A Tuesday evening in August, the thermometer barely budged from a hundred degrees: This is when a restaurant should resemble a bus station at 3 a.m., when the bleary-eyed, chain-smoking drunk at the bar is as likely to be the joint's owner as the neighborhood bum.
So I shouldn't need a reservation at Oceano Bistro. I almost didn't make one. But my fiancée and I step out of the heat into a crowd by the hostess' stand. Well-heeled types occupy every seat at the bar, nursing sweaty glasses of this-and-that, watching the Cardinals on the lone TV or much more entertaining the action around the open kitchen: fireballs erupting from sauté pans; line cooks hustling plates to the pass; servers reaching over shoulders and ducking under armpits to grab the correct orders.
The main dining room seats over a hundred, easy, and all but maybe three or four of the tables and cushy booths are occupied. Servers and bussers set the empties as quickly as they can. As the hostess leads us to our table, I see that the second, much smaller dining room (an enclosed patio, really) is packed as well. Is it mere coincidence so many have chosen this brutal evening to visit Oceano? Maybe. More likely: This is a new restaurant in Clayton, an area as favorable to new restaurants as any in this town. If I were here out of curiosity rather than professional obligation, I, too, would think this an ideal opportunity to score a prime table. Still, does that account for how busy Oceano is tonight? I'm not convinced.
We order drinks. I enjoy a glass of Nigl grüner veltliner from the decently varied by-the-glass selection. Its mineral edge is perfect for the dog days of summer though the $12 price tag is a bit steep. Still, how often do you find grüner veltliner by the glass? And I like how the server brings the bottle to the table and pours me a taste before filling my glass. (The wine list as a whole features predominantly domestic producers, though Spain, France, Italy, Australia and Chile do make appearances; of these, the Italian selection is broadest. Most bottles range from $20 to $60.)
Our appetizers arrive. On one plate thin slices of nearly rare "blackened" Ahi tuna are fanned across a bed of cucumber slices and topped with pickled ginger. There's also a spicy mustard sauce and two large crackers. The combination is refreshingly light and brightly flavored. The Ahi tuna is nearly as good as my favorite dish from two previous visits to Oceano: a ceviche of hamachi with slices of avocado and Sweet 100 tomatoes in a citrus dressing. The balance between the clean ocean flavor of the "cooked" hamachi, the mild avocado, and the acid of both the dressing and the tomatoes was fantastic. I wish there had been more avocado, though; once the few slices were gone, the dish's flavor tipped toward salty.
Our other appetizer is an assortment of nicely grilled vegetables: squash, onion and asparagus. There's a tiny crock of balsamic-brie dipping sauce much too tiny, since there are more than enough vegetables for four of us to share. Not that it matters. I forget about the vegetables even before the plate is cleared. I mean, I'm here for the seafood.
Of course. It's obvious. We're all here for the seafood and not only because seafood is more appetizing in this brutal weather than a pound of prime rib. Oh sure, we have seafood in St. Louis. But I think we want something more. More than sushi, as much as we love it, and more than a token entrée or two at our favorite bistro and definitely more than those crab-legs-by-the-pound or all-the-fried shrimp-you-can-eat type joints. We know that most of the old excuses for the lack of good seafood in the Midwest no longer apply, and we want a restaurant that goes beyond the tried-and-true crab cakes, salmon and tuna.
So on this putrid August evening, we've all flocked to Oceano. Maybe some of you will find what you're seeking here. Frankly, I'm still looking. The Ahi tuna and hamachi appetizers seem to be the exceptions, not the rule. Nothing's bad here, but very little on the menu overseen by executive chef Jon Lowe and Brian O'Brien, who co-owns the restaurant with Amer Abouwardah distinguishes itself from what you can find elsewhere in St. Louis.
Take the crab cake appetizer I had on a previous visit: It was good, nothing more. The only difference from decent crab cakes I've had elsewhere, a bracing lemongrass aïoli, was one of kind, not quality. When I ordered the crab cake, our server made a big deal of the fact that it was "95 percent" crab meat. Admirable? Yes. But shouldn't crab cakes made mostly with crab be the minimum standard for a seafood restaurant?
Likewise, on my previous visits even the best entrées were the least you'd expect from a place focusing on seafood. Exceptionally plump scallops served with white-truffle beurre fondue on the side were a tribute to good sourcing. "You don't even need the fondue," reported my fiancée. Sole stuffed with crab and lobster in a chervil beurre fondue relied on minimal fussing with sole's understated flavor.
Occasionally, the kitchen seemed to forget it was serving seafood. Salmon with a fennel-apple salad in a cider and grain-mustard jus lost any elegance it might have had thanks to the strongly flavored potato-bacon-arugula gratin accompanying it, a side more befitting an entrée of roasted pork. And tuna was served as though it were steak two massive hunks of seared fish sat at the center of my plate in a pool of smoked tomato-basil butter. The butter lacked enough flavor to stand up to that much tuna, and the dish as a whole save for squat, tasty gnocchi afloat in the butter was overwhelmingly salty.
Salt bedevils one of this evening's entrées, too: an otherwise bland linguini with clams and pancetta. The steamed shellfish sofritto with mussels, scallops, shrimp and clams in a rich, lemony broth fares better, though its pleasures are of the same basic kind as the crab cake. Truly strange is a crab "risotto": a soupy dish baring only a passing resemblance to an actual risotto. It's edible thanks to a generous serving of good crab meat. Again, though, you take good crab for granted at a place like this.
I have a pork chop brined in apple cider, one of three non-seafood entrées. Oddly, it's served standing sideways (that is, resting on its long, thin side rather than its broader bottom) in a roasted garlic-potato purée. Does the presentation improve its flavor? No but it does distract me from realizing the pork chop is no better or worse than those I've had at any number of similar restaurants. By a conservative estimate, there are more than a million plant and animal species in the world's oceans. With the opening of Oceano, I think St. Louis might have nearly as many bistros.