For their maiden launch into New York City's often treacherous restaurant waters, the Vancouver hospitality group Toptable sure plunged right into the deep end. Oceans, which opened a couple of weeks ago on that bustling Park Avenue South and 19th Street corner, is an expansive, ambitious, luxe seafood palace with seating for 220 across the vast, dramatic dining room.
It could have been a disastrous debut—even a third-full, this place would probably feel empty—but earlier this week, when miserable weather might have tempted a less hearty breed of city folk to cancel their plans, Oceans was humming and alive, with almost every table full by 7 p.m. There were dignified couples from Gramercy's old guard, packs of good looking party people filling plush circular banquettes, afterwork expense-account swells, eager fish-eaters with the resources to sink a bundle into a random weeknight dinner, and drinkers three-deep at the bar.
If nothing else (though there is a lot else; I'll get to the food it a minute), Oceans delivers on a very specific, difficult-to-achieve NYC restaurant experience: the glittering night on the town, good cheer all around, nowhere else you'd rather be. And while it's on the pricey side–our press dinner was comped, but it would have cost about $350 for two people, all in—Oceans is not some desperate, too-loud, money-grab clubstaurant. They are organized, serious, and excited about serving top-notch, sustainable, locally and globally sourced seafood in an environment of high-end hospitality.
The guy running things up front here is a native New Yorker, Thomas Yagoda, who has years of experience working with the likes of Bobby Flay (at Mesa Grill and Gato) and Marcus Samuelsson (at Red Rooster), and he steers this ship with confidence. But it's chef Andy Kitko's kitchen, and Yauman Kirana's sushi bar, that really makes Oceans worth considering for a special occasion meal.
We ate a ridiculous amount of food, which included one dish I would definitely get again, maybe even for a luxurious light meal sitting by myself at the bar: the Whole Fish Sashimi. You can pick whichever fish you want from the iced-up display case in the back, sitting right between the huge open kitchen and well-staffed sushi bar, and they'll slice it up thin and it serve it raw, with a bit of lemon and sea salt. I chose the Dorade, mostly for its manageable size (I had no idea what it would taste like), and it was fantastic.
Also great was the Maine Lobster Cocktail, the chilled sweet meat given plenty of bite by the horseradish-heavy cocktail sauce; the crisp-topped Maryland Crabcake, which was all crustacean, no filler; and the perfect pair of Seared Barnegat Sea Scallops, lolling on a layer of kaffir lime mousseline. And my companion declared chef Kitko's Faroe Island Salmon the best piece of fish she's ever had. Kitko's last gig was at glitzy Estiatorio Milos, but he told me he's been dreaming his whole life to run a kitchen like Oceans, and that passion really shows.
In addition to all the cooked, plated fish dishes (Japanese Madai Snapper, Hawaiian Walu, East Coast Halibut, and Mediterranean Scarlet Prawns are among the many other creatures available), there a full raw shellfish bar, plus a lengthy sushi/sashimi section of the menu, sold by the individual piece or in elaborate, but not overwhelmingly so, rolls. From the latter list we had the Rocketman, stuffed with peekytoe crab and topped with seared salmon, and the Alaskan King Crab, with avocado, and both really hit the spot.
We didn't venture into "Land" at this meal, but there are steaks, chops, and chickens waiting for you there if you want. We absolutely did get dessert though. The pastry chef is Jennifer Costa, and she whips up a half dozen or so tempting treats each night, including Buttermilk Panna Cotta, an elegant array of delicious little Mignardises, and a dense, showstopper of a 16 Layer Lemon Cake. The wine list goes on for nearly 50 pages, and, of course, there's an extensive selection of cocktail and lots of beers from which to choose.
Oceans is located at 233 Park Avenue South, at the corner of 19th Street, and is open daily starting at 5 p.m. for the bar, and 5:30 p.m. for dinner (212-209-1055; oceansnewyork.com)