Bygone-era seafood house offers a bounty of unparalleled freshness

Most foodies view chains as vessels of formulaic food assemblage serving only to propagate the conventional while inhibiting any semblance of culinary creativity. An elitist posture, to be sure, though not entirely without merit, particularly in our chain-riddled hamlet. But this gussied-up seafood room not only dismisses the notion, it shatters it, and, further, makes you thankful that Orlando is one of 14 cities to have the Minnesota-based chain sail into town.

The primary reason is the undeniable quality and freshness of the product. Their printed menu listed 25 varieties of sea creature, of which 18 had check marks next to them – an indication of the day’s catch. They claim that what sits on your plate today may have been swimming the day before. For a seafood joint, that makes all the difference in the world.

Oceanaire replicates a spacious ocean liner supper club steeped in 1930s nostalgia and replete with art deco flourishes: polished cherrywood paneling inlaid with chrome, sleek sweeping curves, recessed lighting, hardwood floors. You may even find yourself shimmying to the boogie-woogie swing as you pass the well-chilled bivalve bar on the way to your padded high-backed booth. Only rustic touches like the piscine taxidermy spoil the mood. At times, overly attentive waiters can do the same, but for the most part service is accommodating and first-class all the way.

Not wanting to indulge in a full order of Alaskan king crab legs ($56.95), I was allowed to order a half portion ($28.95), which amounted to one enormously spindly extremity encasing beautifully sweet flesh. A dip in melted butter, kept warm over a candle flame, served to enhance the succulence. A better-than-average ceviche pescado ($12.95) comprised diced Ecuadorian mahi mahi and Costa Rican wahoo ono “cooked” in a pineapple-orange-lime juice marinade. Bursts of fresh cilantro mingled with the mild tang of the fish, but the starter lacked the zing of rocoto, or any zippy pepper for that matter.

Any of the available fish can be ordered “simply grilled” or “broiled,” though an option to “dirty” any of day’s catch with Cajun spices is also offered. Opting for a purist approach, we chose to simply grill the 16-ounce Alaskan halibut T-bone ($35.95) in olive oil, lemon and rock salt and ordered it “medium” as per our waiter’s suggestion. The thick, meaty slab was near-perfect in its austerity, the center bone adding a lovely mild and subtly sweet flavor, though my dining partner felt the flesh veered towards the dry side.

I hate de-boning fish, but my waiter was happy to perform a tableside skeletal removal of the whole Mediterranean branzino ($34.95), a European sea bass steamed to liberate its delicate flavors. The brilliantly buttery, shimmering-skinned fish in a zesty lemon-beurre sauce with capers and kalamata olives was melt-in-your-mouth marvelous.

Sides are offered family-style, and in our quest for substance and comfort we opted for the baked blue cheese and macaroni ($7.95), a fine but incongruous dish. Needless to say, portions are huge here, so filling up on home-baked sourdough bread and the relish tray of pickled herring and crudités will encroach on your desire for dessert. Aside from a Dixie cup of ice cream (95¢), desserts are, expectedly, enormous, but none so enormous as the caramel brownie deluxe ($13.95). A gargantuan brownie wedge, flanked by two scoops of ice cream and capped with a dollop of cream, is laid on the table before a waiter slathers it with homemade caramel and fudge poured from two stainless steel sauce boats. Crème brûlée ($7.95), served in a shell-shaped dish, had the proper crackle and rich consistency.

Nowhere beyond the sea are its inhabitants more freshly served than here – nary an old fish sullies this kitchen. The budget-busting prices and I-Drive locale may alienate some diners, but in a town sorely lacking in fine seafood establishments, it’s a pleasure to see a restaurant raise the bar, even if it is a chain.