Friday, November 10, 2006

NYC Dining: Oceana

May 29th, 1999

Oceana by Steve Levine

55 East 54th Street
New York, New York
(212) 759-5941

Oceana was the restaurant in which our gastronomic odyssey began, in early December. Alex and I had wanted to try it for lunch for several months, but were unable to pull it together. Finally, in frustration, I made a reservation for 4 for 6:30 on a weeknight and got Alex, Josh, and Spencer to show up. We enjoyed the experience so much that we took up going to more of the finest restaurants as often as we could afford to.

The four of us enjoyed the $90 six-course tasting menu, with 2 dozen extra oysters at the start and a couple of bottles of good wine. The total bill was about $160 each with tip. The pricing was consistent, as my bill from Saturday night was comparable. Since we didn't decide to start keeping notes until the trip to Café Boulud later on, we had very little material to base a review on. Therefore, devoted diner that I am, I resolved to return with my girlfriend and show her what started this mad craze of mine.

Marci and I had a 9:00 reservation, which was honored promptly. We had pink gin-and-tonics and a choice of three breads with Taramosalata -- a pinkish Greek fish roe and garlic spread -- rather than butter, which I'd had out in Astoria before. The teaser course was smoked trout over orange-onion marmalade, but I didn't quite believe them at first. Expecting a little piece of fish, I saw a white blob the color and consistency of marshmallow fluff. It did taste right, though, and I realized that it was a mousse, which absorbed some of the sweet marmalade to offset its own saltiness.

Once we'd eaten this, service was immediately cleared, and we were given a few minutes to chat and drink our cocktails before looking at the menus. The main upstairs dining room was kind of small and busy, but comfortable. The décor was wood paneling in a light shade, some brass fittings, and a skylight, with cruise line posters on the walls. There were a few other younger couples and groups in the room, which added energy, but at least half were middle-aged or older. The captains were younger than I had remembered, but attentive, and knowledgeable about the menu and wines. One gaffe that annoyed me slightly was not to have received the wine list when they did present me with a menu. I asked for it, and received it quickly, but it struck me as amateurish.

The menu choices were easy for Marci, but I had a tough time with entrees, as I remembered what had stood out the first time. The menu influences were a split between Asian and Mediterranean. There was no meat or fowl whatsoever, but there was enough variety to warrant the inclusion of fair number of reds on the wine list. This list was mid-sized, and fairly reasonable in price. After I finally declined the roasted monkfish "Rossini Style," with foie gras, red onion confit, Fondant potatoes, and sauce Perigeaux, in favor of the miso bass (described later) I selected an old friend, a 1996 Domaine Weinbach Tokay Pinot Gris. This was $92 here, and I believe we'd paid like $110-115 at Boulud or Le Cirque 2000. It was sweet, but not overly so, with good complexity and a lingering flavor that matched well with all of our food. As for food, we decided to stick with the standard $65 prixe fixe 3-course menu.

As appetizers, Marci got lobster ravioli in a tomato basil broth, and I had "Kung Pao" style calamari and rock shrimp stir-fry, with Moroccan spiced glaze and cashews. The lobster ravioli were plump and sweet, with a mild broth. This was one of the finest preparations of this common dish I've encountered to date. My squid was cut in the traditional Chinatown manner, and tender in the thick, spicy-sweet Kung Pao sauce. This sauce was very close to that which I'd had with chicken over pork-fried rice dozens of times before, but with nicer vegetables and goodly spice.

Following a reasonable interval, we got our entrees. Marci, on my recommendation, had ordered the "Everything" crusted yellowfin tuna steak, with warm mixed grain salad, sugar snap peas, Caponata, and roasted red pepper sauce, served medium. "Everything" means all of the different seeds and toppings normally found upon the outside of an everything bagel: sesame seeds, poppy seeds, garlic, onion, salt, etc. The hearty grains and strongly flavored pepper sauce complemented the tuna.

I got the dish that stood out most in my mind from the first visit, revisited as one of the two best things at Nobu when we went there. This was miso-glazed Chilean sea bass, served with crisp root vegetable streamers, ripe mango & scallion, and Yuzu vinaigrette. The miso marinade gave the bass a wonderful sweetness, an incomparable moistness through and through. The vegetables were crunchy with a salty sauce, and offset the bass. These two were Oceana's signature dishes, and most of those around us were eating them as well.

For dessert, Marci got the chocolate praline tart, which consisted of praline parfait, cocoa nibb crisp, and chocolate gratin. This tremendous confection was crispy and creamy, and rich enough to fill the bill. I had her drink a glass of a 1995 Finger Lakes Icewine, rich, complex and sweet.

I had a Bananas Foster Napoleon with hot chocolate banana sauce and vanilla ice cream. I was at Breakfast at Brennan's, in New Orleans, and had the original Bananas Foster about a month ago, and was a little disappointed by this variation. That said, it was delicious, composed of sliced banana and ice cream, with a brown-sugar-butter-bannana-liquer topping. Fairly simple, but elegant. I selected a Fonseca Port with it, which was exactly what it was supposed to be.

Oceana was a fine restaurant, but not the same caliber of a Lespinasse, Daniel, or Bouley. Perhaps I caught it on a bad night, as the first visit was quite grand. If I were to base my opinion solely on this visit, it would be in the 7-7.5 range, but since the first time was great, I'd say more like an 8. Still, it's well worth a trip.

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