Thu. September 19, 2013 12:00 AM
by Rick Karlin
Proof that fine dining doesn't have to be stuffy, Oceanique, the eclectic seafood restaurant in Evanston, makes French-American style seafood accessible. Since Chef de cuisine and owner Mark Grosz opened the place in 1993, Oceanique has consistently been among the top-ranked seafood restaurants in the Chicago area. Oceanique has won Wine Spectator Magazine's coveted "Best of Award of Excellence" every year since 1994 being recognized as having one of the 750 best wine lists in the world and serves organic produce and seafood from sustainable, eco-friendly sources.
Grosz worked under the tutelage of renowned chef Jean Banchet of Le Francais and then further refined his skills in France and Hong Kong. He offers discriminating diners some of the most creative and exquisite dishes prepared in the French tradition, with an American twist.
After a recent remodel, the interior of the restaurant matches the quality of the food, with a diverse mix of rustic and mid-century modern. The darker bar area dining room is cozier than the main dining area, which could benefit from some drapes or other soft materials to cover the hard surfaces and lessen the din, and the lighting isn't the most flattering (especially when it fluctuates when the air-conditioner's compressor kicks in.) But, those minor problems are not enough to detract from the incredible dining experience in store.
Dinner at Oceanique is not cheap, but luxury never is, and dining there is a luxurious experience. You want to know how luxurious? Here's an example; when a table is turned over for new customers, the new tablecloth is ironed, right on the table. For the chef's seven-course degustation menu ($105 / $170 with wine pairings) there is a different wine glass for each wine served. Service is attentive and informative without being snooty. One quibble, the back waiters who actually serve the plates need to learn to keep their thumbs off the surface of the plate.
But the food! OMG! It's easy to see why Chef Grosz has garnered such praise, every dish coming out of the kitchen is a delight. You can tell that Grosz is a hands on chef, when he tours the dining room checking with each table, his chef's jacket is that of a working chef, complete with spatters of sauces. We began our meal with the chef's surprise, a bit more substantial than an amusé bouche, but not quite an appetizer size. Rather than cranking out the same dish for both, I was served a delicate piece of smoked salmon, while my husband enjoyed a lightly poached scallop. It was only when we were served our first course, lightly smoked salmon with whispers of radish, cucumber and horseradish crème fraiche with casa nostra toast for my husband and wild Maine day boat scallops with cilantro kimchi and a fragrant lobster-soy broth for me, did we realize that chef had given us each a preview of the other's dish.
I moved on to the rich corn soup, flecked with pieces of lobster and leek, while hubby enjoyed a refreshing gazpacho. The salad course followed and we were impressed again. Oceanique's version of the roasted beet salad is a refreshing take on the familiar classic; local beets, artichoke, pecans and organic lettuce are topped with warm goat cheese, which melts and coats the ingredients making a creamy dressing. Sherry vinaigrette adds a bit of needed tang. The wild Maine lobster salad features healthy chunks of seafood and buffalo mozzarella atop a bed of greens augmented by red caviar and hints of avocado.
When our entrees arrived, my husband, not the most adventurous eater, fell in love with the Danish Faroe Islands salmon, served with elote, butternut squash and a turmeric poblano sauce. I was equally rapturous about the wild Delaware skate, served with cubes of purple potatoes, fava beans and tiny onions. A delicate lemongrass white wine sauce set off this dish to perfection. If it hadn't been a fine dining restaurant I would have been tempted to pick up my plate and lick it clean.
Since the portion sizes tend toward the smallish size, we had plenty of room for dessert and didn't feel guilty about ordering it. Oddly enough, the dessert portions are enormous when compared to the rest of the meal, not that I'm complaining. An individual, warm three nut tart combines hazelnuts, walnuts and pecans with just enough filling to hold it together. It is usually served with coconut-lemon balm ice cream, I am a minimalist when it comes to ice cream and asked to substitute vanilla, which proved to be a perfect complement to the dish. The Napoleon presents three tiers of perfect puff pastry filled with vanilla mousseline and berries, with just a hint of Valrhona chocolate sauce.
Wine Director Phillipe Andre paired my dinner with appropriate wine tastings. If you enjoy wine, do opt for the pairings, it is a steal at $65 for the seven course meal, much less than you'd pay for two or three glasses of wine, and the pours are generous. Philippe was able to accommodate my allergies to red wines and created an all white pairing that featured Champagne, Riesling, Chardonnay and a Cuvee, among others.
You can spend less for a seafood dinner than you do at Oceanique, but when you compare quality over quantity, you get what you pay for.