Perhaps there will always be a place for fish sticks and tuna casseroles on those Friday’s during Lent. Those steadfast traditionalists, however, might want to stay away from The Oceanaire Seafood Room, a 13-unit brand stretching from San Diego to Miami. The good news, though, is that life beyond the basics is thriving in the upscale space, owned by Landry’s Inc., where upwards of 15 species, from Florida Hog Snapper to Hawaiian Marlin, are making the time-honored practice feel as fresh as the catch.
Rocco Nankervis, the chef of the Houston location, isn’t trying to boast when he calls the concept perfect for the Lent season, which begins Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday leading up to Easter. It’s a simple reading of the facts. “We have so many different varieties,” he says. “It’s not like we have three choices or some kind of specific menu. This is how we always operate. We have a high focus on seafood. We get fresh food that’s flown in from across the world daily.”
And Chef Nankervis understands it’s about a lot more than variety these days. Palates are evolving as customs do, meaning that eating fish doesn’t have to remind guest’s that they’re skipping on even the heartiest of meat dishes. One featured dish, which Chef Nankervis designed with his Asian training in mind, is the Crispy Tempura Fish Sandwich. The Wild Alaska Cod—frozen at sea—is coated in a tempura batter infused with garlic, ginger, and Thai fish sauce. A spicy kim chi slaw and house-made pickles are then piled on top, and the dish is served with Togarashi dusted fries that pack a serious kick.
The dish has been available at his location for some time, and it’s been well received, Chef Nankervis says. “Alaska has some of the best seafood on this earth, and anybody who knows about seafood knows that. We try to feature it wherever and whenever we can,” he explains.
The restaurant’s seafood arrives from many different locations based on seasonality and trends, but Chef Nankervis admits that Alaska typically carries a certain amount of weight when it’s featured in print. The Oceanaire Seafood Room lists the origin of its catch with every item. “When I go to a restaurant and I eat, I love the fact that I’m sitting down and looking at the menu, and I know where this fish is coming from,” he says. “I like to know it’s coming from a reputable source, a reputable supplier, and that you’re getting exactly what you’re asking for. That’s one thing that we’re excellent at.”
Chef Maria Hines, the name behind Agrodolce, Golden Beetle, and Tilth—the three Seattle restaurants comprising her eponymous restaurant group, says, “people love bold interesting flavors that they’re familiar with.” In the seaport city, that can be a loaded task. She says, given the location, that Lent typically doesn’t spike consumer interest, seeing as it’s pretty much sky high year-round. Creativity, and, of course freshness, are top of mind. One dish Chef Hines mentions is the Alaska Coho Salmon Falafel, which is surely not found on the tables of many families during the 40-day season.
The dish is a mix of salmon and spices, and stuffed inside a pita with a dollop of yogurt, dill, cabbage, cilantro, and harissa. Some other options from around the country include: the Fried Alaska Cod Fish Sandwich from Chef Paul Sant at the Crowne Plaza Louisville Airport in Kentucky; the Alaska True Cod & Chips from Chef Robert Spaulding at Elliot’s Oyster House in Seattle; and the Topless Wild Alaska Salmon Sliders and Her Majesty’s Halibut & Chips Combo from Chef Duke Moscrip at Duke’s Chowder House, also in Seattle.
“This is a time of year when a lot of people will look to eat out and look to the restaurant to provide interesting, fresh, and delicious seafood,” Chef Nankervis says. “It’s on us to make sure we prepare to meet that demand.”