Big Digs for Littlenecks

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Oceana has moved from its demure and staid ocean-liner stateroom space on East 54th Street to the imposing and comparatively enormous space just off Rockefeller Center. Not since the relocation of Aquavit in 2005 has such a dramatic transformation of a restaurant occurred in Manhattan.

Proud owners Paul McLaughlin and the Livanos family have obviously spared no expense in preparing Oceana’s new incarnation. Opened just in mid-September, the restaurant offers an unusually wide array of dining options. There are three elegantly appointed private dining areas; a vast 165-seat main dining room featuring floor-to-ceiling windows, cream walls, 14-foot ceilings and plank floors; a raw bar; a full-service marble bar offering some pretty jaunty house cocktails; and a Chef’s Table in the spotless massive kitchen, where you can watch executive chef Ben Pollinger work his magic. Next year, there will be outdoor seating for 60.

A vast 165-seat main dining room features floor-to-ceiling windows, cream walls, 14-foot ceilings and plank floors.

A vast 165-seat main dining room features floor-to-ceiling windows, cream walls, 14-foot ceilings and plank floors.

Pollinger is among the most even-tempered, easy-going and justifiably confident chefs I’ve met. His complex menu features a full array of raw bar classics, “composed appetizers and entrees,” in addition to “contemporary” appetizers, an array of whole fish and a group of “simply prepared” fillets, scallops and fish steaks with four very special sauces available on the side. Landlubbers have three steaks, a rack of lamb and roast chicken to choose from, but why would someone who eschews seafood choose to go to a restaurant named Oceana?

The restaurant’s wine director and mixologist, Roy Mahan, has devised a group of house cocktails that are nothing if not unique. The “Oceana” blends vodka infused with an Icelandic moss called fjallagros, yuzu juice, shiso leaves and the light sting of Serrano chile. The lightly grassy, puckery result is quite refreshing.

From the raw bar, we sampled a half-dozen oysters from the East and West coasts, plump as they should be in October, and sweet littleneck clams, all offered with a mango vinaigrette and a creamy piquillo pepper puree.

You don’t run across periwinkles on many raw bar menus, but I wish you did. They’re tiny snails, about the size of a marble, and their flesh is suffused with the luscious loft of the sea. Oceana gives you about 50, and it takes a while to extract the morsels of flesh (lightly cooked and chilled) from the little shells with the special toothpick-like device provided, but it’s well worth the trouble.

Slender slices of raw blue marlin are brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt and baby cilantro sprigs. The fish is lean and muscular, with a very satisfying mouthfeel.

Peekytoe crab cakes are cigar-shaped rather than flat, plated on a small pool of wasabi aioli, with lightly pickled cucumber slices on the side, all lightly dusted with spicy tatsoi sprigs. All the flavors and textures exquisitely stimulated and relieved each other. I would serve those pickled cucumbers at every meal.

Seafood sausage-stuffed calamari are plated with wilted spinach and an herb vinaigrette. The subtly flavored seafood sausage is studded with pistachios to give it a little oomph.

Grilled king salmon enjoys the company of sautéed chanterelle mushrooms and a slice of buttery roasted corn cake, the last exquisite rose of summer. The salmon is perfectly cooked, as only a chef as experienced as Pollinger could manage.

A hunk of crispy-skinned, wild striped bass is so fresh and juicy it had to have been swimming only a handful of hours before it made it to my plate. The “Moroccan-style hollandaise” I selected to accompany it has North African hints, thanks to a paste called charmoula, but it’s mostly—and thankfully—about butter.

Pastry chef Jansen Chan makes a killer “doughnut platter”: a spongy yeast doughnut glazed with Earl Grey tea; the walnut frosted cake doughnut is sweet, but thoughtfully so; the caramel custard-filled doughnut is nicely salty; the sour green apple fritter holds its own with a jolt of flavor; and chocolate cocoa nib doughnut holes finish the extravagant dessert. Chan also makes a mean chocolate custard brownie laced with espresso granite and finished with gold leaf.

Everyone knows there are tons of great seafood being served nightly in New York City. But from its very beginning 18 years ago, Oceana has ranked among the very best seafood-driven restaurants around. Now, in its fancy and spacious new digs, it’s better than ever.


Oceana
McGraw Hill Building
1221 Ave. of the Americas (entrance on West 49th Street)
212-759-5941
Entrees: $26 to $36

tom@hugeflavors.com

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