Posted On: 08/01/2007
Those of you with little ones know every week is littered with firsts that make you gleam with pride. In addition to the big ones (first steps, first words), there are also other, less universal milestones that mean just as much to individual parents. For me, one of these moments recently occurred when my son ate mussels for the first time, using the shell (like a champ) to pick them up and put them in his mouth. Pride so welled in my heart that I almost missed my own chance to sample those tender morsels swimming in a tangy, garlicky, tomatoey, licorice-laced, slightly spicy and deeply flavorful broth.
The fact that this happened at a trendy new eatery in Clayton only doubled the awesomeness of the event. While most places I dine at for the sake of this column have been accommodating to the youngest member of my family, bringing him along is generally a dicey proposition, with only a few highchairs on hand and nary a children’s menu to be found. This is not the case at Oceano Bistro. The newest inhabitant at the intersection of Maryland Avenue and Brentwood Boulevard has a plethora of cups with lids and straws, highchairs and a full-color, game-filled children’s menu sporting gourmet kids’ items like tempura fish and PB&J rolls.
Sitting in the liberally lit, wide-open and inviting atmosphere that wasn’t ever too loud for conversation, enjoying my pride-and-mussels buzz, I almost didn’t notice when the food started to roller coaster. After the high of the mussels, it nosedived to slightly disappointing with the Umami Kobe Sliders. Cooked until they were dry (on two separate occasions), any advantage of extra marbling lost, not even the sharp Vermont Cheddar or crisp, sweet, house-made butter pickles could hope to bring umami back in play.
In the entrée portion of this visit, the ride continued with, hands down, Oceano’s best dish (repeated on a subsequent visit): simply succulent grilled scallops, sweet with ocean, paired with a decadent white truffle beurre blanc. Had my mom not been stabbing my hand with a fork, I would have eaten until the plate went missing. Then (wheee!) the roller coaster dived down again to the lobster-stuffed sole, sentenced to death by salt. Back up, up, up one more time to a huge, 2-inch-thick, sweet, apple cider-brined pork chop complemented well by a candy-sweet pomegranate glaze and roasted garlic potato purée.
This up-and-down trend didn’t abate in subsequent visits, although it did even out a bit. Luscious and meaty blackened ahi tuna (not so much blackened as quick-seared) paired wonderfully with gently tart pickled ginger, radishes and cucumber and a drizzle of piquant mustard sauce. A half-dozen iced oysters with different toppings sounds nice, right? They were fine but unremarkable for a place with ocean as part of its name.
And although the chèvre and Bibb salad had far too small a ratio of the crispy, almond-encrusted cheese to the amount of lettuce, the lemon-mustard herb vinaigrette complemented it well.
Rich, creamy New England seafood chowder exceeded expectations, as did the fillet of sashimi-grade nairagi (a type of marlin). The thick cut was prepared rare, its center red and cool, and was served with a tomato, caper and olive mixture reminiscent of the ocean; some extra acid from the accompanying tomato purée rounded out the flavor. Walleye, however, was neutral in flavor to the point of blandness; it also had a very mealy texture that pointed to overcooking (on two occasions).
Even the desserts traded punches. A surprisingly light deep-fried blueberry cheesecake offered velvety creaminess and perfectly ripe blueberries in a generous drizzle of thick lemon sauce. But a plate of cookies accompanied by far too little ice cream and chocolate sauce suffered when the accoutrements disappeared.
I very much enjoyed the wine list and found it thoughtfully put together with seafood in mind. There are 28 selections by the glass, but I absolutely fell in love with the Château de Parenchère rosé from Bordeaux. It continually held up to whatever I threw at it and is simply a great summer wine.
The service was generally swift and courteous, with a few glaring exceptions, such as when I asked which heirloom tomatoes (home-grown by the chef’s wife) were used in a riveting, creamy goat cheese flan dish and the server gave me the definition of an heirloom tomato. Further clarification of my point did not elicit a clearer answer by the server or (more importantly) an offer to find out. And although on other visits our servers were friendly, they weren’t sophisticated: One hovered too much while another preferred to make jokes rather than provide accurate food descriptions.
Ultimately, there are more appetizing menu selections than disappointing ones, and you’ll feel at home in the sleek space that welcomes everyone – even families – wanting to nosh on decent to delicious dishes that range from the mid-teens to low 20s. Just be warned that there some landmines worth avoiding.
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