Oceana in the hands of chef Ben Pollinger was a laudable destination for seafood in midtown, not that it actually needed either of those qualifiers: it was simply a wonderful restaurant. So who knows why whoever decided it was time to switch up the team, but with no warning I suddenly found my friend Bill Telepan at the helm, and the prior Bill has yet to bob his head up at another outpost.
Oceana knows its customer, though. Seafood fresher than fresh is a given, as is its appropriate dominance of the menu. We were welcomed with a divine little amuse of crabmeat simply perched on a salty, seeded wafer: a pure and elemental bite. But a salad may have been even too much of an afterthought even seafood is the focus here, dressed heavily though flavorfully, a plain-jane mix of greens. But as one of the scarce vegetable options on the menu, more thought should be put into it. Another salad with roasted acorn squash was more interesting, plonked
with daubs of fresh cheese. The rounds of squash were roasted sweet, their nuttiness augmented with a sprinkling of crunchy pistachios. The menu takes is real footing from the sea, however, so with a lobster fried rice things really start to get interesting. Chewy fat grains of rice and nubs of roasted cauliflower, nutty and sweet, nuzzle together with sumptuous morsels of lobster meat and spears of green onion. This is a heftier option though, and decidedly rich, so while it is listed as a side dish, it would make a better shared appetizer, or even
an entree for someone looking for big flavors in a smaller portion. But the flavors are a good indication of things to come, for while the fish is pristine enough to speak for itself, Telepan exhibits a good measure of cheffiness in its preparation.
For entrees, a glossy hunk of halibut perched over rich mushroom broth, studded with more wild mushrooms and deep green leaves of spinach. Earthy sunchokes countered the salinity with their rooty charm, crushed as if by the weight of the hefty piece of fish, bronzed golden atop, flaky and moist beneath. An even less traditional preparation is the monkfish,
roasted with hearty pastrami spices on knotty rye noodles slicked with mustard. Smoky slips of cabbage further the parallel with a Jewish grandma, but it remains far more elegant than any bubbe's pickled beef ever was. He doesn't funnel all his creativity into iterations of fish, though- a special of braised short ribs might
sway even the most seaworthy. But if it's not on the docket when you visit, a Flying Pigs pork chop could stand in nicely, and either of the beef options from Niman Ranch would be hard to criticize.
Desserts have always been a strong suit at Oceana. I remember the dessert I had under Janssen Chan at the original location (am I showing my age!??), an apricot-almond souffle that turned me into a souffle lover. Prior to that, I was never a fan. But I have always loved apple and caramel desserts, and the warm apple cake at Oceana puts both of those components to good use. The moist cake is plump with roasted lemon salted-caramel apples, smothered in a nutty, gooey caramel. The apples retain a hint of tartness with the lemon, augmented by a cool apple cider gelato. I didn't regret that choice one iota, but a Tropical Vacherin with lime meringue and pineapple granita gave it a run for its money, and as the souffle happened to be chocolate that ruled it out for me, but chocophiles would love it with its boozy armagnac scoop of ice cream.
Honestly, it's hard to mess up a meal at Oceana. It's obviously a little silly not to go seaworthy with your order, but Chef Telepan's entire menu is ace, so salties and landlubbers alike can indulge. In the restaurant desert of midtown Manhattan as well, Oceana is one welcome oasis.
120 West 49th Street