For the first few moments after I walk into Oceanique for my 7 pm reservation I feel strangely disoriented. Although I’ve been informed that the restaurant has undergone some remodeling, I realize that I still have a picture of the old Oceanique, with its crimson walls, plush upholstery, and old-time Parisian charm in my head. Instead, I’m met by a more chic, minimalist design with warm, honey-colored tones, contemporary furnishing and decorative geometric patterns adorning the wall. The new look is less about evoking a particular time or place, and more about tasteful accents functioning as a sophisticated canvas for owner and head chef Mark Grosz’s food, which undeniably speaks for itself.
“After 25 years, it’s time for some new clothes,” says Grosz. This is just one part of larger scale changes happening in celebration of the restaurant’s 25th anniversary, as Grosz and his team re-imagine a modern version of the restaurant, which has served beautifully prepared French “gastronomique-style” seafood since before Chicago became the foodie city it is today. Grosz explains, “You need to change with the times. You need to adjust with what people want, and what people like in terms of ambiance and in terms of cuisine.”
This means the addition of a communal table, as well as a small plates menu that allows diners who don’t want to sit down for a formal multi-course meal to experience high-quality dining in a more relaxed environment. This menu also features some more student-friendly prices, such as market ceviche with yuzu and pickled asparagus, or a lobster sandwich with saffron-togarashi aioli on brioche for $7 each. Gone are the days when you had to wait for parents weekend to experience this fresh, inventively prepared seafood. The new menu is perfect for a date night or dinner with friends when you just can’t eat any more dining hall pizza. If the prices still seem a little bit steep, keep in mind, the restaurant also offers a 15% Wildcard discount.
Amidst all these changes, is a meticulous attention to quality that I got to experience firsthand when Oceanique generously offered to let me sample its classic seven-course tasting menu as a sort of introduction to the restaurant’s new experience.
One of the highlights was the wild Delaware skate with lemongrass, purple potatoes, and Tropea onion. Warm, buttery notes were tinged with a hint of citrus from the lemongrass. The pleasantly light, simple flavors of the dish showed admirable restraint, allowing the incredibly fresh, perfectly cooked piece of fish to shine in its own right. It showcased precisely what Oceanique does best. As Grosz says, “If people say they don’t like fish, we tell them to try it here. If they don’t like it here, then they probably don’t like fish.”
Another favorite was a single scoop of passion fruit sorbet that came between courses, which served as a testament to the fact that even something as small as a palate cleanser has the potential to make a lasting impression. As I took a bite, crystals of potent, vivifying tartness melted upon my tongue, giving way to a cool, refreshing sensation that lingered briefly afterwards. It was delightful as a light, fruity intermission between heavier courses.
When dessert arrived, it was clear that Oceanique knows a thing or two about creating a memorable final act. The Napoleon was an impressive sight, featuring no fewer than three layers of puff pastry filled generously with vanilla Mousseline, and served with berries and Valrhona chocolate sauce. The airy, delicate pastry was excellently balanced with the thick creaminess of the Mousseline. The small decorative swirl of Vahlrona was just enough to give the dessert a rich, luxurious quality without completely overpowering it, and was moderated well by the tartness of the raspberries. The dish as a whole was an enjoyably indulgent finale to the meal.
Equally important, the service throughout the meal was impeccable. It was characterized by that special type of attentiveness that makes you feel well taken care of, without ever turning into the stifling fine dining nightmare, where every time you take a sip of water, someone immediately descends upon your table, pitcher in hand.
When I ask him what draws him to fine dining, Grosz’s response is simple and unpretentious: “It’s about being together and enjoying life with friends. It’s called the art of the table.”
Perhaps that’s the secret behind Oceanique’s longevity in a business where such old age is unusual. With their consistently high quality French fare, their excellent service, and their willingness to constantly evolve along with tastes and trends, without sacrificing quality, Grosz and his team have created a space that encourages this special kind of joie de vivre. So whether you’re looking for a night of small plates with friends, or for a more formal degustation with your parents, you don’t need to look any further than Main Street, where you’ll find the masters of the “art of the table.”
Address: 505 Main Street, Evanston, IL
Hours of operation: Mon-Thu 5:30 pm-9:30 pm, Fri-Sat 5:30 pm-10:00pm
A special thanks to Oceanique for providing us with a press dinner for this review.