Casting its Nets
[from November 2000 issue]

Quite simply, I love Oceanaire. A retro restaurant, it has a certain class that many DC restaurants lack. Maybe it's the décor (some call it a "luxury liner"; like maybe it's the QE II of local restaurants) but quite definitely what Oceanaire offers is superb cooking and amazingly attentive service from staff dressed in white jackets and long, white aprons. All this belongs to some earlier, classier era of Americana, back when we took time to appreciate fine food, good service, and a leisurely meal.

Not that Oceanaire (more formally, The Oceanaire Seafood Room) is not a major lunch destination for Hill staffers and Downtown Suits on the run. It is. But more importantly, just about anyone who can pay the tab (slightly steep) can overdose on luxurious seafood dishes, glorious sourdough bread (baked on the premises), and over-the-top desserts that are made in heaven.

If pennies count, you may want to tailor your meal to be sure to include dessert. On one visit, the waiter assured me that his favorites were the lemon ice box cake, or maybe the cherry Brown Betty. But for me, paradise comes in the mounds of dense lime-tart filling of their Key Lime pie, just the other side of ambrosial and the very best of its kind in DC. Its crumb crust is soaking in a lime-tart syrup and a mountain of real whipped cream adds the final caloric disgrace. I would go back to order just that, and nothing more.

Luncheon brings along fried oyster po' boy sandwiches, a yellowfin tuna burger, broiled shrimp scampi, and luncheon specials like grilled "dirty" wahoo. Although the menu changes daily to reflect what's freshest in the market, certain dishes must be standards, and among these seems to be the lobster Cobb salad, with its mountain of greens and the salad fixings arranged artfully in bands atop the lettuce. But a better, lustier choice is their cioppino, the famous San Francisco-based seafood stew that here becomes a tomato and seafood symphony with overtones of pepper sauce to perk flavors up. A few shellfish (clams, mussels, and maybe a shrimp or two) are stirred with chunks of different cubed fish and then garnished with slices of toasted (and garlicked?) bread for soaking up the liquid. Frankly, unless you wish to take home leftovers, you might find this a bit much for a midday meal-and this is the lunch size!

As for starters, you'll find the requisite shrimp cocktail and crab cakes, steamed mussels and Eastern Shore crab soup, the latter of which left few memories. You can also start with an iceberg lettuce wedge (a real throwback to the '50s, '40s, and even '30s), Caesar salad, or sliced tomato and red onion salad.

But always, work your way back to dessert. Maybe the ideal meal here comes as fresh oysters from their upfront raw bar and a wedge of Key Lime pie. ("Wedge" = about 1/4 whole pie.)

Note: There's an extensive wine, beer, cocktail and champagne menu. Just like the old days. And management even sets the table with assorted must-have condiments for a seafood meal and offers a relish tray with slices of pickled herring. Tell me where else you'll find such detail!!

The Oceanaire Seafood Room, 1201 F St.; 347-BASS. Open: Lunch, Mon.-Fri.; Dinner; Mon.-Sat. Entrées: $9.95-$34.95. Major credit cards accepted.

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