I’ve always been a sucker for the Oceanaire. When it first opened in the Minneapolis Hyatt, way back in 1998, I was wowed by everything: the ultra-fresh fish, the winkingly retro cruise ship-with-Fred-Astaire design, and the sheer audacity of the whole concept. Who dared to put a world-class seafood restaurant on the prairie? As the years ticked by, I swelled with amused pride as the Oceanaire spread to the coasts and racked up best-seafood-restaurant awards in places with bona-fide ocean harbors. In 2001, it split from parent company Parasole, owner of Manny’s, Cafeteria, and many more. However, as the years passed, the magic seemed to fade. By the time the chain was bought by Landry’s, the major Houston seafood-restaurant group that also owns McCormick & Schmick’s, the Minneapolis Oceanaire had begun to seem old and tired, like a car that had driven on difficult roads for many years and was never once washed.
So I was happy when Landry’s announced their intention to move the old girl down Nicollet Mall to a prominent corner on Sixth Street. I went shortly after they opened and, as an old Oceanaire fan, found a lot to love.
The oysters, for instance, were as gorgeous as ever: fresh, perfectly opened (not mauled and full of shell), and delightful. The fish and chips were also faultless: crisp, fresh, and just right. I’d visit again for those two reasons alone. The “simply grilled or broiled” section of the menu remains terrific. I tried a Nova Scotia-harpooned swordfish steak that was everything you want in a fish dish: savory, fresh, wholesome, and, thank heavens, sustainable. How wonderful to support a fishery that pulled itself out of catastrophe. The old Oceanaire sides—recognizable to Twin Cities foodies also as the Manny’s sides—are deftly executed: the skillet-shaped hash browns perfectly seared, the asparagus fat and pretty.
The only problems I had with the new spot involved the cooking. Plain dishes like the lobster bisque or the clam chowder tasted (respectively) generic, and generic and gummy. Fancy dishes like the jerk-spiced scallops with brown butter and spicy pineapple salsa were swamped by their adornments, like a pretty girl in a Carmen Miranda fruit-basket hat—do you really need all of that? And there’s something about the neon-blue accents in the dining room that reads not as Fred Astaire-retro, but more 1980s-Back to the Future.
Though I’m not sure I care. This new iteration of the Oceanaire doesn’t have the bigger-than-life chic of the original, but it still provides the ultra-fresh, oh-so-tasty seafood which was and is very much the point. The fish and chips is among the best in town, and the shrimp cocktail remains ridiculously large, ridiculously expensive, and ridiculously good. One day I hope to score a big enough deal that someone buys me a three-pound live lobster—at $29 a pound. It’s delicious to have a restaurant in the middle of downtown that allows a Minnesotan to so aspire.
If you liked the old Oceanaire, you’ll like the new Oceanaire. It’s got the same ultra-fresh seafood, the same dressy and fun spirit, and the added appeal of lunch.
Ideal Meal: Fresh oysters, something from the simply grilled menu, and hash browns. Tip: Go for the $5 fish and chips during happy hour. Hours: 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m. Mon.–Thur.; 11:30 a.m.–11 p.m. Fri.; 5 p.m.–11 p.m. Sat.; 5 p.m.–11 p.m. Sun. Prices: Lunch, $13 and up; dinner, $23 and up. Address: The Oceanaire Seafood Room, 50 S. Sixth St., Mpls., 612-333-2277, theoceanaire.com