The bar inside the new incarnation of The Oceanaire Seafood Room is packed. The room swirls with neon blue reflecting off mirrored chandeliers. The room as described by the General Manager, Jake Uttich is going for a “1940’s meets 1970’s meets the future” style. He’s not wrong; a sharkskin suit wouldn’t look the least bit out place in this room. My table-mate Jason Matheson (co-host of Fox 9’s Morning Buzz and half of the Jason & Alexis show on My Talk 107.1) quips, “It looks like every episode of the Love Boat that featured Charo.” While the hostess might bear a passing resemblance to cruise director, Julie, we are most definitely ensconced in the heart of downtown Minneapolis.
The exodus of elegance from the old Hyatt is complete, as Oceanaire has moved on to these shinier new digs. The room is completely different; bright, wide open, and right next to the street. Another change is the head toque. The kitchen was lead by Uttich until he made the leap to the front of house. Now installed behind the burners is Robert Wohlfeil.
Wohlfeil grew up in North Dakota, where home dinners included healthy fare, a switch his family made for the sake of his father’s health. He still fondly remembers the first dish he learned to cook was split pea soup, from scratch, with his mother. He described their usual split pea as coming from the can, but one day she pulled out all the works, dried peas, ham bone. He remembered standing by her side, watching and taking it all in. There in that moment, there was a quiet flicker, the beginning of a curiosity of how food could go from one state and morph into something entirely new.
His first culinary job was as a dishwasher at a North Dakotan diner called Kroll’s. They would occasionally let him near the food. From there he went to Famous Dave’s, a dubious beginning for a fine dining chef, but it was there that he met another cook, who had just graduated culinary school and opened his eyes to technique. The flicker burst into flame and he packed off for Minneapolis, where he attended the Art Institute’s Culinary program. It was while he was in school and working three other jobs, he began his career at Oceanaire.
He hasn’t worked anywhere else. That’s one of the things I found when speaking with both past and present employees of Oceanaire. It’s a rare restaurant company that is so dedicated to promoting from within and growing careers. They cultivate and retain their talent and it’s evident from talking with everyone involved in the company that they also have a lot of fun. That passion for their business also drives their quality.
When the Minnesota Zoo’s Fish Smart sustainable seafood initiative began, Oceanaire was the first to join. For example, they list on their menu that the grouper is line-caught, the only way to sustainably catch the fish. That the fish is flown in fresh each day isn’t enough; Oceanaire knows the people who do the actual catching, down to the employees and the boat. A couple of years ago all of the king crab they served was caught by the Time Bandit, a boat fans of the Discovery Channel show “Deadliest Catch” will recognize. It’s always nice to be able to enjoy a meal with a side of ethics.
While all the ethics and the cosmetics are nice, there is the matter of actual taste. The food is just as exquisite, elegant and opulent as ever. An order of crab cakes arrives packed with giant hunks of crab meat, barely clinging together with just a hint of breading, served with a creamy, rich, cloud-colored mayo spiked with nasal-clearing mustard. The mahi-mahi topped with the “dynamite” enhancement was so astounding that I wanted to bury my head in the entire dish and not come up for air until after springtime. Each succulent, thumb sized hunk of perfectly cooked fish lept from fork to mouth. The Dynamite preparation is a topping for more ginormo-hunks of crab and broiled for just a moment. The entire seafood mountain is served over a delicate butter sauce spiked with just a whisper of heat from Thai chilies.
For value-conscious diners, Oceanaire is no longer only for power diners and special occasions; they recently began serving lunch, another perk in the bustling location. On the day of our visit, they were still training, but men in expertly tailored suits were dining, shaking hands, and likely making some big and powerful business decisions. A delicious, high-quality seafood lunch is not something many cube-dwellers have had the opportunity to experience in downtown Minneapolis.
An even more astounding value is the happy hour, which runs every week day from 4-7pm. Food specials include mini crab cakes for $8 and the raw bar in addition to expertly poured martinis and selections from the raw bar. Cleanly shucked oysters are as bright and briny as a Cape Cod morning; a trio is only $6 at happy hour. Classic cocktails, like a perfectly mixed Sidecar, are only $5, select beer is a rock bottom $3, and select wines are $4. It’s already becoming one of the hottest after work tickets around.
With all the changes, including the Jetson-fueled decor, it’s nice to find that what has stayed the same is their commitment to being the very best in seafood and destination dining.
The Oceanaire Seafood Room
50 South Sixth Street