Oakley Fish House is in many ways the second coming of the old Mt. Adams Fish House. Owner Chanaka De Lanerolle, who sold that restaurant back in 2011, jokes that he is “not the most creative when it comes to names.” For those who loved the old place, several dishes have migrated to this menu, and the chef, Robert Cash, comes from another one of De Lanerolle’s restaurants, The Celestial Steakhouse, which closed in 2018.
De Lanerolle and his team deserve some applause simply for opening at a time when the challenges for a new restaurant are now truly daunting. There are the stringent COVID-19 sanitization protocols and the constant monitoring and tests for staff. Supply line challenges also particularly affect goods like high-quality seafood, which has to be flown in daily from the coasts.
Oakley Fish House has, luckily, one enormous thing going for it: an ideal location. Sitting on a corner of Oakley Square in the former home of Habits, the restaurant feels elegant and inviting. It also has an outdoor space that can seat about 30 people, which will open as soon as it starts to warm up. When things begin to truly open up again, one can easily imagine this restaurant becoming a cornerstone of the neighborhood’s social life.
Seafood restaurants are a unique culinary category, since they center around a set of ingredients rather than a particular cuisine. A menu can jump from Japanese to Italian to Moroccan flavors as long as there’s marine protein somewhere on the plate. This is part of what makes them fun—different people can get very different kinds of dishes.
Most of the menu at Oakley Fish House tends toward the former—that is, fairly conservative takes on the classics. Dishes like crab cakes and chowder are exactly what you would expect from a good seafood restaurant. The crab cake is served on a bed of corn with a creamy red pepper sauce. It was well-seasoned with a nice burst of spice in the corn, although I like my crab cakes a little chunkier. The chowder, meanwhile, is absolutely full of seafood, nicely balanced, and very thick and creamy. Oakley Fish House, to its credit, never skimps on the good stuff.
If anything, the richness of the offerings can become overwhelming. On certain dishes, I longed for more contrast. The herb salmon entrée, for example, which is served with a creamy, saffron-tinged risotto, badly needs something to break up the soft textures and muted flavors. The pistachio crust on the salmon could have been big and crunchy instead of a fine dusting, and the wavy drizzle of espelette tomato sauce could have been vibrantly spicy or tart or smoky so its flavor elevated the dish instead of fading into the background.
Luckily, as De Lanerolle mentioned, people have become more adventurous eaters since the old restaurant closed in Mt. Adams a decade ago, more interested in different spices and cuisines. As a result, there are a handful of ethnic experiments on the menu, and to me, these were among its most vibrant and successful offerings. The ahi tuna dish, for example, is a lot like a deconstructed sushi roll, but with soba noodles instead of rice. There are the dark, smoky sesame flavors, the gently nose-clearing hint of wasabi, and vivid ribbons of pickled ginger. A familiar combination, but all in beautiful balance and immensely satisfying.
The Mediterranean fish stew, meanwhile, takes inspiration from the North African coast. The couscous is tender and fluffy, and soaks up a multi-faceted tomato sauce that felt like it was lighting up my whole mouth—there was a fiery dimension from the chiles and peppercorns in the spice blend, a sweet element from golden raisins, and lovely firm cashews for texture. A bright heat also comes from a Yemeni schug—a garlicky herbal chile sauce the restaurant also serves with its fresh oysters. And, as usual, there was lots of seafood in the stew, from mussels to shrimp to chunks of fish.
You might want to order dishes like these—along with one of the salads, which are new to the menu since the Mt. Adams days—to make sure you leave the restaurant feeling pleasantly full rather than overstuffed.
After many months of navigating pandemic chaos, things seem to be stabilizing at Oakley Fish House. From daily calls with his fish suppliers, De Lanerolle is starting to get a sense of what products are going to be reliably available. He hopes to begin offering sushi soon, and also to tweak parts of the menu for carryout. At the moment, the restaurant is primarily dine-in; some of the most popular items, like the fresh oysters, simply don’t carry out well, and others, like the shrimp and gnocchi, aren’t going to taste quite right after a car ride home in a plastic clamshell.
De Lanerolle, using many years of experience in the restaurant business, is pivoting in the right directions—adding variety to the menu, tweaking offerings to attract new customers, and planning for a world where we can do things like enjoy music and a cocktail outside while slurping down an oyster. Cincinnati needs more good seafood restaurants. There’s already quite a bit to enjoy at Oakley Fish House, and one suspects that there will only be more in the future.
Oakley Fish House, 3036 Madison Rd., Oakley, (513) 631-3474