I have to admit I was a bit leery about returning to the Oceanaire Seafood Room. When it first opened at Pointe Orlando, in 2007, I declared that good seafood had returned to Central Florida. The Oceanaire was an upscale dining venue that placed emphasis on the quality of its fresh fish. It didn’t do everything right, but it was good enough to earn accolades.
And then, last year, Landry’s Restaurants, Inc., bought Oceanaire. If you’ve dined in any of the other Landry’s brands -- and there are many, about 33 restaurant names -- then you know that good food quality is not a forte. Locally, those brands are represented by Landry’s Seafood, Rainforest Cafe, T-Rex Cafe, Bubba Gump and the worst of the lot, which is saying something, Yak & Yeti, the only full-service restaurant inside Disney’s Animal Kingdom park. When I reviewed that last one, in 2008, I suggested it be renamed Yuk & Yeti.
(The company’s president didn’t take well to that review and had several conversations with editors several pay grades above me, who all stood behind me, it should be mentioned. When I had a phone conversation with the owner about the review, he protested that the things I had written were untrue because he himself had dined at the restaurant with several high-ranking Disney officials and everything was just great. Well, duh!)
Let’s be clear: I do not have a grudge against Landry’s Restaurants. I do, however, detest restaurants that sling mediocre (at best) food at guests, and that do it with predictable consistency.
Hence, my leeriness at revisiting Oceanaire as a Landry’s brand.
But by all appearances, the restaurant is retaining its dedication to fresh seafood, and keeping most of the experience as upscale as possible. Just as before Landry’s took over, not everything is perfect about Oceanaire, but I feel confident enough about it that I can still recommend it for good seafood.
The greeter was less than enthusiastic to see a guest walk through the door. She told me there would be a 30-minute wait for a table in the dining room, but I could dine at the bar. Fine, I said. I was seated and offered the regular menu, but I had to request the Visit Orlando Magical Dining Month menu.
From that, I selected an appetizer of shrimp and grits, which featured two tail-on shrimp on a puddle of grits and topped with shredded white cheddar cheese. It was also drizzled with something I suppose was balsamic vinegar, but it did not have the roundness of good balsamic, only the acidic notes of vinegar, which really detracted from the flavor. The shrimp themselves were fine.
For my entree, I ordered the pan-seared Rhode Island monkfish “Marsala”; the quotation marks are from the menu, but I would have had to add them because there wasn’t anything remotely Marsala winelike about the sauce. But the fish didn’t need it. It was a firm fillet, cooked perfectly with butter and mushrooms. It was a lovely piece of fish that I had thought I would only have a few bites of but ended up eating the whole thing.
I did not eat all the mashed potatoes that accompanied the fish, thankfully in a separate bowl. It was a huge serving -- really, enough for four people -- topped with an ample amount of sour cream. If I’d been in a mood for carb loading, and if the potatoes had been warmer than room temperature, I might have been enticed to have more than one bite.
Monkfish is known as the poor man’s lobster because of the texture of the flesh. However, the regular price of the monkfish is $28.95 (so much for the poor man), and that, apparently, doesn’t include the side of potatoes ($7.95) or the appetizer ($12.95). I paid $30 for my three courses. A man sitting nearby had the monkfish, and it appeared to be the same size as the one I was served. So if anyone needed convincing that you can get great deals during Magical Dining Month, there’s the proof.
And that’s before adding dessert. I had the Key lime pie, which was a huge slice with a creamy texture. Might have been a bit limier, but overall a good rendition.
The young man behind the bar was affable and engaging. There were, however, long waits for service because he was also made to fetch dishes from the kitchen. (Seriously, Oceanaire, no food runner?) And his service score went down a few notches when, removing the appetizer plate, he asked if I didn’t want to hang on to my knife. Not the sort of thing a waiter asks in this caliber of restaurant. (Hell, any caliber restaurant.)
Most of the dining room appears to be much the same -- the decor was meant to give a slight impression that one was dining on an old ocean liner. The seafaring quotes that were written on the walls of the dining room seem to have been painted over. But the quote on the wall of the men’s room remains: “The snot green sea. The scrotum tightening sea.” I suppose a bathroom wall is the best place for a quote like that, but who wants to take either one of those sentiments back to his dinner? Or his date? (The quote is not attributed, but my companion, Rick, a college professor, correctly identified it as James Joyce.)
There was an odor evident at the bar, the sort of garbagy smell that is usually confined to the kitchen. Maybe a fluke (or any other kind of fish), but management may want to check it out.
I assume that Landry’s acquisition of Oceanaire is tantamount to Darden’s purchase of the more upscale Capital Grille steakhouse, which, coincidentally, is Oceanaire’s next-door neighbor. Having a brand like this could raise the company’s status as a restaurateur. Improving the quality of the other brands would help, too.
Oceanaire Seafood Room is at Pointe Orlando, 9101 International Drive, Orlando. It is open for dinner daily. The restaurant offers complimentary valet parking with validation -- use it! Here is a link to the website. The phone number is 407-363-4801. If you want to take advantage of the Magical Dining Deal, hurry; it ends Sept. 30.