Oceanique in Evanston has been wowing diners with its French-American cuisine since 1989. It seems fitting that chef-owner Mark Grosz has given a facelift to the restaurant and menu in celebration of 25 years in business (February 2014). You're in for a treat.
The restaurant has a very urbane feel with a glittery bar back and long tables so reminiscent of the nouveau-chic esthetic espoused by nearby Gold Coast dining spots. But turn the corner and you're met with tables and banquettes for a more intimate feel but with plenty of space between tables.
Plan on spending at least a few hours at this dinner-only establishment (metered parking is $1.50 for two hours), especially if you choose the chef's tasting menu. It's an excellent way to try a variety of offerings so you'll know what to order next time. And, trust me, you will be back. I was lucky to enjoy recently the seven-course (eight courses if you count the sorbet intermezzo) Summer Dégustation Menu ($105) with wines paired by wine director Philippe André.
Wine-paired dinners come in three levels and at three price points -- $65 per person for the introductory cru, $99 per person for the intermediate cru and $199 per person for the grand cru pairing.
We started with Wild Maine Lobster "Salad" with caviar, buffalo mozzarella imported from Naples, basil and avocado paired with a French N.V. Duval-Leroy Brut Champagne. André says he chose the Pinot-heavy wine as an introduction to the palate, sort of a warmup before gym class, that could stand up to the first course's explosion of flavors on the palate, and balance the acidity and richness of the caviar and the sweetness of the lobster and cheese.
Second course was Wild Maine Day Boat Scallops with lobster-soy broth, housemade kimchi and cilantro. André paired this with a 2007 Brooks Library Release Riesling from the Willamette Valley in Oregon. What a delightful match this was for the aggressiveness of the Korean kimchi. Not the typical sweet Riesling most Americans are used to, it was dryer with a white rose petal nose and bright acid, lychee nut and citrus fruit notes.
Third course was Butternut Squash Ravioli with fennel, crispy sage, walnuts, pancetta and brown butter paired with a Spanish 2006 Heredad Soliterra-Priorat Grenache. André says he chose this blend of Carignan, Movadre and a hint of Shiraz for its mellow berry-fruit and smoothed-out tannin qualities to balance the richness of this course.
Next up was the Organic Spanish Turbot with mushrooms, bacon and turnips paired with a 2007 Dusky Goose Pinot Noir from Dundee Hills, Ore. André chose this wine for its purple, violet, floral notes, black cherry and blueberry fruity notes and nice acid. Typically, fish is paired with white wine (or so was the old-school way of thinking). But since there were earthy mushrooms and a tarragon Merlot sauce in this course, he went with a Pinot Noir.
The fifth course was a pleasant intermezzo of Citrus-Sorrel Sorbet that needed no wine since its intention is to cleanse the palate before the big guns arrive tableside.
Sixth course came in the form of Hudson Valley Duck Confit with foie gras, Belgian endive, spaetzle, fig and black currants and quail egg paired with a 2009 Cypher Winery "Monarchy" from Paso Robles, Calif. This proprietary blend of Malbec, Petit Verdot and a hint of Tempranillo was bold enough to stand up to the richness of duck prepared confit style.
Dessert was Chocolate Pot de Crème and Summer Berry Tarte paired with one of my favorites -- 10-Year Mas Amiel from Maury, France. Typically, desserts are paired with Port but André wisely selected this 100% Grenache that is richer than a Port and can stand up to the chocolate dessert while still pairing nicely with the berry tart.
"In my opinion, Port shouldn't be enjoyed with food. Definitely not dessert, not even cheese. It should be appreciated on its own, perhaps just a glass outdoors under the stars," André says.
Chef Grosz's food is meticulously prepared. Almost all of it is made inhouse, including the bread, pastas, desserts, ice cream, sorbets and juices for cocktails. Great care goes into the knife cuts, plating and the sauces are oh-la-la, so good, so French. The wine expertise is on a par with some of the great European restaurant dynasties.
The service is knowledgeable, unobtrusive and likable. China and silver are whisked away only after requesting permission from the diner. I like that. Sometimes there's one tiny crumb of deliciousness left on a plate that I intend to finish and, poof, before you know it, it has been relegated to dishwashing heaven.
Something else I really appreciated was being asked how I like my seafood prepared -- rare, medium or well. Typically, seafood is prepared one way and, often, overcooked. Not here.
Oceanique has won Wine Spectator magazine's Award of Excellence every year since 1994 and is recognized as having one of the 750 best wine lists in the world. And Oceanique has been ranked as the number one seafood restaurant in the Chicago metropolitan area by the Zagat Guide since 1993.
Enough said? Here's something else to mull over. Every Wednesday, Oceanique features a $24 lobster dinner special to celebrate 24 years in business. Next year, it will be $25. Get the picture? Just go already.
Address: 505 Main St., Evanston, IL 60202
Hours: Open for dinner at 5:30 p.m. Closed Sundays.