It was the pickled herring that first grabbed my taste buds and my attention, long before an entrée had been served, and even longer before the bill, that merciless testament to our excess, had been delivered to the table. The herring came in a shallow dish along with a few assorted crudités: some crunchy tidbits to whet the palate and get the gastric juices roiling, offering a delightful prelude to an even more delightful afternoon of piscatorial indulgence.
The waitstaff serves a group of lunch_goers. Beyond them: the seafood bar that consumes nearly the entire north wall of the restaurant.
Those familiar with the joys of pickled herring will be equally familiar with its gluttonous appeal. When properly done, it’s addictive, plain and simple. To paraphrase the mantra of the recovering alcoholic, “One piece is too many and a thousand are not enough.” This herring, quite honestly, was amongst the best I’ve ever eaten. Although I consider pickled herring to be one of my desert island foods, and could happily make a meal of the stuff every day of the week, it would be a shame to visit such a grand establishment as The Oceanaire and limit oneself to this solitary indulgence: There’s simply so much else to choose from. As the latest in a very small chain (so small as to hardly merit the word, in fact), The Oceanaire brings to downtown Indianapolis a concept that has been sorely lacking until now: a decent fish restaurant. The only two fish-based establishments that I can recall in recent years have now gone by the wayside, which is lucky for them in a way, because I don’t think they would want The Oceanaire as competition. From the valet who parks your car and opens the front door to the guy who has to wait for you to leave so he can sweep the crumbs out from under the table, everyone at this ambitious new establishment is a pro. You’ll get no attitude here, no know-it-all waitstaff with their noses in the air, just solid, well-informed professionalism. How refreshing. Setting foot into the beautifully appointed dining room with its sweeping bar and soaring wine racks, you feel immediately removed from whatever world it is you left outside. It’s a bit like stepping onto an ocean liner where the crew has anticipated your every need, stowed away your bags and asked you to put away your cell phone for a couple of hours. In addition, there’s that very pleasant, if somewhat disconcerting, sensation of losing all control, something which happens in the very best of restaurants, as the expert staff, moving almost as one, guide you smoothly through your dining experience as if their very lives depended on your satisfaction. Joint proprietors Richard Edwards and Executive Chef Ryan Nelson have spared no expense at all in fitting out their luxury liner. Taking the ground floor of the old L.S. Ayres building, they have fashioned an exclusive, clubby haven from hardwood, slate, steel and glass. So well-appointed is the place, and such is the attention to detail, that even the bathrooms are worth a degree of exploration. And so to the food. For those who insist on eating steak, there are a couple of token meat dishes on the menu, but I would strongly advocate that died in the wool carnivores go around the corner to one of this city’s many fine steak houses and leave The Oceanaire to those who might truly appreciate its evident virtues. You see, Chef Ryan knows a thing or two about fish, and it would be a terrible waste of valuable booth space to not take full advantage of his talents. Because fish are creatures that don’t benefit much from being frozen, or from being hung up by their fins to mature gracefully, unlike steak, they generally need to be eaten as soon as possible after their removal from the sea. To this end, The Oceanaire publishes a daily menu, based upon what its various merchants and brokers have been able to find fresh that day. Because market prices vary, I can only give general price guidelines, so please don’t take what follows as gospel. Suffice to say, it’s going to cost you, but I don’t think you’ll regret a single penny spent. You don’t usually expect to see condiments offered as a permanent fixture at white linen restaurants, but at The Oceanaire, each table is graced with, amongst other things, a tin of Old Bay seasoning, a canister of Baleine sea salt, a bottle of Tabasco, some ketchup and regular old salt and pepper. If it weren’t for the linen, you might think you were in a traditional New England fish house with the charming name of Skipper’s or The Salty Dog, but that’s where the similarity ends. There’ll be no whistling of sea shanties or hoisting the binnacle here, thank you very much: This is serious food, and lots of it. If I haven’t already mentioned it, prices here are a touch on the high side; appetizers in the $9 to $13 range, entrees up to $35 or so, vegetables à la carte, so the bill starts to add up pretty quickly, especially if you choose anything from the well-chosen but ambitiously priced wine list (we were presented with the captain’s list, but I didn’t even dare open it, for fear of financial ruin). What I have to emphasize, however, is that the portions are huge; so large, in fact, that my thin runner friend from England was visibly shocked at the sight of his dessert, to the extent that he gently berated our server about the irresponsibly large portions served in this country. Anyway, you get more than you pay for, more than you need, really, and you certainly won’t go away hungry. To start this epic voyage, what better way than to try one of the dozen or so varieties of oyster, ranging from the piquant and salty to aromatic and cucumber-like. Just ask your server, who will probably tell you about the origins of these juicy, bracingly fresh little specimens. At around $2 a piece they’re not cheap, but they are exceptionally fresh and fine. Once you’ve finished with the oysters, a grand shellfish platter might be in order. This consists of a mound of shaved ice studded with mussels, oysters, jumbo shrimp, crab legs, lobster and goodness knows what else. With some drawn butter, horseradish cocktail sauce and a vinegary dip, this is a seafood lover’s treat. The tower comes in two sizes, weighing in at $35 and $60 or so. The smaller tower is ideal on its own as an appetizer for two. Beware, however, the jumping oyster syndrome. We found that, as the mound of ice melted, our shellfish had a way of plopping with unerring accuracy into our wineglasses, causing our ever vigilant server to rush to the table, remove the offending item and replace it with a fresh oyster and a clean glass. Fresh fish of the day are offered simply grilled or broiled, with sea salt, olive oil or lemon, or as chef’s specials. A mound of tender halibut cheeks might be served over a bed of braised fennel, toasted pine nuts and a smattering of caper-infused vinaigrette. Or how about a fabulous grey sole (or was it flounder?) stuffed with crab meat, bay shrimp and brie. It sounds heavy, but this is actually quite a delicate dish, especially when the fish is cooked to a moist but still firm perfection. Also sampled (and quite superb) was an East Coast striped bass on top of a bed of spinach sautéed with bacon. Should you decide to try some vegetables, the potato cake is huge, and works well for next day’s breakfast. The creamed corn had us stabbing each other with our forks (in the most genteel manner, of course) to get to the last bite. Our server informed us that vegetables probably would not be necessary in addition to those that came with the entrees, but we ate them, anyway. What makes Chef Ryan’s handling of the fish here so special is that he comes up with an individual and appropriate preparation for each. You can see that some real thought goes into balancing ancillary ingredients with the weight, texture and flavor of each species. This isn’t a question of simply throwing a hunk of fish on the grill, overcooking it and serving it with rice, green beans and zucchini. This is cooking, and this is what you pay for. Desserts, should you choose to indulge, are impressive. The root beer float is a lot of fun, and the baked Alaska is about the size of its namesake state. Bear in mind that one dessert will probably suffice for two to four people. If quality lies in the details, then The Oceanaire is all about quality. Atmosphere, food, service … this place has it all. Is it too premature to call this the best new restaurant of the year? I don’t think so. Neil Charles is a wine industry professional with over 20 years in the business.
The Oceanaire 30 S. Meridian St. 955-2277 Lunch Monday-Friday 11:30-5 Dinner Monday-Thursday 5-10 Friday-Saturday 5-11 Sunday 5-9 Food : 4 1/2 stars Atmosphere : 4 1/2 stars Service : 4 stars