“How do chefs think up such things?” asked my mother over the telephone from England. I’d just told her what I’d had for dinner the previous night at Oceana: skate stuffed with pastrami, trout with kimchee and lily bulbs, and tuna tartare with horseradish sorbet.
“They imagine different tastes and try to put them together,” I said. “But for it to work, they have to know what they’re doing.”
Considering some of the oddball creations I’ve had from young chefs who start experimenting before they’ve even learned how to make a decent sauce, it’s a risky business. But 31-year-old Cornelius Gallagher is like a chef on steroids. At Oceana, he’s not only coming up with some of the wildest combinations I’ve ever seen on a plate, he makes the seafood shine.
Oceana is a staid midtown restaurant owned by the Livanos family (who also own Molyvos), that’s been in business for over a decade in a small building wedged between Madison and Park avenues. The upstairs is decorated like the inside of a sleek yacht, all polished wood, with posters of Holland America and Cunard lines on the paneled walls. Downstairs is white and gray, like the first-class dining room of an ocean liner, decorated with murals of ships on the high seas.
In the fall of 2002, Mr. Gallagher took over after the departure of Rick Moonen, who was chef here for years but left to open RM further uptown. Mr. Gallagher has worked in the kitchens of Lespinasse, Daniel and Peacock Alley and has also done stints with Marc Meneau in France and at El Bulli in Spain. He has a solid grounding in classic technique, and his ideas, which come from all over the globe, are inspired.
“I want a dish to taste good, to be something I could eat over and over again, like rustic Italian cooking,” he said over the telephone.
Trout with kimchee, however, sounds like something to try only once, just to prove to the rest of the table how gastronomically tough you are (like ordering chicken feet in Chinatown). But I could eat Mr. Gallagher’s trout (Canadian steelhead) over and over again: The pink fish is slowly poached in olive oil with slices of ginger and lemongrass, leaving its flesh the texture of silk. The kimchee is not the gut-walloping stuff I’ve tasted in Korean restaurants, but delicate and lightly spiced. Lotus nuts and lily bulbs add texture, and the sauce is a thick coulis made with edamame soybeans.
The reuben sandwich at Katz’s Delicatessen on the Lower East Side was the inspiration for Mr. Gallagher’s skate stuffed with pastrami. He folds the skate over the pastrami, roasts it and sets it on a chiffonade of cabbage cooked in chicken bouillon, toasted walnuts and crisp slices of smoked bacon. It’s topped with mustard-Devonshire cream, the richness cut by a sauce made with huckleberry vinegar and fresh huckleberries.
Striped bass is roasted simply with butter, thyme and shallots, but Mr. Gallagher doesn’t stop there-nor does he round things off with, say, a dollop of mashed potatoes. Instead, he serves the fish on porcini mushrooms seasoned with a dash of lemon, tops it off with agen prune dressing and macadamia nuts, sprinkles it with sherry vinegar and spoons puréed kabocha squash on the plate. Two croutons made of cinnamon toast and a foaming vegetable stock with mashed graham crackers complete the picture. We looked at it with respectful awe, as did the young Japanese couple (both dressed head to toe in white) that was sitting at the next table.
Mr. Gallagher deconstructs the ubiquitous tuna tartare, serving it with a creamy horseradish sorbet instead of wasabi, and in place of a vinaigrette (which changes the color of the fish) he serves balsamic gelée in cubes. The tuna, hand-cut in small chunks, is wrapped in pickled daikon radish and served with a sauce made with black cardamom, crème fraîche and liquid smoke. It’s a knockout.
I wasn’t so impressed with the sashimi of wild hamachi, which had been pulverized between sheets of plastic wrap, this season’s trend. (Wylie Dufresne does it with oysters at WD-50, and I don’t like that slimy dish, either.) For me, the springy texture of hamachi is part of the point (as is the texture of raw oysters); I don’t like it soft and spongy. I preferred the meaty shrimp roasted in curry butter and served with pickled ramps in a rich blood-orange sauce laced with pieces of the fruit.
Mr. Gallagher makes the best gnocchi I’ve ever tasted, made with sheep’s-milk ricotta. “They’re like little balloons of helium,” said one of my friends after a mouthful. They come with paper-thin fennel, parmesan crisp and serrano ham, a lovely play of soft and crunchy textures.
Creamed wheat with roast cod sounds like some kind of perverse combination breakfast/dinner you might get in a hospital. But Mr. Gallagher flavors the creamed wheat with sage and places the perfectly cooked fish on top, along with grated turnips seasoned with cayenne and honey. It’s ringed with a buttery Riesling sauce and sprinkled with crisp pieces of chanterelles and speck ham, a brilliant combination.
Pastry chef David Carmichael’s desserts are beautiful to look at, and they live up to the rest of the meal. An airy chestnut Savarin is lavishly garnished with orange chocolate wafers, chestnut ice cream and candied chestnuts; banana strudel is served with a sublime banana-cashew ice cream. There is also a chocolate trio: a mint chocolate-filled fritter, warm chocolate cake dusted with hazelnuts, and a coffee-chocolate pot de crème, jauntily decorated with black and white chocolate cigarettes. And the sticky toffee pudding-an unctuous round ball served with black walnut ice cream, pomegranate sauce and candied black walnuts-is pure heaven.
As Oscar Wilde famously remarked, “Nothing succeeds like excess.” He surely would have been reduced to respectful awe if he’d had the chance to taste the food at Oceana.