"I feel like a menace to society," said my friend with a laugh, taking another gleeful crack at the chilled lobster in front of him, the pressure propelling yet another shot of aromatic juice in all directions. When a whole white arctic char was de-boned tableside, the server's practiced tug extracting the fish's delicate skeletal system fully intact, my friends were suitably impressed. They became positively wide-eyed when a blazing baked Alaska proved to be the ultimate in showy dinner theater.
Yes, dining at the Oceanaire Seafood Room can be a lot of fun. I'd forgotten that. But here's another detail that had slipped my mind: It can be expensive. How expensive? Let's just say that the blood-curdling sound you hear is my boss, getting a look at my expense report.
When the restaurant opened in 1998, it was a watershed -- no pun intended, honest -- moment in Twin Cities dining-out history, an affirmation that land-locked Minnesota had an appetite for a complex assortment of fresh-daily seafood.
But over 14 years, seafood selection and preparation has improved exponentially in restaurants all over town. Meanwhile, the Oceanaire's innovative edge seems to have dulled. In 2010, the company was purchased by Landry's Restaurants Inc., a Texas-based conglomerate behind a number of chains, including the Rainforest Cafe.
Landry's has tweaked the Oceanaire. What I notice (and lament) most is a slimmer, less quirky fresh-fish selection. On a recent menu front-loaded with shrimp, salmon, trout, scallops and other rote items, finding blue marlin felt like a triumph.
And is it just me, or is the cooking less refined? As I grazed my way across the menu, more often than not I found myself thinking about all the other, better -- and far less expensive -- versions of similar dishes available elsewhere. That whole arctic char, for example, which is dredged in buttermilk and flour and rather artlessly deep-fried. The pink flesh wasn't dry, exactly, but it wasn't the succulent, flavorful experience it should have been, and its pool of citrus-soy sauce was an exercise in saltiness. At $44.95, it's not unreasonable to expect more.
The kitchen is at its most reliable when it avails itself of the grill or the broiler and keeps the embellishments (butter, lemon) to a minimum. Things become a little rocky when the cooking takes what a friend of mine likes to call a "chef-ey" turn. It's tough to say which was more disappointing: that the kitchen did such a C-minus job of searing scallops, or that they were paired with such discombobulated soy, honey, miso and chile pepper accents. A tuna poke was alarmingly overspiced.
Even the side dishes are uneven: fantastic matchstick-cut fries and ultra-creamy sour cream-laced mashed potatoes cannot be improved upon, yet they're on the same list with fibrous-yet-limp asparagus and greasy wild rice pilaf.
One thing that hasn't changed, thank heavens, is the crab cakes, which remain, without question, one of the city's pinnacle culinary experiences and the standard by which all others should be measured. At $17.95 a pop they're not cheap, but they're worth every shekel, and then some.
Three cheers for the infinitely wise decision to say goodbye to the restaurant's soul-sucking location deep within the Hyatt Regency Hotel and move into a far livelier street-level address at 6th Street and Nicollet Mall. Where the old place took its design cues from a 1930s ocean liner, the new location's white-and-sapphire setting is slick, but soulless, and a tad cramped. But it's on the sidewalk, a vast improvement.
Another saving grace is the restaurant's newfound lunch service. The menu is an abbreviated version of dinner, and it's at it best when it embraces simplicity: crispy beer-battered cod with those fantastic matchstick fries, tender mussels steamed in white wine, a decent shrimp scampi. Most successful is an ever-changing piece of grilled fish -- salmon, barramundi -- that's paired with those eat-every-morsel mashed potatoes and a few spears of asparagus. It's $15.95, and each iteration I encountered was just about perfect.