Entries in Livanos Family (8)


Review Recap: Oceana

Yesterday, Sam Sifton awarded the expected two stars to Oceana, finding that in the move to larger digs, it had lost a star along the way:

More recent meals in the new Oceana, which opened around the corner from Del Frisco’s in the McGraw-Hill building in August, reveal a different scene: a retort to all those who thought the old Oceana was cramped and outdated, a little too much actually like a steamship. It is now a massive restaurant, open and white and blue and tiled, with enormous lamp fixtures that throw light into every crevice of the room, with giant flowers to soften that and beneath them deep leather booths with velvet backs and walnut trim…

Those who order carefully can partake of fabulous meals. They will certainly drink good wine, off a whites-heavy list that is ably negotiated by both waiters and sommeliers alike. But if the Oceana of old was a pleasant, shipshape room with elegant food and a caring touch, the new version is a high-functioning luxury mill, designed to service pre-theater crowds and to celebrate corporate success on expense-account dimes. It is in some ways a very good restaurant. But the room ensures that it is not entirely a pleasant one.

Although this counts technically as a demotion (since the old Oceana had three stars), the review finds plenty of things to like. Still, the chef and the owners are no doubt disappointed.

We and Eater made the identical two-star bets, winning $3 against our hypoethetical one-dollar wagers. 

Eater   NYJ
Bankroll $2.00   –$1.00
Gain/Loss +$3.00   $3.00
Total +$5.00   $2.00
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 3–1

Life-to-date, New York Journal is 72–29 (71%).


Review Preview: Oceana

Tomorrow, Sam Sifton reviews midtown seafooder Oceana. The Eater Oddsmakers have set the action as follows: Sift Happens: 10-1; Two Stars: 3-1; Three Stars: 4-1.

Time is short, so we’ll make this brief. We think that Oceana is still a three-star restaurant—the rating it has had since…forever. However, we cannot deny that most critics have been less than rapturous since it moved into a more corporate-looking midtown location.

Our predictions since Sifton began have not been very good—we’ve been right only one out of four times, so take this with a grain of salt. We think Sam Sifton will award two stars to Oceana.



The latest trend among upscale restaurants is the relocation. Bouley moved to a custom built chateau half-a-block away from the old Tribeca spot. Aureole moved from an old world townhouse to the bustle of the theater district. Dowdy San Domenico abandoned Central Park for Madison Park.

And Oceana has moved from an east-side townhouse to the MacGraw-Hill building, convenient to Rockefeller Center and the Sixth Avenue office district, as well as the pre-theater crowd.

All four of these restaurants were expensive before and are expensive still, but only Bouley went upscale. The other three are more casual than they were before, less taxing on the wallet, and have informal front rooms for bar dining that they previously lacked. This is not to say that they were renovated on the cheap—indeed, major coin was dropped on all three. But these restaurants, in different ways, are trying to win a new fine-dining audience that their old places, for varying reasons, could no longer attract.

The food at Oceana has always been acclaimed. Under chefs Rick Moonen, Cornelius Gallagher, and now Ben Pollinger, the restaurant has always had three New York Times stars, most recently from Frank Bruni in an ill-timed mid-2008 review, published just after the move to Sixth Avenue was announced. The space, which resembled the interior of an ocean liner, seemed passé and a bit cramped. Our only meal at the old Oceana was on Valentine’s Day three years ago. It was, as special-occasion meals often are, a mixed bag.

The new Oceana is spacious, bright, and modern. There’s a big fish tank in front of a partly-open kitchen. The walls are decorated with unobtrusive nautical artwork. This is what the John Dory would have looked like, if Ken Friedman had taste. About half the tables have white tablecloths, and half don’t. I don’t recall seeing that design choice at any other restaurant, but it seemed to work here—perhaps because we were seated at one of the former.

There are changes, too, behind the scenes. The chef told us that he has six times the amount of kitchen space for double the number of dining-room seats. He gave us a tour of the facilities afterwards. We haven’t seen a kitchen this spacious since Per Se.

In the dining room, the prix fixe (formerly $78) has been jettisoned in favor of a carte. The menu sprawls a bit more than I would like, though not as badly as Marea. On average, you’ll spend less than the original prix fixe, though of course it is possible to spend a lot more. There’s the obligatory raw bar ($3–8 per piece, plateaux at $44 or $120); soups, salads and appetizers in two categories ($12–19), main courses in four categories ($28–48; plus fish by the pound that can go higher), and sides ($7–10).

The entrées are a choice of composed main courses, whole fish, “simply prepared” fish, or meats; and there’s a separate list of optional sauces. It is a bit daunting, and I always wonder if the kitchen can actually keep up the quality when trying to paint over such a large canvass. In any event, everything we had was excellent.

The amuse-bouche (above left) was a lobster bisque. The bread (above right) was apparently baked in house, though I found it a bit too tough.

Seafood Sausage Stuffed Calamari ($17; above left) was one of the best appetizers we’ve had all year, with calamari serving as the “casing” for a rich, hearty sausage. We wondered whether Garganelli ($18; above right) was just a token pasta dish (the only one listed), but the combination of smoked shrimp, cranberry beans, and pancetta was wonderful.

Curried Red Snapper ($72; for two people) was deep-fried, but not the least bit greasy—as good a fish as we’ve had in a long time. A server filleted it expertly tableside (he told us he used to do 200 fish per day at Esca).

A side dish of Black Sticky Rice ($7; no photo) was too clumpy. It was the evening’s only misfire.

We usually skip dessert, but had to try a Sweet Potato–Almond Soufflé, which was excellent. The petits-fours were a bit underwhelming, but by then it hardly mattered. Throughout the evening, service was practically perfect, as a restaurant this expensive should be.

The wine list is heavily French, with good selections at all price ranges. Eric Asimov’s wine column last week was about the Jura, a region seldom featured on New York wine lists. Sure enough, Oceana had one, at $57, the Jacques Puffeney “Cuvée Sacha, 2001. The sommelier accurately described its nutty flavor, so we ordered it and were not disappointed.

We are not quite sure why, but the wine and two cocktails were comped. We never introduce ourselves as food bloggers, and though the staff surely noticed our camera, lots of people take photos without posting a review—not that this blog is that influential anyway. Anyhow, it was rather dull-witted of us not to notice this until the next morning, as we would have left a much larger tip.

We point this out in the interest of full disclosure, but we are quite sure that our conclusion would have been the same. We were sold on Oceana.

Oceana (1221 Sixth Avenue at 49th Street, McGraw-Hill Building, West Midtown)

Food: ***
Service: ***
Ambiance: ***
Overall: ***


The Payoff: Oceana

We’re rather late with this week’s edition of The Payoff, as in five days late. Our only excuse is that we’ve been busy.

Anyhow, the news is that Oceana is still great. Who knew? We all do now, thanks to last Wednesday’s three-star review from Frank Bruni:

I RARELY hear people chattering about Oceana anymore. They don’t mention it as a special-occasion restaurant they yearn to try. They don’t mention it as a favorite they circle back to.

Say the restaurant’s name even to some diners who diligently canvas the city’s dining scene, eager not to lose touch with anything noteworthy, and you can tell that Oceana has slipped away from them…

But more than a decade and a half since it opened, Oceana presses on, still proud, still vital, still very much worth boarding.

Its owners, the Livanos family, who also operate the Greek restaurant Molyvos and the Italian restaurant Abboccato, obviously care about Oceana, which they’ve steered through several chef changes: from Rick Moonen to Mr. Gallagher, and then to Ben Pollinger, who took over in late 2006.

Like a number of other people, I was skeptical when this review was announced. Given the rarity of re-reviews, I thought it made more sense to review Oceana when it moves next year, rather than now, when it’s nearing the end of a sixteen-year run in its old digs.

But Bruni made a persuasive case that the review made sense. Although he doesn’t admit it, about 90% of his reviews are really just confirmations of critical judgments the market has already made for itself. It isn’t often that he can actually draw attention to an excellent place the food cogniscenti had ignored. As far as I’m concerned, he can do that all he wants. It’s never too early to celebrate excellence.

We and Eater both anticipated a demotion to two stars. We both lose on our hypothetical one-dollar bets.

              Eater          NYJ
Bankroll $96.50   $120.67
Gain/Loss –1.00   –1.00
Total $95.50   $119.67
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 44–21   47–18

Rolling the Dice: Oceana

Every week, we take our turn with Lady Luck on the BruniBetting odds as posted by Eater. Just for kicks, we track Eater’s bet too, and see who is better at guessing what the unpredictable Bruni will do. We track our sins with an imaginary $1 bet every week.

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni reviews the three-star seafood palace, Oceana. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 8-1
One Star: 6-1
Two Stars: 3-1 √√
Three Stars:
Four Stars: 90-1

The Skinny: Oceana has been around a long time. It replaced an old French standby called Le Cygne in 1992, earning two stars from Bryan Miller. Rick Moonen’s arrival in the kitchen prompted a two-star re-review from Ruth Reichl in 1994, which she bumped up to three stars in 1997. After Moonen left to open his own place, Cornelius Gallagher took over, and Oceana’s three-star status was reaffirmed by William Grimes in 2003.

Gallagher is long gone, but if you check out the Times website, it still says, “Oceana has found a new chef, and a new surge of energy. It feels, in fact, as fresh as one of its fish.” At least, it will say that for a few more hours. That surge of energy dates back to the Grimes review. So Oceana was probably overdue for an update, but we have to wonder about the timing, given the move to a new address planned for next year. The Times waited this long, so couldn’t they have waited twelve months longer?

No matter. The question is, what will Bruni say? Our own experience with Oceana isn’t particularly relevant. Gallagher was still there, and it was two years ago on Valentine’s Day, hardly the best day to test a restaurant’s mettle.

We have to agree with Eater that two stars is the most likely outcome here. Oceana has become a three-star backwater—a restaurant no one talks about. Bruni tends to give three stars to places that generate a lot of excitement. If Oceana is doing that, it hasn’t been written up in any of the publications I follow. I have no idea what Oceana deserves, but I have a pretty strong inkling of what Bruni will say it deserves: two stars.

The Bet: We agree with Eater that Frank Bruni will msot likely award two stars to Oceana




Note: As of May 2008 Abboccato was apparently searching for a new chef de cuisine.

For me, Abboccato was a “when I get around to it” restaurant — a place that looked interesting, but not enough to make it a special priority. Well, I finally got around to it, and it turns out Abboccato is terrific. I should have tried it a lot sooner, and so should you.

Abboccato comes from the Livanos family—the same folks that run Oceana and Molyvos. It’s not a bad trio to be associated with. The chef is Jim Bostacos, who has bounced around town, and earned three stars at Molyvos. But he’s half Italian, and he made the hop to Abboccato, where the Livanos gave him more creative control.

abboccato_outside.jpgIn October 2005, Marian Burros of The New York Times (subbing for the vacationing Bruni) awarded a fairly enthusiastic two stars, finding considerable potential, but a few dishes over or under-salted. In New York, Adam Platt (in the days before he awarded stars)  liked the place too, but found the menu overly long and complicated—a problem many Italian restaurants seem to have these days.

The menu seems to have undergone some editing since then; it is now a more focused document than Platt found it. There are the obvious categories of antipasti ($14–16), primi ($22–26),  secondi and whole fish ($32–38), and side dishes ($8). There is also a pre-theater prix fixe (we arrived too late to sample it), and a pasta tasting menu at $55 per person.

Whether Marian Burros’s complaints have been addressed is harder to judge on one visit, but everything we tasted was without fault.

abboccato01a.jpg abboccato01b.jpg

To start, we shared an order of the ravioli ($22). Silky-smooth pasta pillows were lined with wild greens, and glazed with a riccotta and bone marrow butter sauce. We moved on to the branzino for two ($70). The server presented the whole fish for inspection, then whisked it away to be filleted. There was nothing complicated here, but there didn’t need to be. The fish was simply grilled, with olive oil and rosemary, and served with a garnish of crushed olives.

abboccato02.jpgWe finished up with the Mascarpone Cheese Cake ($9), topped (improbably) with a strawberry-pink peppercorn sauce that managed to work, despite the odd name.

There were a couple of odd service issues near the beginning of the meal: a too-eager server taking our wine order before we’d even been shown menus; bread served without butter or olive oil. But things settled down after that.

The restaurant was not even close to full at prime time on a Saturday night, and that’s too bad: Abboccato deserves much more attention.

Abboccato (136 W. 55th Street between Sixth & Seventh Avenues, West Midtown)

Food: **½
Service: **
Ambiance: **
Overall: **½



A friend and I had dinner at Molyvos the other night. We both ordered a Sea Bass special ($30), which was cooked to perfection — crisp on the outside, tender on the inside, and perched atop a bed of vegetables. I wasn’t very hungry, so all I had with it was the house cabernet ($12), which was unremarkable.

Molyvos has settled into a happy middle age. Ruth Reichl, reviewing for the Times, was utterly smitten in 1997, awarding three stars. Five years later, Eric Asimov was still enthusiastic, but took the restaurant down to two stars.

I have a sense that Molyvos is executing a well-trodden path competently, but isn’t doing anything that would make it a destination. Maybe it’s because there are a lot more Greek restaurants today in Molyvos’s class than there were in 1997.

The ambiance is a comfortable faux Greek, and we were pleased to be seated at a large table that could easily have seated four. It was a happy contrast to restaurants that insist on putting you at a two-top, even when it’s clear they’re not busy.

Molyvos (871 Seventh Ave between 55th & 56th Sts, West Midtown)

Food: *½
Ambiance: *½
Service: **
Overall: *½


Oceana on Valentine's Day

Note: This is a review at a former location. Click here for a review of the new location and chef.

I am mindful of restaurants’ tendency to over-charge and under-perform on special occasions. (Picholine on New Year’s Eve was my latest experience of that kind.) At the venerable seafood palace Oceana on Valentine’s Day I am happy to say that we were not disappointed, although I suspect it is possible to have a better meal there than we had.

For Valentine’s Day, Oceana pared its cuisine down to a six-course tasting menu priced at $125:

Smoked Cod Chowder
Virginia Ham, New Potatoes, Pepperjack Cheese

Crisp Iceberg Lettuce
Marinated Vegetables and Bacon-Buttermilk Dressing

Duck and Pistachio Terrine
Frisee, Cornichon, Mustard and an Apple-Onion Marmalade

Steamed Halibut
Spaghetti Squash, Edamame, Lotus Nuts, Kaffir Fish Tea

Loup de Mer in an Almond Tea Crust
Baby Bok Choy and a Jura Wine Emulsion
Short Rib of Beef Braised in Red Wine
Winter Vegetables, Fingerling Potatoes Garlic-Herb Beef Jus

Valentine’s Day Dessert Sampler
Sarsaparilla Ice Cream Soda, Banana Strudel,
Warm Chocolate Tart, Blood Orange Sorbet

You’ll note that the only decision for the diner was Loup de Mer or Short Ribs for the fifth course. (Anyone who’d come to Oceana and order short ribs needs to have his head examined.) I do realize the need for restaurants to simplify on such a busy night, but I think a professional kitchen could offer more variety than that.

The smoked cod chowder, the duck & pistachio terrine, and the loup de mer—a house specialty—were all superb. I especially would have liked more of the cod chowder and the loup de mer. That’s always the drawback of a tasting menu: no matter how good a dish may be, it’s gone in a few bites.

My friend wasn’t fond of the iceberg lettuce salad, although I thought it was just fine, if unmemorable. For me, the low point was the steamed halibut, which was dry and had left all of its taste in the poaching pan.

The desserts were first-rate. I could have done without the sarsaparilla ice cream soda (basically melted ice cream that you sipped with a straw), but I can’t complain about one dud when they give you a four-item sampler.

Paired wines would have been another $100 a person. Here my rip-off alert went into high gear. For well under that figure, one can select a superb white from Oceana’s long wine list, and come home with cash to spare. Oceana also has a fine selection of half-bottles, and you could even sample a few of those without spending as much as the house wine pairing. As it was a work night for both of us, we settled for cocktails followed by a half-bottle of chardonnay ($38), with which we were delighted.

Including beverages, tax, and tip, the meal came to $398. Nobody would call that inexpensive, but for a three-star restaurant on Valentine’s Day, it was one of the better special-occasion meals I’ve had.

Oceana (55 E. 54th Street between Madison & Park Avenues, East Midtown)

Food: ***
Service: ***
Ambiance: ***
Overall: ***