Crowded Waters

Is Oceano Bistro just another fish in the sea?

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.

Oceano Bistro seeks to stand out from all the other fish in St. Louis' sea.
Robert Boston
Oceano Bistro seeks to stand out from all the other fish in St. Louis' sea.

Location Info

Map

Oceano Bistro

44 N. Brentwood Blvd.
Clayton, MO 63105

Category: Restaurant > Contemporary

Region: Clayton

Details

Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon.-Fri. Dinner 4-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 4-11 p.m. Fri., 2 -11 p.m. Sat., 2-9 p.m. Sun. Brunch: 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat.-Sun.

Hamachi-avocado ceviche...$9 Blackened Ahi tuna...$11 Scallops...$16 Sole...$19

44 North Brentwood Boulevard, Clayton; 314-721-9400.

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.

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