(out of 4)
1400 Arapahoe St., 303-991-2277, www.theoceanaire.com
The Draw An elegant seafood restaurant set in Denver’s theater district.
The Drawback Prices are high and inelegantly large portions often border on wasteful.
Don’t Miss Grilled Hawaiian ono with lobster beurre blanc, Chesapeake Bay-style jumbo lump crab cakes, grand shellfish platter, Colorado striped bass, baked Alaska
Vegetarian Options Sliced tomato and red onion salad, steamed asparagus with hollandaise, baked sweet potato
If there’s one kind restaurant Denverites know and love, it’s the steak house. Those masculine, leather-bound spaces serving up gluttonous dishes and never-ending wine lists are a fixed part of our Western culture. Dining on good steak, you could say, is a right of passage here. The same, however, can’t be said of fresh seafood—at least not in the way diners on the coasts enjoy it.
There are, of course, Denver eateries that have a way with fish—think of the pan-roasted halibut at Deluxe, the rustic cioppino at Jax Fish House, and nearly anything at Sushi Den—but few spots are dedicated solely to seafood. A year ago that all changed when the Oceanaire Seafood Room opened on the corner of 14th and Arapahoe streets.
The Oceanaire brings seafood to the Denver market in a way that feels familiar. It’s worth mentioning that the eatery is part of a corporate group, but only in that it’s one that borrows from the playbooks of the best, such as Del Frisco’s and the Capital Grille. Like these steak house icons, the Oceanaire feels grand and glossy, masculine and clubby, and there’s an emphasis on impeccable service. And like neighboring Restaurant Kevin Taylor and the Capital Grille, it’s perched on a location set to draw clientele en route to the opera or those whose addresses will soon be the plush Four Seasons across the street.
The restaurant fits neatly into place here with handsome Art Deco decor and servers dressed in starched white coats. If the massive menu were deep with steak dishes and au gratin potatoes, diners would hardly blink an eye. But here, though there is a small selection of meat and poultry dishes, porterhouse and filet mignon give way to a “black-and-bleu” blue marlin steak, grilled line-caught Pacific swordfish, and pan-roasted skate wing.
Despite Denver’s landlocked location, the focus here is on fresh fish—at the top of each menu (printed daily) is a list of the day’s fresh catch, which is as varied as striped marlin, opah, or King salmon. There are 16 Oceanaires nationally, and thanks to the collective buying power, fleets of fishermen from all over the world offer their best catch to the restaurant group—up to 35 species of fish are rushed from the dock to locations across the country within 24 hours.
As is traditional with “catch of the day” offerings, diners choose how they’d like their selection prepared (grilled, broiled, sautéed, fried). When available, order the 16-ounce halibut T-bone ($39.95), which—besides giving a nod to the steak house format—draws extra flavor from the bone when cooked. Also watch for the Canadian diver scallops ($29.95) and the rich Alaskan coho salmon ($27.95), which renders beautifully on the grill.
The grand shellfish platter ($45-$90) is one dish that should not be missed. This impressive tower of lobster, crab, jumbo shrimp, ice-cold oysters, and chilled, steamed mussels arrives in a silver bowl stacked on a mountain of shaved ice, with four dipping sauces: mignonette, cocktail sauce with fresh horseradish, mustard mayonnaise, and a sesame soy (drawn butter is also available upon request). Order this and you’ll be the envy of the restaurant—but request the petite size, because as a rule Oceanaire’s portions are enormous.
Also outstanding are the Chesapeake Bay-style jumbo lump crab cakes. Ordered either as an appetizer ($16.95) or an entrée ($31.95), these crab cakes—some of the best in the city—are crafted with fresh crabmeat and held together by only the tiniest amount of mayo, egg, and bread.
One of the best ways to enjoy the Oceanaire’s fare is to order from the chef’s specialties. Chef Matt Mine oversees the Denver location, and he makes use of local and seasonal ingredients whenever possible. Colorado striped bass and tender Colorado lamb are regulars on the menu, and in summer months savory beignets taste of Olathe sweet corn, and Western Slope peaches stand out in delicate tarts.
On any given night, Mine’s specials include smart combinations such as local butternut squash, prosciutto, and a slightly sweet pomegranate molasses, or lean white fish such as grilled Hawaiian ono paired with rich lobster beurre blanc, wilted spinach, and roasted tomatoes.
Mine’s cooking goes a long way toward dispelling any corporate undertones, but even so, one chainlike detail lingers: the portions. They’re colossal—far too large for a single person. The best course of action (especially if you’re dining on a budget) is to share an appetizer, a side dish, and an entrée—and chances are you’ll still go home with leftovers. Desserts, like the rest of the menu, are often oversized (especially the gloppy “super-duper” chocolate caramel brownie), but the more refined flaming baked Alaska delivers a punch of retro glamour to end the evening.
As a whole, the Oceanaire’s concept works here in Denver, much because it borrows heavily from the steak house playbook. Ultra-fresh seafood served up like a fine cut of meat; spot-on, white-tablecloth service; and the Old World glamour of the place leaves a lasting impression. That tony reputation preceeds itself and garners a new round of diners each evening, not to mention the theatergoers, young downtown professionals, and diners in search of celebration who already consider the Oceanaire a staple and a powerhouse. What remains to be seen is if the eager crowds will continue to pack the house even after the Four Seasons emerges on the scene with its own upscale restaurant. But Oceanaire has already proved that surf can hold its own—even in a turf town.