The protean nature of today’s food scene makes it an arduous task for anyone to keep up with the newest trends and the latest restaurant openings, it also makes it easy to eschew the places that have paved the way for our food scene in order to get a taste of the new.
With the opening of Mass Ave.’s newest restaurant, Salt on Mass, a place that deserves accolades for its incredible seafood, it is important to keep in mind that fresh seafood has been readily available in Indianapolis for over a decade, and there is no better time than now for people to get a taste of the changes going on at The Oceanaire
When Neil Andrews left The Oceanaire back in July to join the team at Salt on Mass, his sous chef Adam Waldrip got the opportunity he has been working toward for years; he became the executive chef of The Oceanaire and with that change he plans on taking the restaurant into a new era.
When the Oceanaire opened in Indianapolis in 2003, it made waves amongst the sea of people who had been pining after fresh seafood for decades. There was no place like it. Now, 13 years later, there still isn’t much in the way of fresh seafood in the city. Despite an acquisition by Landry’s Inc. in 2010, according to Waldrip, a Carmel native, “Oceanaire originally wasn’t corporate and was bought into a corporation. It was originally just Oceanaire and it has kept that feeling, it doesn’t feel like it’s corporate owned. My background is in family-owned restaurants and working here feels very similar to that experience.”
Waldrip is reserved and not presumptive, a quick conversation shows that this isn't someone who wants the spotlight. Looking around the place, it’s nice to see not much has changed since I first walked in for my 18th birthday in 2005. While the interior is much the same, the menu
has changed rather drastically in order to keep up with today’s trend of local and sustainable menus, which on all accounts is the best trend in food pretty much ever. “People are looking for fresh, local and somewhat organic ingredients,” Waldrip says as we look at the menu. “And while we obviously can’t do that with most of our seafood items, we try and do a lot of local sourcing and utilizing a lot of the local farms around the city for other items. We’ve worked with Lush Leaf Farm
, Growing Places Indy
, Annabelle’s Garden
and we also like to use the farmers’ market, as well. We really try to focus on those for our chef selections too, keeping it seasonal.”
The chef’s selections he is referencing are an aspect of the menu that changes daily and from talking with him, the part of the menu Adam is most excited for. “While there are staple menu items that stay the same across all Oceanaires, we have revolving chef specials and the menu changes everyday. We get to choose our own specials here and those change out continuously. We have the freedom to do a cold app, a hot app, soup of the day, a special salad, our side dishes and our fish obviously changes with availability, as well as our oyster list. I think we do a great job of staying on the trendy end of food with our chef’s selections and keeping local and seasonal ingredients on the menu.”
Today, I get a taste of some of the newest menu items that Chef Waldrip has come up with for the chef’s selection. He tells me I’ll be starting out with a mix of fresh oysters, and then the crudo of the day which highlights a fresh order of blue fin tuna that just came in, a striped bass entree that has a Southern style to it and finishing off with a “dessert” of scallops.
My first dish is a platter of oysters on the half shell (oyster power). First, I must preface this with the fact that oysters rank amongst my top ten favorite dishes in the world. Adam tells me each style and I was excited to hear that the first type of oyster I ever tried was in the mix, a kumamoto. I decided I’d go for it first. As with the first one I ever tried and every subsequent taste, it had a nice, light brininess and was the perfect temperature. I had added a bit of the classic mignonette to this one and it was the perfect complement to the flavor. Of the other three, all of them were spectacular, but I have to say I may have found my new favorite style of oyster, the Hammersley. The texture was nice and firm and the flavor light and refreshing.
When I ask Adam what the biggest changes have been for him when it comes to his position change, after a moment of thought, he says, “You’re definitely in a position where you’re held accountable for a lot and to be able to maintain that it takes a lot of time and control and effort. I think that’s the biggest change for me, I make a lot more decisions and beyond that it’s being able to decide the fish and specials we want to run I have a lot control over that. It’s simply going from watching one portion of the picture to having to keep my eye on the full picture.”
When I get a taste of my first dish, I quickly realize, with his eye on the full picture, the menu is in good hands. It is a dish of blue fin tuna sashimi, the fish itself is fresh and, as with all blue fin, so flavorful and tender it melts in your mouth. But it is the added accents (which are classic pairings) that make the dish superb, like the caramel soy and the fresh roe (including my favorite spicy green roe) which deftly blend in with the fish, never overpowering it or masking the flavor. It would be sinful to cover blue fin tuna’s flavor.
As Chef Waldrip and I are chatting, he shares his idea that will allow him to express some of his creativity. “One thing I have in the works is to do a chef tasting selection on the menu where you basically pick a three-course dinner, with or without a wine pairing. That lets us cook whatever we want. Obviously we will have guidelines as to allergies and likes and dislikes, but it’s something I’m pushing on using. It may not be on the menu, but it will be something people can order to maybe branch out and to let us be more inventive.”
The next dish comes out and the chef says this is the type of dish that would be on the tasting menu. At first, I’m not so sure about it. It’s striped bass, a meaty white fish, my favorite type of fish, but when Chef Waldrip brings it to my table and explains that it’s topped with peaches and walnuts. The dish was fantastic, the peaches not cloying, the walnuts adding a nice crunch, the bass shining through it all to be the highlighted flavor. If this is a sign of where the tasting menu is going, it’s sure to be worth a try.
I finish my meal with a scallop dish, Adam drops it off and laughingly says it is dessert.
Sometimes when a new chef comes on in a long-time loved place it can be scary as a patron. It is easy to worry about the quality of the food diminishing. It isn't the case at The Oceanaire. Adam tells me, “I’m still just trying to keep everything moving forward, I still haven’t completely settled into the position.” Chef Waldrip is stepping into his position and running full-steam ahead and working to keep The Oceanaire in our minds. He isn't trying to be hip or different. He is simply making damn good seafood in a city where that shouldn't happen — and at one point in time it didn't happen. Thankfully the Oceanaire came along and fixed that. It is still as good as it was 13 years ago, in all honesty it’s better, as is all of Indy’s food scene.