Once upon a time, there were seafood restaurants just like there were steakhouses. Rather upscale spots sporting old lobster traps and fake life preservers, they gave a sense of occasion to what was mostly a pretty exotic category of food. And then came air freight, bringing halibut and mussels to the masses. Nevertheless, the new Clayton restaurant Oceano manages to carry so me of that feeling of excitement at the idea of eating finny favorites.
Not, we quickly point out, that it’s decorated with life preservers. No, the light-colored interior with its arched ceilings that faintly remind us of New York’s Grand Central Oyster Bar is warmly contemporary. A glassed-in section on the sidewalk facing Brentwood Boulevard has the advantage from a noise standpoint because this can be a very loud dining room when it’s busy. The area’s also nice for brunch, when it gets a great deal of light, but not direct sun.
While the menu gilds the lily of a beet-and-goat-cheese salad by topping it with grilled octopus, we reluctantly passed it for other things, like a chopped salad with rock shrimp. The menu described it as having red chile, but aside from a couple of rings of red jalapeno, seeds intact, we didn’t see or taste much evidence of it. Nevertheless, it was a good use for the normally insipid rock shrimp, which seemed to bloom in their anointing with a tarragon dressing, giving them more flavor than we’d expected. This is a large salad, about the size of a lunch entree, but worth the gastronomic investment. Pan-seared calamari danced with roasted tomatoes and some nicoise olives, meaty and tender, not overcooked despite their arriving so hot they almost sizzled.
What’s described as a steamed shellfish sofrito resembled a seafood stew. Sofrito usually refers to chopped vegetables like onions and peppers that are sauteed at the beginning of preparation of a dish; it’s a common technique in many Latin cuisines. Never mind about the nuances of the name, though; this is a tasty dish, its rich broth catching all the nuances of the scallops, shrimp, clams and mussels without overcooking them. Our only quibble is that it’s served over a risotto cake, which is impervious to being soaked with the yummy juices. Make sure there’s enough bread on the table to go with this winner. Lemon sole stuffed with lobster was indeed stuffed with it, a lovely pair of bulging fillets that resembled pearly shells. The saucing was slightly thickened pan juices, mostly just pure seafood taste with generous chunks of lobster meat. And our Norwegian teenager, who gets so much fish at home that she heads straight for steak any time it’s on the menu, knocked off a hanger steak with a slightly fruity red wine reduction. Wisely, it arrived pre-sliced; with this cut, slicing across the grain is imperative. For a hanger, it was particularly tender. The risotto cake, which also included a little corn, came with this, too, as well as some tasty marinated tomatoes.
Even the teenager couldn’t finish off a slab of deep-fried cheesecake, although she allowed as how it was mighty good—the flavor somehow reminded us of a New Orleans beignet. We all agreed that the star of the dessert menu was a special, described as a pineapple crisp. The description isn’t quite accurate, but we’ll be darned if we can come up with a better one. It was closer to a very moist cake, the square filled with pineapple and coconut and topped with whipped cream. In many ways, it reminded us of a British-style pudding. Whatever it’s called, it’s unusual and worthwhile, not to mention delicious.
The Oceano brunch, served on both Saturday and Sunday, is something that Clayton (and its nearby farmers’ market) has needed for a long time, a starter of ceviche turned out to be more like sashimi, with slices of a white fish (sea bass, perhaps, or halibut) drizzled with a lemony mayonnaise and garnished with micro greens and peas. (The menu refers to them as English peas, the old Southern name which distinguishes them from crowder and black-eyed peas.) It was fine, with the fish flavor and texture only altered slightly by the acid in the marinade to permit the occasional, if inaccurate, description of the fish as "cooked." The omelets are described as four-egg. That’s a really large omelet, especially in this era, but if the one we received was actually four eggs, they were from bantam hens. It was well cooked, and generously filled with the requested sausage, peppers and onions. The crab Benedict was, in a word, outstanding. The English muffin was fresh but had some texture, the crab was large lumps, the eggs properly poached and the hollandaise quite classic.
The servers seem to know the menu pretty well, water glasses were kept full, and on a busy night, there wasn’t a huge pile-up at the door. Oceano has hit a nice point between formal and casual, and deliver good value for the price. And the wine list is adequate, through perhaps there should be a little more range among the whites. However, for a new restaurant, it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
44 N. Brentwood Blvd., Clayton
Lunch Mon.-Fri., Dinner nightly, Brunch Sat.-Sun.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair access: Fair