Mark Grosz is old school, and I mean that in the best possible way. He learned his craft by working at top restaurants here and abroad, most notably under Jean Banchet when Banchet and Le Francais were in their prime. And he runs a superb restaurant, a gently gracious dining room that hearkens to a time when people sought restaurants for relaxation, not energy.
But "old school" doesn't mean "frozen in time." As his Evanston restaurant, Oceanique, approached its 25th anniversary (the celebration will be in February), Grosz decided it was time "for a new set of clothes," as he put it. The entire front room was gutted to create a sparkling new bar, and throughout that space and the dining room there are new ceilings, new wall treatments, carpeting for the formerly bare floors and, in a modern touch, a long front-room communal table used mostly for waiting customers and those dropping in for the inexpensive bar menu.
Most notably, the renovation reduced the restaurant's capacity to 70 seats, down from 90. That's what you call commitment.
As the restaurant's name and Grosz's background suggest, the restaurant specialty is seafood and the cooking style is French. But this only tells part of the story; Grosz weaves a great deal of Asian and Latin ingredients into his work. "These are exciting times to be a chef," he says. "We're cooking in a world without borders."
Oceanique's menu follows the standard a la carte format, though there also is a tasting menu ($105, seven courses) available. Either way, there will be an amuse-bouche to start the meal and an intermezzo halfway through, and if you show up on a slow night, Grosz has been known to send out a midmeal amuse, perhaps a sliver of some entree not ordered. Your meal might start with halibut ceviche, bordered by pickled leeks and the plate dotted with carrot oil and potato chips, and later you might be surprised with a sliver of Spanish turbot, with sea beans and a ginger-lemongrass reduction.
Asian influences show up in Grosz's treatment of scallops, which can be had as thin sashimi slices, along with yuzu marmalade and scatterings of pomegranate, dragon fruit and arugula; or beautifully seared, under watermelon-radish ribbons and over house-made kimchi and a lobster-soy-sake reduction. Another sake reduction, this time with ginger, graces grilled calamari, topped with pieces of fried nori and zesty sprinkles of crushed candied ginger and lemon.
There's plenty of French left on the menu, beginning with an artistic presentation of chicken liver mousse capped with madiera gelee; it sits in the center of the plate, with its accompaniments — fried quail egg, manchego cheese, pickled cabbage, olives, walnuts, mustards and toast — encircling the mousse like paint blobs on an artist's palette. Slow-cooked halibut swims in shallot butter and a pinot noir sauce, and meat eaters can choose filet mignon with escargots and chanterelles, or duck confit with foie gras, Belgian endive and spaetzle.
The star dish is the lobster — at $44 not the menu's priciest entree, and it's a mere $25 on Wednesday evenings — in which the generous chunks of meat mingle with beets, basil-potato slices and pea tips in a vivid yellow, yuzu-saffron sauce that contributes welcome citrus accents. The oddity is the salmon; the fish is beautiful, sitting proudly on a bed of pureed butternut squash, but the seasonings are uncharacteristically aggressive — turmeric and spiced-up poblano, along with Mexican corn — so that the dish seems out of place here. It's not a bad dish by any means, just conspicuous.
Credit pastry chef Abel Garcia with some picture-perfect desserts, in particular the pots de creme with chocolate, caramel and butterscotch, along with whipped creme fraiche, shards of chocolate and chocolate-dipped gooseberries. There's also a beautiful Napoleon with crispy puff-pastry layered with vanilla mousseline, and a day-night cake of chocolate cake, chocolate mousse, chocolate ice cream and chantilly creme.
The wine list is an oenophile's dream, offering prize vintages, some of them very rare and, yes, some at prices to which sticker shock would be a mild reaction. But this represents another commitment by Grosz to offer his patrons the best (and, no, it's not all triple-digit vino here). If you're drinking less, the by-the-glass selection is very good.
Service is excellent; Oceanique gets a lot of little details right. One visit, I had time for a drink before claiming my table, and when I was ready to be seated, of course my drink was effortlessly transferred to my table check. I'm so inured to the ubiquitous "you need to settle at the bar" policy that it doesn't even bother me any more. But I notice when a restaurant graciously remembers who is supposed to be accommodating whom.
Finally, Oceanique has a sense of humor: Amid the menu's standard disclaimer about the risks of undercooked seafood are admonitions to "look both ways before crossing the street," "never trust a skinny chef" and, of course, "try the fish."
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.Oceanique
505 Main St., Evanston
Tribune rating: 3 stars
Open: Dinner Monday-Saturday
Prices: Entrees $23-$47; seven-course tasting menu $105
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.