During my high school days, there was a singer by the name of Cheryl Lynn. You may remember her songs “Got to Be Real,” “Shake It Up Tonight,” and “Star Love.” Here we had a woman with the pipes of an angel and who could stand flat-footed at the microphone and belt out a song without any studio magic — or that awful auto-tune phenomenon — to cover up poor vocal talents. And she did not shake her rump like she was performing in a Bollywood video. I loved the songs that Cheryl Lynn graced the airwaves with. But there was one song in particular that I played endlessly when I had first heard it. “Encore.” Your good loving deserves an encore, she would sing. And when I find myself returning to certain restaurants, I am reminded of how much “Encore” applies and I all but bring my own microphone and perform for others at the restaurants.
Earlier during the summer I went to a relatively new restaurant in Oak Park, Illinois, named Seven Ocean. Sitting at 122 N. Marion Street in the cobblestone stretch among boutiques and cafes, I was thoroughly impressed with the dining experience and the service I had received. Granted I had a prix fixe meal along with a wine pairing, I walked away feeling that the summer menu was absolutely brilliant and the chef will make a mark in the culinary world if the restaurant continues to perform with an air of high calibre affectation. Now that the temperatures had started to become consistently chilly, that being autumn was in the air, I wondered if Seven Ocean was one of those restaurants that changed their menus to be reflective of the seasons. The answer, in short, was yes and there was, of course, the tune in my head of Cheryl Lynn singing my favourite song.
While having a quick stroll through Oak Park and having stopped in at a nearby dessert shop for a quick cup of coffee, I sauntered over to Seven Ocean and allowed the magnet to pull me on in completely. Although there were no comfy sofas and chaises placed strategically throughout the restaurant, there was the sound of boutique jazz playing in the background that made everything that more inviting. I still think that the design was done per a man. The straight lines and muted olive earth tones were nothing akin to flash, flair, reds, and curves. The aesthetics of the restaurant are too stiff, and that may be why the food is the antithesis of the cosmetics of the restaurant. Talk about a well-placed balance. Because I had sampled the summer fare from the prix fixe menu, I settled for creating my own menu selection.
Often I like to request recommendations from the server as to what he or she would prefer. That works brilliantly at times, but it is a bit of a presumptuous thought that the servers know exactly what I want and will suggest bill of fare items without me wincing. Many times, I do believe they have been so worked to near spiritual defeat during their work hours that they appreciate someone requesting his or her own meal. There are moments when you can hear the sigh from servers as though air is being released from a deflating tire when you lead in with, “What would you recommend?” In restaurants where the faces change rather quickly, it helps knowing what you want before the server approaches the table to take the order. Having witnessed some fed-up servers make recommendations in a manner fitting for a saucy comedy club sketch, I showed a bit of a command for what I think is best for my palate — I should be an expert on my own taste.
My approach to the meal was to delight a multi-course meal with a pescatarian fare. I started with lobster stuffed gyoza. Japanese style gyozas filled with lobster, sitting atop shiso leaves and red cabbage, and glazed with a ponzu sauce was absolutely a great choice for a starter. The gyozas gave an Asian influence to the appetizer and perhaps had there been only one gyoza and I was at an Italian trattoria, I could have called it a l’amuse bouche. Alas, there was nothing left of the gyozas after a few slow minutes of me slicing, forking, and indulging. A few minutes passed and then there was the second course, a seaweed salad. Seaweed may not look all that appetizing when you are snorkelling, but Japanese seaweed, cucumber, sesame, and vinegar dressing never tasted so divine. The seaweed had the texture of well-cooked, thin green beans and the vinegar dressing entertained a citrus flavouring that would leave most questioning whether there was any vinegar in the dressing at all. There is something to be said for a salad looking so bland having such a bloom to its taste. Again, here was another course that had an Asian influence to it that did not fail.
In keeping with a Thai appeal, there was coconut soup. I was already quite enthralled with the first two courses, but the coconut soup as the autumn soup went over so well that I did not miss anything in the pumpkin or yam family doctored up with a hint of cinnamon, a dash or nutmeg, or a touch of allspice. There were crab meat, shimeji mushrooms, and tobiko that arrive in a bowl and then covered with steamed coconut milk. If you have ever been to a Thai restaurant, I guess I could relate the soup to tom kha. You may have recognized from my many posts on Thai restaurants where I have been that I have a very strong preference for foods influenced by Thai culture. The pairing of the herbs and spices in the recipes never fall short of works of culinary care, evident in the high notes of flavours in the dishes served. That same notion became apparent after a whiff of the coconut soup at Seven Ocean, well before the first sip. Also with the soup, I had a Sauvignon Blanc from a vineyard in New Zealand. Neither dry nor sweet, there was a hint of a floral note that made the wine a superb complement with the soup. I could not have offered a better wine suggestion and this was where I deferred to my server for an ideal selection of wine to accompany the meal.
By the time I was finished with the soup, I had convinced myself that nothing could possibly go wrong. Then the prawn yakisoba over Asian cabbage accented with soba sauce and fish flake that moved its own from the rising heat, came to the table. I had started singing “Encore” by Cheryl Lynn off key, making up words for the lyrics that I could not remember, humming the song in other parts, doing a little dance with my eyes closed, and then opening my eyes to see that some other customers and my server were staring at me. The prawn yakisoba was absolutely fantastic, but I had to deal with my embarrassment however I saw fit. It was just that in the meantime, the succulent, well-seasoned shrimp had a wow factor along with the noodles in the rich sauce. Another glass of the Sauvignon Blanc and there was no argument that the prawn yakisoba became, at that moment, my all-time favourite autumn dish. Realizing that I had already made a fool of myself with my singing and dancing, and I could not go back in time to catch myself, I began humming again. This time, I kept it low enough that no one could hear me.
When I first went to Seven Ocean, I had a dessert of sticky rice with mango and crème fraiche. During the evening of my most recent jaunt, I had a different take on the dessert. There was sticky rice but topped with a mango sorbet and then there was a moat of light mango soufflé around the scoop of sorbet. Brilliant, I thought to myself, as I enjoyed the magic of each spoonful. When the dessert was mentioned, I initially thought that I was going to have the same dessert I had during my first visit. Part of my misunderstanding was because I was still bandying the song “Encore” around in my mind while the server was telling me about the dessert. Oh was I glad I decided to have it instead of coffee. If someone were to ask me to define love, I would tell them to got to Seven Ocean and request the autumn version of dessert.
So, after all was done, I was very happy that I had gone to Seven Ocean for a sampling of the autumn menu. It was not only a meal, but it was an experience. Like all of the restaurants where I have returned for more than one visit, I was again taken in to the point where I made plans to return during the month of January or February to see what their winter menu will have for those who appreciate fine dining and something with an unconventional twist. Because Seven Ocean is up-scale, the price is reflective accordingly. The restaurant is not a showcase in fanfare or grandstanding. Simply put, the service and dining are smashing. Yes, Seven Ocean, your good loving deserves an encore.