Earlier in February, Chicago hosted what has become the annual Restaurant Week. Many restaurants participated, all pandering to a wide range of tastes: American, comfort, ethnic, barbecue, street, exotic, and more. Thanks to frigid temperatures and work-related travel, I was only to take in about three restaurants. And even then, I opted to have my degustation from their menus rather than partaking of the offering from the Restaurant Week menu. I was not dissatisfied, to say the least. Now, one of the restaurants on the list was Oceanique at 505 Main Street in Evanston, Illinois. Seafood with a French influence, something more to the liking of Southern France along the coast. With an outstanding selection of seafood for the pescatarian in me, I paired the menu choices with a flight of mojitos. Flights are not on their menu, so Oceanique got big ups from me when the bartender complied and came up with a flight that won me over tenfold. Not having my camera then, it was necessary for me to return for a proper blog.
Much to my surprise, Chicago was in the throes of Chef’s Week during my return. I was in a mood to be truly experimental, so I had made up my mind that I was going to have another degustation and entrust the server and bartender to create an experience that would make my visit worthier than the first visit. Having secured a seat in the dining area across from the bar, taken the white balance for my photos and video, and happy that I was seated nowhere near anyone, I started with a l’amuse of Icelandic Arctic char ceviche wrapped in leek with a cilantro oil essence. It was served with cucumber, fresh seaweed, and crispy potato. By the time I had finished the l’amuse, a couple arrived and rather than sitting in the main dining area, they chose to sit at the table IMMEDIATELY NEXT TO ME.
For my first course, I had wild Maine lobster consomme. At most seafood restaurants, there is almost a guarantee of having a chowder or some bisque served. Oceanique deviates from the norm with ravioli of chantarelles, chunks of lobster, cilantro, and chopped carrots in a clear broth. Outstanding! Because I was being daring for what I wanted in my beverage selection, I had requested a flight of whiskey cocktails for my refined palate. The first, which was served with the consomme, was a slight twist on the old-fashioned — a blood orange old-fashioned. Blood orange, cherries, rye whiskey, and Angostura Bitters make for a rather refreshing whiskey cocktail, one that has made the plain old-fashioned fade from my request list.
A few minutes passed and then there was a second l’amuse to come to the table. This one was a butternut ravioli prosciutto with parmesan, and crispy sage, served in a brown butter reduction. Considering this was only a palate cleanser interlude, I was in my Food Magazine mode capturing the sight of it before devouring it slowly. Only in my dining experiences abroad have I had a l’amuse interspersed throughout dinner. Even at many of the high-end restaurants in Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, there may be one given at the onset of the meal. Oceanique again smashes the norm. Then again, it may have been because I was creative with ordering a flight of whiskey cocktails and the chef did not want me stumbling about after departing the restaurant.
The second course was a salad. One thing I have noticed in my restaurant excursions is that many are fans of beets. Oceanique has a beet salad in a mild vinaigrette that comes to life with a dollop of goat cheese. If ever I were to resort to a diet of rabbit food only, recipes like the one in the beet salad creation would become a staple in my salad recipes. Anyone who favours Thousand Island, ranch, or blue cheese dressing on their salad, should try the beet salad at Oceanique. And the whiskey cocktail that accompanied the salad was a Chartreuse Sazerac. This was another masterpiece, one of whiskey, Peychaud Bitters, and simple syrup with a lemon twist. The second course was absolute tops.
By the time I had completed the second course, another couple had come in and sat at the table on the other side of me. Plenty of room in the main dining area and lots of tables in the room where I was sitting and they needed to sit near and call some friends, who I gathered was supposed to join them. I sighed and after looking at some of the photos and video that I had captured, the third l’amuse arrived. This was wild Maine skate with leeks and carrots in a white wine reduction. Skate has a texture that is reminiscent of sea bass but slightly silkier. It may be different to some palates, but the flavour overpowers the feel of sinking your teeth through a flavoured cloud. If I could describe how love tastes, the wild Maine skate would be my example.
Up to this point, everything had been a winner. The third course is where I began to wonder why Oceanique was not on the candidate list for a Michelin star. Atlantic char served over mushrooms and puréed split green peas in a savoury reduction were all I needed to start my petition to Michelin to do the correct thing by Oceanique. I had forgotten to mention that I am not a fan of pork in my diet, so the dish came with a few bacon pieces that I moved to the side. However, the bloom in the taste was a true winner for the seafood lover in me. I had not enough compliments for the chef for such a divine course. And to the bartender, the Evanstonian that he mixed has now become my favourite whiskey cocktail. Made with Few white whiskey from an Evanston-based distillery, orange bitters, sweet vermouth, and a splash of Creole Shrubb rum, this cocktail was silky on the tongue and without a bite at the back of the throat. It was this third course that will certainly have Oceanique at the top of my list for the Top 10 restaurant excursions for 2014. And I may have to create a list of Top 10 bartender stations for the year also and add Oceanique to the number one spot in advance.
Allowing time to let the food and cocktails settle, I reviewed more of my photos and video so that I could get an advanced idea of what editing I would do later. Soon the final l’amuse came to the table, appropriately in the form of a berry pineapple sorbet, topped with blackberry and a dash of fresh mint. Having recently become an avid fan of sorbet, I was mumbling “Wow” with each mini scoop. After I had finished the last scoop, the second couple that came in and commenced to place phone calls was joined by two others who spoke in jovial and loud tones. Their need for loud banter became quiet when the bartender approached my table for the dessert course and the chef had come to the table to shake my hand. It had become evident that one of the women was from the South because when she saw the dessert offerings, she rattled off, “I do declare.”
The dessert course was for the chocolate fanatic in me — and in all the chocolate lovers who were not at Oceanique with me. The pot de creme is already a part of every chocoholic’s fever dream. This delight was served with blackberries, raspberries, passionfruit, and shavings of Godiva chocolate. You have to enjoy this dessert slowly. To gorge it down quickly would be a crime. Because I was supposed to abstain from desserts until my birthday in April, I initially had a bit of guilt. But I have been good in fending off my dessert desires, so I allowed myself a moment of weakness. To make matters even more wicked, the whiskey chocolate martini was enough for me to be okay with burning in hell. Journeyman wheat whiskey, Godiva white liqueur, half and half, and a splash of Kahlua, and the second woman at the table next to me was clutching her “invisible” pearls and mumbling, “Oh my,” while the men were in a trance.
One thing that my return visit to Oceanique has taught me is that it would be cliché and erroneous to say that if you have gone to one seafood restaurant, you have gone to all of them. The quality of the output from the kitchen is simply divine. Some of the offerings are to be appreciated by a finer palate, though. The term mixologist has been bandied about rather frequently as of late and having discovered that it’s used to reference bartenders, not disc jockeys and emcees, the mixologist at Oceanique deserves an award. The restaurant is not in the immediate downtown section of Evanston, which may make some express surprise when they discover where it is located. The prices are high, as the restaurant caters to high-end and fine dining. With there being a French influence, anything that purports to be French and comes at a cheap price should warrant a rapid dash towards the hills. And as my taxi driver woke me from my snoring on my way home from the restaurant, I paid my fare and spoke in a mock Southern accent: I am in love with Oceanique, I do declare.