September 8, 2009 | BITE: My Journal
True Compass: Oceana Sails On
Seafood brodetto layers sea creatures and oceanic flavors. Photo: Steven Richter
The new supersized Oceana, boldly anchored in haute seafood waters two blocks south of Le Bernardin, is still in soft opening. With a 20% discount till the grand opening September 15, it begs to avoid a half-baked judgment. But in the skittering hyped up blogosphere, I think it’s not too soon to say how it looks and behaves, and what chef Ben Pollinger, so driven and passionate at the old Oceana mooring, is thinking now. His marvelous Manhattan chowder with tenderest Manilla clams and linguiça sausage, the seafood sausage stuffed calamari and the shimmeringly fresh oversize scallops a la plancha are definitely ready for prime time.
Just scallops, yes, but sublimely perfect, good with tomatillo sauce. Photo: Steven Richter
Indeed, I am so impressed by the complex flavor kicks in a first tasting on Monday that I’m back again four nights later. “It’s so cold,” is the greeting we get from our guest Friday evening, though the vast automobile showroom space is surprisingly populated for Labor Day weekend. (New York is still a summer festival. Bless those tourists. Evidence many are actually spending money somewhere besides Applebee’s.) I always got a kick from the steamship illusion of the old Oceana even though it was unpleasantly cramped. But others found it dated, fusty and claustrophobic. They may welcome the breathing space in the Morris Nathanson design (the house specifically credits daughter Kim).
I don’t love the look but the room is remarkably comfortable. Photo: Steven Richter
Here there are marble parquet floors and room for a medium-size wedding reception at the raw bar. The dining room sprawl leaves a luxury of space between tables and roomy banquettes divided by permanent pillow rolls (what our ancestors called “bundling boards” in Colonial days). Stylized heavy glass rectangles with orchid sprays and blue water make bizarro room dividers. Unremarkable curtains cut off some of the 49th Streetscape, but not all. I like that. And you can commune with a live lobster in the bright blue tank before eating it or with the kitchen behind. And what a treat: Light from hanging white shaded lamps lets even aging eyes read the menu without a flashlight. I for one could live without the now-and-then music that hopes to welcome a younger crowd – thirty-somethings and forties would temper the mix. Let’s hope someone figures out how obnoxious the rhythmic squeegie drum spatter is when you call and get put on hold.
It takes discipline to turn out great fried calamari. Photo: Steven Richter
An excess of categories on the menu looks familiar – I fear it’s a trend -- but maybe some find it illuminating to distinguish Composed Appetizers and Classic Raw Bar from Contemporary (marinated oysters with cucumber, apple and crushed spices, and spicy smoked tuna rolls). At our first tasting we are quickly bedazzled by red wine petits pains – did we hear that right? – not to court a discrimination suit, but it’s not always easy to understand the typical bread-deliverer’s accent.
“Yes,” says our server, “the flour is made from Cabernet seeds.” It doesn’t taste like red wine at all but it’s a crusty, chewy, delicious gambit from pastry chef Jansen Chan, with actual wine in the mix and a touch of honey. Tonight’s tomato soup amuse with its parmesan cracker tastes like Campbell’s to me who, to be perfectly honest, hasn’t tasted Campbell’s for decades, but you never really forget that tomato on tin taste. (It’s tangier, more acid and much better a few days later, which shows why we’re not reviewing here, just reporting.) Snapper ceviche with roasted corn and hearts of palm frizzies is curiously timid, needing more citric pow. And the Poke trio – pronounced Po-kay, a Hawaiian term for ovals of tuna, hamachi and wild salmon tartars laced with roasted, ground candlenut – could use a little more oomph too.
Crusty soft shell crabs stand up like mountain peaks. Photo: Steven Richter
Nothing emerging from the kitchen is really hot enough (in temperature) – but still we’re pleased by the crusty soft shell crab with Moroccan-style hollandaise (charmoula makes it Moroccan) and with taro wrapped pompano escorted by perfectly cooked baby bok choy and a big green puddle of coconut curry. The Road Food Warrior’s choice of tomatillo sauce adds an inspired edge of acid to balance out the sweetness of those scallops. And a light balsamic glaze brings out the summer perfection in a side of heirloom tomatoes cooked a la plancha.
Taro wrapped pompano wreathed in adventurous flavors. Photo: Steven Richter
Returning, I am more delighted by the crunch and flavor brilliance of lightly pickled cucumber layered with perfect little tatsoi leaves and wasabi-lime aioli than the small funnel-shaped crab cakes it plays second fiddle to. The chef is full of these thoughtful surprises. He also scores with crisp fried calamari and tartar sauce, as well as the marvelous trio of sauces accompanying pristine littlenecks – passion fruit mignonette, green curry leaf vinaigrette and his stellar version of classic cocktail goo. Our guest, like me, is pleased to see an old classic celery root salad revived on her gravlax plate. Slivered cherries tossed with chanterelles make a clever side for a huge portion of King salmon, rare as I requested, but ultimately somewhat boring. Yet I can’t stop eating the sensational corn cake alongside – I’ve never tasted another quite like it. And the Venetian-style steamed shellfish delivers a carefully cooked passel of shrimp, clams, cockles, scallops, and more in an herbal brodetto, a sea essence thickened with chowder clams.
Superfluous after such a feast, these donuts are irresistible. Photo: Steven Richter
I can’t understand why all sorbets right now don’t take advantage of summer fruit – though both raspberry, the sole seasonal sorbet, and chocolate are fine. But all of us are transfixed by the $14 donut platter (listed under Shared Desserts alongside Composed Desserts). I’d wake up early for this donut Hall of Fame: Earl Grey tea glazed yeast donut, walnut frosted cake cruller, salty caramel custard filled yeast donut, sour strawberry fritter and chocolate cocoa nib holes on my breakfast table. So much sweetness is totally preposterous at this point in the feast, even if like us, you divide each temptation into four. Join the life-is-short-why-resist school. With the check come little farewell ice cream pops on a stick nested in toasted genoise dust.
When the soft opening discount ends September 15, starters will run from $2 for a littleneck clam to $19 for crab cakes, with seafood entrées from $29 to $38: prices prudently calibrated to be lower than both Marea and Le Bernardin and gentler than at Oceana’s old address. Steaks, chicken and lamb chops, $28 to $48, are offered for the pescaphobic. Speed lunchers and expense-strapped locals from the building will find sandwiches, even a burger at noon. And with the end of rehearsals I hope someone will insist servers stop asking “How was everything?”
In the McGraw Hill Building, entrance at 120 West 49th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. 212 759 5941. Monday through Sunday: lunch from 11 am till 3 pm, bar menu from 3 to 5 pm, dinner from 5 to 11 pm, dinner Friday and Saturday till midnight, Sunday till 11 pm.
To read my earlier ode to Chef Pollinger of Oceana click here...