Sea Change

Photo: Hannah Whitaker/New York Magazine

It wasn’t so long ago that assorted gasbag food pundits and jaded old-media restaurant critics were confidently pronouncing the death of the high-end fish restaurant in Manhattan. And why not? The $25 lobster roll replaced caviar as the city’s gourmet seafood dish of choice years ago. And with expense accounts imploding faster than global fishing stocks, who wants to pay half a day’s wages for a taste of blue marlin, say, flown in via jumbo jet from the coast of Peru? Plenty of people, apparently. In fact, new big-ticket seafood palaces have been popping up at an alarming rate all over town. David Burke has Fishtail on the Upper East Side. Jeffrey Chodorow just opened Ed’s Chowder House near Lincoln Center. And over the protests of a few lonely critics (like me), Marea, Michael White’s extravagantly expensive, highly stylized Italian seafood palace, continues to draw hordes of rhapsodic diners in midtown.

The newest addition to this unlikely parade is Oceana, which old-line fish snobs may remember as a refined boutique townhouse restaurant run by the Livanos family (Molyvos, Abboccato) on East 54th Street. Comparing the new Oceana to the old Oceana, however, is like comparing a graciously aging wooden sloop to the newest state-of-the-art addition to the Carnival cruise line. Oceana 2.0 occupies a vaulted space on the ground floor of the McGraw Hill building in midtown, next to other weathered, big-tent business-lunch joints like City Lobster and Del Frisco’s. Flat-screen televisions glimmer in the white-marble bar area over an array of goggle-eyed sea creatures laid out on mountains of crushed ice. There are numerous corporate party spaces on the premises, and a Wal-Mart-size dining room appointed in extravagant neo-Nordic style, with blue-and-white pillows on the banquettes, aquamarine lobster tanks by the kitchen, and rows of white-linen lampshades the size of garbage cans.

The original, Michelin-starred Oceana was a showplace for high-wire seafood cooking of the most effete kind. But with this vast new corporate space to fill, that approach has been scrapped in favor of a more familiar, user-friendly, pan-globalist style. The raw bar serves that aged (though rarely eaten) totem of corporate largesse, Alaskan king crab legs, along with oysters jetted in from the usual bays and inlets (Glidden Points from Maine, Little Skookums from Washington State) at the expense-account price of $3 apiece. Ben Pollinger, who also ran the kitchen at the old townhouse, has contrived a series of fashionable crudo-style dishes as well, like the blue marlin, which was gummy and cost an alarming $18, an inventive Asian fusion–style fluke tartare (mingled with mangoes and soft slivers of young coconut), and sweet ribbons of freshly sliced sea scallop sprinkled with the equivalent of Japanese allspice and served, in their little pink shells, on crushed ice.

As with several of the new seafood joints in this stripped-down, locavore-conscious era, the menu at Oceana 2.0 is divided between “Simply Prepared” pieces of fish and more-elaborate “Composed” dishes. The Composed appetizers include good old gravlax (house-cured, rolled around salmon tartare), and a nice smoky seviche made with bits of lime-soaked snapper, cilantro, and roasted corn. A good, sausage-rich version of Manhattan clam chowder appears on the Composed section of the menu, too, along with a pair of curiously bland peekytoe-crab cakes, which somehow remained bland despite repeated dunkings in a vat of wasabi-spiked aïoli. The shrimp garganelli pasta was weirdly flavorless, too (it’s scattered with pasty cranberry beans and barely discernible strips of pancetta), and so was my neighbor’s pale, overboiled seafood sausage, which was inserted into rubbery tubes of calamari.

The entrées include several pricey whole-fish options, the most interesting of which is the branzino (served for two, at $38 per person), zealously stuffed with spinach, mushrooms, and perhaps a few too many Mediterranean black olives. The “Simply Prepared” fish we tried were all well cooked, but if you have to choose one, make it the striped bass, which goes surprisingly well with a sidecar of romesco sauce. The Composed entrées are more various in quality, possibly because the classically trained Pollinger has gone from running a normal-size kitchen to one as big as an aircraft carrier. The best was the pompano, which the chef wraps not in Daniel Boulud–style potatoes but in a crisp sleeve of taro root. The watery “Thai-style” red snapper, on the other hand, lacked any real spicy kick, and the inventive halibut saltimbocca (tied in a strip of prosciutto, over a bed of eggplant) would have worked better if the halibut hadn’t been slightly overcooked.

Will this slightly uneven food translate into Michelin stars for the grandiose new Oceana 2.0? Possibly not. But Michelin stars are less important these days than profits, and the Goliath-size dining hall (and the attendant cavernous party rooms) were brimming, on the days I dropped by, with legions of customers dressed in various shades of corporate gray. How they enjoyed the not-so-fresh doughnut platter (five for $14, including one flavored with Earl Grey tea) is difficult to say, although the demure ladies at my table politely pushed their doughnuts away. They were more receptive to the slim, pecan-laced cookie bar, served with a spoonful of barely melting buttermilk ice cream. If you ask me, the dessert to get is the chocolate-custard brownie. It tastes less like a brownie than a refined, New Age mille-feuille, although as you carefully remove the gold leaf from its top you can’t help thinking that it would seem even more refined in a space half the size.

Address: 1221 Sixth Ave. at 49th St.; 212-759-5941
Hours: Dinner Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday to midnight, Sunday 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $12 to $19; entrées, $26 to $48.
Ideal Meal: Manhattan clam chowder, taro-wrapped pompano, chocolate-custard brownie.
Note: Oceana was briefly peddling a live, ten-pound, 70-year-old lobster to its fat-cat clientele. Thanks to the efforts of my colleague Ryan Sutton, this noble behemoth has been released.
Scratchpad: The cooking hovers near the two-star level, but the grandly impersonal scale brings everything down a notch.

Sea Change