Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Dish of the Week: Chipotle- & Bourbon-Butter Grilled Oysters at Angelo’s Taverna

I’d never set foot in the previous, long-standing incarnation of Angelo’s Taverna—what’s another neighborhood pie parlor, eh? But “Denver’s only pizza & oyster bar” is a whole other matter—one worthy of scrapping my planned search for a place to watch the PPV Mayweather-Canelo fight last Sat., Mantonat convinced me.

He was right—& not just because the bout turned out to be a bust (no boxer will go down in history with more skills yet fewer guts & even less heart than will Floyd Money Mayweather). In fact, the real knockout that night went down on the plate on the left:

Them’s some honking oysters chargrilled in a mixture of chipotle- & Breckenridge bourbon–infused butter, adobo sauce & brown sugar; the result’s a wild ride of brine, tangy sweetness, smoke & spice whose complexity caught me by surprise.

No surprise on the right: just straight-up hot, crusty-gooey garlic bread covered in cheese. None below either: the stromboli’s pure goodness. With my choice of 2 of about 30 pizza toppings to supplement the filling of mozzarella, ricotta & classic marinara (which also comes on the side), I went with grilled eggplant & sundried tomatoes. Comfort food warrants far more discussion when it’s done badly: stale chips, soggy burgers, waiter there’s a fly in my pho, etc. When the construction is solid, when the ingredients are balanced, when you’re lulled into enjoyment rather than egged toward analysis, etc., as was the case here, it’s all pretty self-explanatory. (Note also the toasty glow coming from Soul Food Scholar‘s pizza with sausage, pepperoni, peppers, onions, mushrooms & olives.)

The rest of the menu’s a mishmash of red-sauce staples & more-contemporary Italian-inspired fare: there’s fried calamari & chicken parm, but there’s also a salad of arugula & toasted gnocchi in truffled herb dressing & Southwestern-style ravioli made with blue corn, red chiles & pepperjack. Same goes for the bar: there’s Bud & Pinot Grigio, but the cocktails skew craftward & the limoncello’s made in house (check out the jars in the display case near the entrance).

Granted, as Mantonat observed later, “Realistically, it’s not an easy menu to make a full meal from if you don’t want pizza or pasta.” Though Angelo’s does offer gluten-free crust, Mrs. M—who leans that way—& he opted instead for an appetizer of beef carpaccio with mustard aioli, plus sides of grilled shrimp & roasted mushrooms. Said the author of Westword blog A Federal Case—who you’d think would be getting his fill of Asian food these days—”the carpaccio was a little bland, but the mushrooms & shrimp were simple yet tasty. We actually stopped on the way home for a little sushi!”

Still, he scored the coup of the evening by noticing the quintet of oyster shooters on the beverage list. Being at that point 2 glasses of vino down, I declined to join him in a round, but the Chach—pepper vodka, cucumber, mint, lime juice—& the Webber with pale ale, housemade cocktail sauce, Cholula & a lime wedge continue to call my name.

In the end, I can’t say I know the ins & the outs of the place yet, but the statement it’s aiming to make is clearly thoughtful, & the questions that remain are minor. (For instance, what’s with the homage to the Red Hot Chili Peppers hidden in the names of the combo pizzas? And did we really accidentally convince our poor sweet waitress that Sudoku is a type of oyster?) What I can definitely say is that I’ll be back soon. From the rustic comfort of the dining room & the soulfulness of the eats to a could-be-much-worse Cal-Ital wine list & the fact that, on a busy weekend night, no one hassled us about lingering for nearly 3 hours, there’s no reason not to be.

Angelos Taverna on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Jax Glendale’s Pickled Fried Green Tomatoes (& oh so much more!)

Breaking the mold of the downtown & Boulder branches, Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar’s 4th location at the edge of Cherry Creek in Glendale (there’s also one in Fort Collins) is sleeker, bigger & brighter than its predecessors.

It also differs in that it’s open for lunch, which is when I was there for a media preview this week. If, like me, you’re a longtime fan of exec chef Sheila Lucero & her crew (Duane Walker oversees the kitchen here), the sheer verve of the seasonal seafood will come as no surprise, but the item I’m dreaming about today comes from the land rather than the sea: the pickled & fried green tomatoes accompanying this Southern-inflected dish of grilled shrimp over a vibrant succotash-like mixture of corn, favas, greens, & smoked ham plus a dash of classic rémoulade.

Provided the batter is crisp & well seasoned, fried green tomatoes are always a treat—but these go to 11 thanks to the hit of acid (& another of creamy sweetness should you swipe the disks through the sauce).

My fellow guests & I were also loudly smitten with the ultra-buttery brioche croutons on the Caesaresque grilled-romaine salad,

but the whole thing was deliciously funky, from the frico-like grana padano crackers to the egg-&-anchovy-based mound of gribiche.

Grana padano also infuses the broth in which lobster ravioli are immersed & topped with arugula pesto; if you’ve never sipped cheese essence before, I highly recommend it. It is choice, as Ferris Bueller would say.

Another favorite, this one a surprise: the flourless chocolate cake with orange chantilly (‘in other words, whipped cream,” laughed pastry chef Jennifer Helmore Lewis).

I usually ignore the still-ubiquitous 100-year-old fad that is flourless chocolate cake, but when it’s good—darkly rich, brownie-like, not too sweet—it’s really good, & all the better for the spike of cool citrus.

Also reveled in the tender-crumbed, salty-sweet, sugar-dusted corn fritters with caramel corn & bourbon-toffee sauce.

And though those were the standouts in my book, I didn’t try anything I didn’t genuinely like, from the peppercorn-crusted & perfectly seared ahi tuna with sticky rice

& the moist crème fraîche-roasted salmon over “beet-braised’ kohlrabi

to the lovely old-fashioned banana split

& springy, zingy monkey bread topped with Stranahan’s whiskey-brickle ice cream (all the ice creams presently come from Sweet Action).

In short, Jax is raring to go over here, & the second-floor bar, Hi*Jax, is soon to follow (on the 4th to be exact). You’d best be ready to live it up.

Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

Ocean Prime: Pearls amid beefs

Yes, I still have some beefs with this Ohio-based seafood franchise, beyond the fact that it’s an Ohio-based seafood franchise—at the price point of its urban-coastal superiors. But after a recent, somewhat reluctant excursion to its swank downstairs lounge, I have to admit it has its good points.

Bar service, for instance. Although markup, especially for wines by the glass, is way out of line—think $12 for a glass of Malbec that I happen to know goes for about $16-17 per retail bottle—pours are generous, & the Director’s (more reasonably priced) Scotch was handsomely presented with both ice & water on the side for diluting as desired. Plus: free popcorn! Reeking of truffle oil, to be sure, but I’m not in the camp that looks down its nose at the synthetic imitation of the precious fungus—smells like it, tastes like it, has its place, namely on popcorn.

Slivers of real truffle do, however, add aromatic verve to the creamiest of deviled eggs, along with a smidgen of caviar.

At nearly $20, the shellfish “Cobb” salad had better be bursting with chunks of lobster & shrimp as well as lump crab, & it is, plus plenty of crumbled bacon, blue cheese & egg. Honey-mustard-like “gourmet dressing” serves it well, adding a touch of sweetness & spice.

As for the Director’s hunk of Chilean sea bass over whipped potatoes in a Champagne sauce flecked with carrots & yet more (although in this case scant) truffle—I know the price of this fish per pound has increased dramatically, no doubt in relation to species depletion (I really should pay more attention to this stuff), but $42 still strikes me as over the top for a dish that, given its luxury ingredients, didn’t taste all that luxurious—it tasted fine, like a nice piece of fish over nice potatoes in a nice sauce.

Still, whatever cynicism born of greed may be operating in the corporate office, I don’t sense it coming from the ground crew; there’s genuine effort being made here to serve contemporary surf & turf with polish. If only they offered oysters à la carte, I might even return.

Ocean Prime on Urbanspoon

Ceci n’est pas un review of Ocean Prime (thanks, Oceanaire!)

A few weeks ago, on a dreary, chill Sunday afternoon, I met my pal Beth—now departed on an awesome road-trip project, 12 Cities 1 Year—at the downstairs bar of Ocean Prime for happy hour, which, far from bubbling, was so dark & quiet it felt like a dive despite the glitz. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the doldrums being my element. Nor did the fact that Ocean Prime doesn’t actually host happy hour on Sundays faze me; our goal was to score some oysters, bargain or no.

But there’s a difference between that which isn’t a bargain & that which is a ripoff. With only one type in the house, Ocean Prime’s offer of 6 oysters for 16 bucks seemed like the latter. Much of the joy of ordering a platter of oysters on the half-shell stems from sampling an array; barring that, at $2.60 a pop, the option to go à la carte should at least be made available. Add to that an egregiously marked-up (4x? more?) list of wines by the glass, & Beth & I knew we’d be out of there after 1 drink & a few handfuls of stale popcorn.

Good thing Oceanaire was there to remind us that high-end seafood chains aren’t all gloom & doom. Though it’s been a while since I’ve posted a full review, rest assured the 14th Street outpost is plenty reliable; the menu may change, but the quality doesn’t. So I won’t belabor too many points here, just give you an up-to-date taste.

Oceanaire’s happy hour menu—which is offered on Sundays; take that, Ocean Prime—includes crisp, greaseless cornmeal-fried oysters with aioli & fries & a trio of juicy “grilled beefsteak bites,” i.e. steak sliders, with caramelized onions & horseradish mayo on fresh, fluffy little buns.

Spears of parmesan-crusted fried asparagus, being jumbo, were a little too al dente, & the tomatoes in the blue cheese–tomato “fondue” were underripe & woody—never mind the fact that the mixture was no fondue; it was just, well, a mixture. But the right bites of this app, at the tips, were a bunch of fun nonetheless.

Still, charred green beans with tomato-bacon aioli, technically a side dish, were their superior by far—garden-sweet & popping in the mouth, dipped in the smoky, tangy, creamy accompaniment.

Oh, & about those oysters? We got them too: a choice of 9 or 10 varieties, all priced à la carte (or 3 for $6 at happy hour). As far as this Boston girl is concerned, that there’s what defines a decent raw bar.

A Quick Recap of Jumpin’ Jax Fish House

Jax is really so much better than it has any right to be. I mean, it replaced the Terminal Bar. And it's been parked in that prime Lodo spot  for 14 years—way past long enough for cynicism to set in, for making a policy of packing in the conventioneers & game-day carousers, pouring pints down their throats, & pawning off subprime seafood on the booze-blunted suckers nightly. Never mind that whole reality-show hoohah.

But no. Whatever kind of pressure chef Sheila Lucero may or may not feel to shine in the spotlight that Hosea Rosenberg, her former Top Chef-winning colleague in Boulder, has cast on Jax doesn't show: her style is fun, even funky, but never fussy, & urbane without getting all slick.

Aside from the blackened catfish with crawfish hush puppies, red-eye gravy & pepper jam that was my most recent Dish of the Week, the Director & I also split oysters broiled with shrimp, asiago & spicy Worcestershire butter—a combination that the flavor of the oysters themselves got lost in the midst of, but their lacy edges sure were pretty, & their texture, natch, made its own contribution.

Jaxoysters
In its ubiquitousness, it's rare that a bowl of steamed mussels really sparkles—there are only so many variations on the theme—but this one did,

Jaxmussels

with roasted tomatoes & chorizo that didn't create much of a broth until, suddenly, they did, mixing magically as they cooled with the garlic, herbs & shellfish juices to squeeze out a millionth of the Mediterranean sea.

I've long been intrigued by the seasonal menus' bold flourishes—pickled mustard seeds & verjus vinaigrette here, white bean croquettes & salt-roasted marble-potato hash there—but I never quite believed the place could still possess the panache it promised after all these years. Happily, it proved me wrong—on my 40th birthday, no less. What's the point of getting older & if you can't get fatter & wiser?

Jax Fish House on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week 8/9–8/15: Blackened Mississippi Catfish at Jax Fish House

If you follow me on Twitter, you know I technically crowned this beauty

Jaxcatfish

the DOW before the Sunday 11:59:59pm deadline. You may also know I’ve got a bit of a thing—okay, a big fat thing—for catfish based on my involvement with

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the Okie Noodling Tournament (about which I’ve posted much; check the archives for an eyeful).

At the tournament, it’s breaded & cooked up in huge sizzling fryers, but our server at Jax suggested we order our catfish blackened rather than fried, since the filet is balanced atop 3 fat fried crawfish hush puppies. Sandwiched between is spinach sauteed with onions; pooled beneath is red-eye gravy, & ringed round is red pepper jelly.

Wow, kids. What a dish. The complex blend of spices coating the tender, flaky meat erased all memories of the salt licks I encountered back in the 1980s when blackening was big. The hush puppies, too, were perfect balls of moist, dense-but-not-leadlike cornbread (the crawfish was almost nonexistent, but that’s my only complaint). And the sauces! The gravy really knocked me out with its hint of rich sweetness, I suspect from onions, balanced by the smoky chunks of bacon on whose drippings it was presumably based, plus herbs & something else—coffee, maybe, as is traditional? I’m quite sure it wasn’t tobacco, although I used to know a guy whose grandmother deliberately smoked over the stove, letting some ash fall into the pan. But that’s Carolina country cooking for you, & this isn’t. The jelly served as a stellar spicy-sweet foil.

More on the rest of the meal to come; for now, suffice it to say that Jax hasn’t lost its marbles after all these years.

The Exception That Proves the Rule: Oceanaire

Like all serious eaters, I avoid most chains on principle. Even the high-end ones, the ones that actually have kitchens instead of just freezers full of factory-made product & bank after bank of deep fryers to thaw it all in, share that ethos of consistency, i.e. sameness, i.e. predictability, that goes against everything I love about dining out: a sense of place, the passing of moments that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else, an intimate understanding of the chef’s worldview as manifested in his or her cooking. The words “local” and “organic” don’t just apply to ingredients—they apply to experiences too.

But Oceanaire, as I’ve noted before, is a breath of guess what amid the stench of corporate branding. If its 1950s supper club-meets-cruise ship swankiness smacks just a touch of the boardroom brainstorm, the space is no less genuinely cool for that; if you squint you can pretend the crowd is all decked out in flannel suits & wingtips, cocktail shifts & pincurls. And amazingly, nothing else smacks thus.

The service, for one thing, is impeccable, exhibiting the perfect balance between professionalism & personality. In fact, it was Colonel Hector Bravado’s rave about one bartender in particular during our recent interview that reminded me it had been too long since my last splurge at the downtown seafooder, especially since I was pretty sure I knew whom he meant: a tall blonde whose name I got this time while doing the obligatory round of oysters at the bar—Kara, who praised the Director’s request for Laphroaig with a grin, “That’s my favorite too—so smoky & stinky & peaty.”

Meanwhile, I kept it simple with bubbly, not wanting to risk losing the flavors of the oysters on our platter, which were all new to me: gentle, clean Rappahannocks & Barcats from Maryland, plus British Columbian Fanny Bays—on whose cucumbery relish I’ll second Rowan Jacobsen.

Ooysters

OcondimentsThen, for the first time ever, we repaired to an actual table, the way nice, normal diners do, where the evidence of the extent to which Oceanaire’s charm stems from little amenities just piled up. For instance, it’s just so darn cute that the table setting includes a box of Old Bay & a little notepad! What sweet nothings might have been scribbled here? We made Top 10 lists.

Then there are the little premeal goodies—a sourdough boule that’s excellent from chewy crust to loose crumb & a relish tray of crudités, olives, cherry peppers & a highly unexpected (the 1st time) but much welcomed (always) ramekin of pickled herring.

Obreadandcrudites

And on this particular night, perhaps a perk of table dining as we’ve never received one before, our young but super-smooth server Justin brought us an amuse bouche—a bit of gingered salmon & cucumber on a housemade potato chip. Nothing groundbreaking; nice nonetheless.

Oamuse

An app of Fresno shrimp was likewise no novelty—but then, novelty really isn’t the name of Oceanaire’s game. Though the large menu is hardly devoid of innovative touches, its overall appeal, like that of the decor, inheres in the retro: shrimp de Jonghe, cioppino, scampi, escargots, creamed corn, superb Green Goddess dressing & warm chocolate chip cookies with milk (the latter two as per my earlier, above-linked post). And actually, contrary to contemporary standards, it’s the starters that hew more to the classic here, the entrees that skew more unusual.

Anyway, this is your typical heap of deep fried shrimp, a little too heavily breaded, but well seasoned enough to keep us plowing through it until somewhat past the ideal stopping point. Above all, as is often the case, it was a condiment I fell for: while the malt aioli didn’t distinguish itself beyond richness, the housemade hot sauce was terrific, thin & vinegary. Like fresh-squeezed Tabasco, basically.

Ofriedshrimp

My belly already nearing capacity à la the ship’s cabin in A Night at the Opera, I went for broke via the rainbow trout stuffed with crab, shrimp & Brie in a white wine beurre blanc. Served whole with the head & tail on, its skin crackling, that fish offered a fine exterior indeed; the flesh was milder than expected, but those few chunks that were moistened by the sauce alone shone. As for the stuffing that otherwise overwhelmed it a bit—all by itself, ahh: chunky, melting, funky & sea-sweet.

Ostuffedtrout
Lacking my gastrostamina, the Director stuck with a Caesar, which caused in me a twinge of ennui until I tasted it, with its just-right dressing, a little tangy, a little creamy, a little musty.

OCaesar
Oceanaire’s salads are all giant flavorcraft carriers, from the crab & bay shrimp chopped salad to the BLT salad with buttermilk-bacon dressing. But it’s the sides that are like the tugboats for the fleet of a full meal here: however almost comically starchy & fattening, you have to have at least one to pull the whole thing together. The slab of so-called bacon steak is rightly given widespread due, & the coleslaw has a wonderful old-fashioned roughness of character, but the Director loves his potatoes au gratin.

Ogratin
And what’s not to love? Soft cubed potatoes, thick velvety cheddar.  Impressive to behold, but fairly simple in the end as far as the comfort it offers—& thus emblematic of Oceanaire itself.

Oceanaire Seafood Room on Urbanspoon

McCormick’s: “Not one of the city’s best restaurants.”— Not The New York Times Travel Section

Lukewarm-ick’s. Has a nice—by which I mean “mean”—ring, no? But “nice” by which I mean “mean” doesn’t mean “entirely true.” The truth is McCormick’s runs the gamut from all-out eww to eh to full-on aah! & back again. So I resisted the temptation to title this post thuswise (if not to use the word “thuswise.” Such a logobimbo). After all, McCormick’s own site gave me all the opportunity for snark I ever seek by quoting some glowing review that appeared in the New York Times Travel Section…when? When was McCormick’s ever “one of the city’s best restaurants”? Thirty years ago when Lodo was a war zone? The best restaurant in a war zone is a non-bombed-out restaurant. “Best” in that wise just means “open.”

Mind you, I don’t actually know how long McCormick’s has been in Denver (feel free to fill me in). I only know that as early as the mid-1970s, McCormick merged with Schmick out in Portland, OR, to forge the links in today’s coast-to-coast chain known by both names; hence the assumption that the one-name outlets must be older. I also know, as a former Bostonian, how much flak said chain aptly took for moving in on Legal Sea Foods’ turf when it opened back east. Sure, Legal’s a franchise too, but you gotta hand it to any fishhouse that opens a branch within spitting distance of an aquarium. That takes whale balls.**)

So I’ve long held a grudge against McCormick, with or without Schmick.

Nevertheless, since I had no choice but to hit it recently for reasons that shall be made clear over at Denver Six Shooter come June 16, I figured I might as well give it its fair full-body shake—starting, natch, with the raw bar.

Which brings us to lukewarmth.

Here’s how the so-so seesaws: on the upside, a daily roster of 9 or 10 ain’t bad. It ain’t as good as Oceanaire’s, but it ain’t bad. Even better is that Gigamotos were among them.

McCoysters2

New to me when I ordered them (perhaps because they’re West Coasters, from Belfair, WA), these little guys promptly shot all the way up in my esteem to the level of Wellfleets & Tatmagouches. Not only do they sound like robot parts, & not only are their shells (like those of most oysters, granted) way sci-fi,

McCshell

but their flavor is among the most purely sealike any creature ever captured. And I don’t mean briny & I do mean sealike—blue-green & clean.

The quick, simple downside: they weren’t fully shucked; the adductor muscle was still attached to the shell. Hey, line guy, if I have to do half the work myself, I want my cut. Pony up.

Though they weren’t especially strong, & though I wasn’t holding my breath that the mix was housemade, a couple of spicy bloodies nonetheless took the edge off of my annoyance.

McCbloody

So did the especially attentive, blond-ponytailed slip of a server who brought them, a pro beyond her years. Wish I’d gotten her name. (UPDATE: Just saw it on the receipt—Jamie.) Above all, she accommodated us in the transition between breakfast & lunch service, as the Director ordered the former & I the latter.

His Southwest skillet was the high point, a not-too-greasy spillage of chorizo & cheddar, spuds & jack, & peppers & onions alongside pico de gallo, a thoughtful wedge of lime, & griddled tortillas—all topped with the over-easy…oval? ovate? ovoid? oviparous?…eggy ideal.

McCskillet

Sausages on the side were fat & happy, juicy with joy. McCsausages

But the oyster stew, after the first blush, was sad & blue.

McCoysterstew

Looks delish, eh? Especially when you dip in your spoon to dredge up a humdinger of a Hama Hama.

McCoysterstew2

But it wasn’t delish by a long shot. The chef’s intentions were clearly good insofar as the broth was very simple—just milk (I doubt there was more than a drop, if that, of cream), butter, parsley &, presumably, oyster liquor. The chef’s execution was noticeably bad insofar as the broth was very simple—Hama Hamas are mild, their liquor virtually undetectable in the context of other ingredients without sufficient S&P to bring it out. I was pretty much slurping up diluted milk until I seasoned it myself.

Oh, & also until the bile started seeping in.

McCoysterstew3

In my nearly 40 years I’ve downed 100s upon 100s of oysters—& never, ever, had I seen the likes of this. I didn’t even know oysters had livers.

Googling “oyster liver” later, I found this in a passage from a shucking primer at Oysters.us:

“Extra care must be taken not to damage the tender meat. The oyster’s liver is located just ahead of the hinge (located right at the opposite end of the little pointer). It is particularly vulnerable and will end up looking like a big greenish-brown spot if its mantle layer is damaged by the knife….Although such damage has no effect at all on the taste of the oyster meat, it just looks bad. I’ve heard novices ask ‘Eeeew. Is that oyster poop?’ when they see that spot. If you are serving lots of oysters with damaged livers to connoisseurs, they may not comment on it, but will certainly notice.”

I noticed. Not 1 but 2 of the 3 oysters in my bowl were thuswise mangled.

In the end, then, Denveater’s gotta give McCormick’s, at least when it comes to their supposed specialty, the thumbs down…& hence The Gray Lady the smackdown.

Which actually, for a writer filled herself with bitter, bitter bile, feels pretty sweet.

**Search here for the word “testes” and prepare to stagger.

McCormick's Fish House & Bar on Urbanspoon

Oceanok

It’s a truism of contemporary cuisine—one I have pointed & will point out again & again, until it’s not—that appetizers trump entrees. The smaller the plate, the bigger & brighter the flavors; the bolder their combinations; the artsier their presentation. Why is that? Why are so few American chefs, even real innovators, willing to deviate from the meat-and-3 standard of the main course? How is it that they still defer to Chef Stouffer, the king of culinary compartmentalization?

The most obvious, depressing answer is that—for all the stats about salsa outselling ketchup & the news that some gastropundit or other voted “locavore” the most overused word of the year & the fact that your cubicle mate finally knows what panini are (even if he/she thinks he/she knows what a panini is)—the average American diner is still boring & conservative enough to insist on steak & potatoes & peas night after night after night.

Of course, said answer could be worded more diplomatically, with more dignity. Far truer, more judicious connoisseurs than I might argue that the palate, in all its symmetry, simply prefers order to chaos. It’s like our tongues are the floor plans for the grand theaters of our mouths, with some tastebuds in the loges & some in the peanut gallery & so on, all awaiting the Aristotelian drama that is dinner. Their interest needs immediately to be piqued, but it can’t just go on being piqued or they’ll pass out from all the excitement & confusion; it needs then to peak, to attain catharsis & reach harmonious conclusion. Intriguing appetizer, meaty entree, sweet dessert.

But see, I think of my mouth as a punk club and my tongue’s the mosh pit. My tastebuds want to crowd-surf & lose their shoes & have Rolling Rock bottles broken over their heads, then stumble home near-deaf & blind, not really sure what happened but exhaustedly ecstatic it did.

Which brings me back to Ocean, where I was immediately struck by the fact that, for once, the main courses appealed to me more than the starters. While the latter were mostly sushi-bar knockoffs & half-baked attempts to glorify bar snacks, the former seemed somehow harder to categorize (derogatorily or otherwise): at least on paper, they appeared more free-form, more about genuine chefly curiosity & less about hipclepticism, more playful yet less wink-wink.

Not to pat myself on the belly, but sure enough, our second course went to great lengths to compensate for our first. In fact, the blackened trout with “spicy cream corn” & invisible seared spinach (okay, it’s under the filet) almost succeeded.

Otrout

I mean, obviously, a few more whole kernels would have been nice to maintain the distinction between this & this; my mouth’s not that punk. But looks aside, this dish was gorgeously more than the sum of its parts—the firm yet flaky forkfuls, the creamy spoonfuls, the buttery bittery shreds all presenting themselves in unison, more like an accidental casserole or trompe l’oeil stew than anything.

Where mine united, the elements of the Director’s dish, sesame-crusted ahi with wasabi butter, snap peas & straw mushrooms, overlapped beautifully—the rich with the bright, the crunchy with the smooth. All elements, that is, except one: the tuna itself, which, just like the yellowfin we’d started with, was utterly flavorless. To use my favorite contradiction in terms, it appeared to be missing. It was like a nutri-optical illusion; we could see it, we could even swallow it, but somehow our palates passed right through it. Or it was like it had post-aquatic shellshock or piscine Alzheimer’s. There just wasn’t any tuna left in that tuna. I could go on & on.

Oahi

But I won’t. Suffice it to say 1 1/2 out of 5 (counting the bread basket) ain’t good. Happily, or at least less unhappily, Ocean upped its score with a bracing espresso martini…

Omartini

& a slice of peanut butter cheesecake so light it was strangely refreshing, as though it were really sorbet only the member of a species with hypertrophied sensory mechanisms could detect. Like how bees see ultraviolet.

Ocake

Oceanick

Going into semantic spasms, Ocean promises to “enchant the guest experience through the delight of interactive-style dining.” I didn’t get a chance to ask my experience if it felt enchanted, since it bolted just as the enormous check was arriving, mumbling a half-hearted “thanks” (followed sotto voce by “suckah”), and I haven’t heard from it since. Hmm, perhaps the mastermind behind the menu’s mission statement meant “enhance”? But to determine whether my experience had been enhanced, I’d have to know what “interactive-style dining” was, beyond just being able to, say, select among the items on the menu (you know, like when you get to click icons on your desktop! X-treme!)—and since the interactive style of our waitress was such that “interpassive” might put a finer point on it, I never did find out whether I was missing some stellar opportunity to kibitz on the line or join a round-table discussion on the soup du jour or something.

Well, you can bet your bippy—what- & wheresoever that may be—a little input from the Director & me couldn’t have hurt matters. For instance, we might have suggested using real yellowfin & jalapeno slices in the yellowfin & jalapeno dish, rather than part of some toy display from Gimme Gimme Pillow Toast .

Otuna

We know those little Japanese eraser sets are adorable & all, but we were taught in grade-school not to stick either end of the pencil in our mouths for a reason: rubber & lead are very bland.

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Unless, that is, they’re serving as substitutes for what was supposed to be squid fried with hot red pepper slivers. Then rubber & lead are super-spicy.

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In all fairness, the idea here was dandy, crossing your basic calamari fritti with a refreshing salad of watercress & mandarin sections in a wicked orange-chile dressing. But for this kind of ham-handed deep-frying, we could’ve gone back to Dave & Buster’s & at least caught some hot man-on-man octagonal action while chomping on our breaded whatsits.

Oh, there’s so much more to say here, & said it shall be a few hours’ hence.

***

Hours since, I admit my attitude has not improved one whit. After all, among all my tests of a restaurant’s honor—to which I have alluded before and upon which I intend to elaborate fully in due time—Ocean failed the only 2 I administered it, 1 being fried calamari, the other being the bread basket we requested in hopes of salvaging something from the aforementioned yellowfin disaster—namely the oil-&-vinegar slick beneath it. That’s right, like some sort of Exxonian epicures, we tried to save the oil from being tainted by the fish.

Valiant motive, flawed measure. I know better than to ask for a bread basket; it’s like asking a slight acquaintance to wave to you on the street. The solicited gesture is bound to be stale & cold. Sure enough, turning & twisting each day-plus-old, vaguely country French slice would have done wonders for my carpal tunnel syndrome if I’d had it; then again, I’d have had to swallow my hard-won hunks plain, lest the glass shards that passed for butter pats slit those convalescing wrists. Of course, since the calamari was served sans utensils, re-injury resulting from repetitive hand-to-mouth motion would have been inevitable anyway. Said the Director: “Um, we don’t have any silverware?” Said our waitress: “Huh.” Replace the phrase “we don’t have any silverware” with “I don’t have any pants on,” and her tone would have been totally appropriate.

Now that I’ve spewed enough venom to paralyze a whole publicity firm, I’ll leave you with the promise of praises yet to be sung for Ocean. They’re few & faint, but they are worth vocalizing.