must say the soupcon that was there was delicious. But the chunks of fish that were served with it were overcooked.
The two simple preparations of fresh fish I sampled were quite good. On one visit my companion had the wahoo ($22.95), or ono, a mild fish similar to the mackerel. On another visit there was a monkfish ($23.95) from Georges Bank. It had the characteristic texture that mimics lobster meat but was a thick steak cut with the center cord intact. Not the prettiest presentation but quite good.
The crab cake ($14.95) was the most impressive appetizer. There was barely enough binding to hold the thick and sweet pieces of lump meat together. And fried calamari ($10.95) was better than the run of the mill variety with squid from Point Judith delicately breaded and fried. And I loved the shrimp De Jonghe ($8.95), an old-time appetizer, tender-firm shrimp sauteed in garlic butter and topped with bread crumbs.
The biggest disappointment came in the “grand shellfish platter,” and not just because the cost of the petite was a whopping $38. It consisted of a large saucer of shaved ice served on an elevated stand. Shoved in the ice were crab legs, a half lobster, shrimp, oysters, mussels and crab claws. Nothing on the pricey platter stood out as exceptional. The crab legs were a tad rubbery and the oysters, from Netart Bay, were a bit mushy. But the crab claw had gone bad and had the distinctive taste and odor of vinegar to prove it.
Baked Alaska ($5.95), flamed tableside, featured a bland ice cream center under a meringue igloo. The caramel brownie ($13.95), on the other hand, was wonderful chocolate goo.
The skill of the servers would be much more appreciated if they’d cut down on their spiel. Managers were on hand and readily stepped in to handle situations like spoiled crab claws. The wine list is limited but has plenty of fun seafood-pairing selections.
The interior is wood and palms and white tablecloths and avoids the trap of being too seaworthy or over-nautical. Obscure references to seafood and the sea are printed on the walls of the restaurant and restrooms. The men’s room has an odd quote, “The snotgreen sea. The scrotum tightening sea,” that is unattributed, although a well-read companion was sure it is by James Joyce. (It is.)
The Oceanaire Seafood Room has a number of touches to take the diner back in time – when was the last time you were served a relish tray? But its best attribute is the promise of a brighter future for Central Florida’s seafood scene.