August 8, 2007 | Insatiable Critic

        Oceana Quietly Makes Wave

A pride of octopus wearing wild arugula rides on cranberry beans at Oceana.
A pride  of octapus with wild arugula sits on carnberry beans at Oceana.


        I wouldn’t be disappointed if Oceana’s newest chef Ben Pollinger was more obviously a disciple of his mentor, the driven and passionate Christian Delouvrier. I have missed Delouvrier’s unabashedly down-home Gascon moments since he got a brusque heave-ho from Alain Ducasse and disappeared in Miami. Still, too bold a dose of terroir would not feel right at Oceana.

The energy and élan of Pollinger’s stinging nettle and sorrel soup poured over a delicate yogurt panna cotta, and his ink-dark cuttlefish risotto with fiddlehead ferns and spring onion indicate he has emerged from stints with Delouvrier, Ducasse and Floyd Cardoz at Tabla mature and inspired and very much his own man. It takes a sense of balance and some restraint to be creative with sea creatures, not to overwhelm fragile textures and subtle flavors.

Tonight’s pan-roasted baby octopus with slow cooked cranberry beans gets a complex kick from a tangle of wild arugula, green olives, celery leaves and Thai basil. Spring peas and ramps bring market freshness to delicately cooked and voluptuous tamarind-glazed sablefish. 

Manilla clams, fingerling potatoes and linguica sausage add bold flavors to roasted cod.

Since the day in 1994 that Rick Moonen took over Oceans’s kitchen, endlessly scouring the Fulton Fish Market for new creatures to challenge the house’s essentially conservative following, chefs have come and gone here, some brilliant, some hyperactive, some touched by stardom. (I remember vividly an ethereal olive oil-poached halibut; its swordfish cozied now in that lugubrious bath on Pollinger’s menu).

 But no matter who’s at the range, managing partner Paul McLaughlin always seems to be juggling waves of business lunchers ($48 prix fixe) and well-heeled couples on cook’s night out ($78). Detect a certain old school manner? He came out of the rigid prep school at Le Bernardin, as I once described him, “trained to the tip of his ears.”

 In the snug little yacht-like keel of Oceana, chatter bounces off the walls, especially as booze-shellacked blondes lose their Connecticut couth. If only the understated bouillabaisse had that uninhibited spirit.  And I would have wished for more grace and dignity from our captain.  He never glides, he lurches and is annoyingly gabby. But my mood is lifted by chocolate custard brownie with espresso granité, tangy rhubarb semolina tart, and the marvelous surprise when our out-of-town chum insists on taking the check.

                        55 East 54th Street between Madison and Park 212 759 5941. Now moved to 1221 Sixth Ave.