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Smooth sailing 

Minneapolis chain comes into port

Besides sports teams, Prince, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, few of us can name anything originating from Minneapolis, Minn. Shoppers may know Target is headquartered there and long-term Charlotteans may remember that those hamster tunnels, um, pedestrian skyways, once so popular downtown (unfortunately a few still remain) were modeled on those used in Minneapolis.

But I bet not many would link seafood with Minneapolis. Although Minnesota is the "Land of 10,000 lakes," there's nary a seacoast in sight. So when a Minneapolis-based seafood restaurant chain opened in Charlotte, skeptics suggested it would be swimming against the tide. Were they right?

Last September, the 285-seat Oceanaire Seafood Room opened in the Piedmont Center in SouthPark, which, evidently, has become a hot spot for high-end national chain restaurants. Oceanaire is the brainchild of Phil Roberts, the Parasole Restaurants Holdings Inc. CEO, who also created the now-publicly traded Buca di Beppo.

Oceanaire is warmly lit; the "nautical deco" interior sweeps the diner into a 1930's luxury ocean liner along the lines of the RMS Queen Mary. History buffs may have difficulty fusing abundance and lavishness with the depression era, but the theme here is more theatrical: think the Marx brothers in Monkey Business or a satin-draped Deborah Kerr intimately conversing with Cary Grant in a posh horseshoe-shaped red-leather booth.

But, not all is elegant at Oceanaire. A canister of Old Bay sits on the white tablecloth as well as a bucket filled with lobster crackers and another of cellophane-packaged oyster crackers. Don't let these folksy accoutrements fool you: you will be paying top dollar. Oceanaire has that larger-than-life steak house mentality: big looks, big portions, big tab.

In that pre-World War II mode, the bar offers Sidecars and Singapore Slings. On the downside, the wines are priced high.

Sixty percent of Oceanaire's menu stays the same. Signature items such as Shrimps (sic) de Jongne, oysters Rockefeller, and the crab cakes are available nationally as is the complimentary relish tray with pickled herring, a nod to Minnesota's Scandinavian heritage.

The rest of the menu is regional specialties determined by Executive Chef and partner Brad MacFiggen, a graduate of New England Culinary Institute, who has worked for Oceanaire for four years. Another important member of the kitchen crew is fish butcher Rodney Roden, who works in the 33-degree walk-in and cuts the 10 ounce portions from fish as large as an 83-pound black grouper.

The quote "To eat an oyster is to kiss the sea on its lips" is scrolled across one wall. Indeed, oysters are served either at the bar or á la carte and are served with a cocktail sauce laced with slivers of fresh horseradish. Nice touch, but I prefer oysters naked. Currently, the selection is limited to oysters from the East and West coasts of North America, which was somewhat disappointing now that I have fallen in love with Southern hemisphere oysters. But the oysters, two bucks a pop, change daily. The Olde Salt oysters from Chincoteague, Va., offered a spectacular brininess with a clean finish while Watch Hill from Rhode Island were crisp with a hint of sweetness.

Longing for a super, unfussy crab cake? Oceanaire's are beauts: all crab, no filler. You can't find better. Salads are unmanageably large, but good. Don't wait around for pepper service -- the pepper shaker is on your table.

A big deal is made of the fact that the fish here were swimming yesterday. The truth is, in today's world, the fish at most high-end restaurants is flown in daily. That's nothing new. But the selection at Oceanaire is extensive: Mediterranean branzino, Hawaiian yellow tail, Icelandic arctic char, Carolina black grouper, and George's Bank monkfish.

Fish entrees are prepared two ways: grilled or broiled -- or in a house specialty. Simply grilled is a savvy way to have the Hawaiian Marlin (seared outside, juicy inside) while the "Black and Blue" Outer Banks mahi mahi is superbly realized. The potatoes au gratin are a great choice for the center of the table. I promise, you will have boxes to take home.

Desserts range from ice cream in a Dixie cup for 95 cents to a $13 brownie. The most popular seems to be the retro classic Baked Alaska, which is the complimentary dessert for birthdays and anniversaries and is flamed with blue Curaçao and rum tableside. Our meringue became a bit crispy. Even though the spicy pumpkin cake base was cooled by the cinnamon and vanilla bean ice cream, this dish is more flamboyant than memorable. Also not up to par was the key lime pie, which was too cheesecake rather than a Key West firm custard ice-box pie.

Supervising the personable service is General Manager Chris Nelson, who knows his way around the SouthPark crowd, having managed Bertolini's Authentic Trattoria (owned by Morton's Steakhouse), Upstream, and most recently Ruth's Chris Steak House.

The tab? Seafood entrées range from $20 to $32 and $35 depending on the preparation. Side dishes are an additional cost up to $13. Starters range from $10 for steamed mussels to $40 for caviar or $69 for the Grande Shellfish Platter. Dinner for two can easily fetch over $200.

What do you get? The dishes at Oceanaire are not innovative; however, they are well-crafted and served in copious amounts. Oceanaire has cast a wide net to reel in even chain cynics -- as long as they have deep pockets, that is.

To contact Tricia regarding tips, compliments or complaints or to send notice of a food or wine event (at least 12 days in advance, please), opening, closing or menu change, fax Eaters' Digest at 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail at 704-522-8334, ext. 136.

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