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On the Menu - Oceana's menu draws from global pantry

Cornelius Gallagher sources fresh seafood the world over to pair with seasonal bounty

Tartare of Yellowfin Tuna, a signature menu item, is cooled with horseradish sorbet. - Oceana
Joan M. Lang
May 01, 2005

Global seafood is the niche that Executive Chef Cornelius Gallagher has helped carve out for Oceana, and that approach informs everything from purchasing to menu development at the New York City restaurant.

“I didn’t set out to specialize in seafood, but when the job opened up here, it gave me the opportunity to work with it,” says Gallagher, who came to Oceana in June 2002 after stints at Bouley, L’Espinasse and Daniel in New York.

“I didn’t want to pigeonhole the menu as ‘French seafood,’ however, because I also have a lot of experience with Spanish, Belgian and Asian cuisine.”

Because Oceana is owned by the Livanos family of Molyvos and City Limits Diner, there are also ample opportunities for Greek influences. All in all, it’s a successful global pantry.

The menu, which evolves continually throughout the year to reflect the many microseasons of nature (from spring’s glass eels and fava beans to the Jerusalem artichokes and Nantucket Bay scallops of winter), amply showcases this worldly bounty. Cold-weather seafood preparations include hearty soups and warming stews, while the summer gives over to lighter, simpler preparations with plenty of fresh vegetables.

Although the focus is always on pristine-fresh seafood, the kitchen is not afraid of bold flavors and distinctive accompaniments. Scallops are paired with butternut squash, black trumpet mushrooms, toasted walnuts and apple-cider vinaigrette. Australian sea bass comes with spicy organic carrots, French lentils and thyme with pork-roasting juices.

Oceana’s signature Tartare of Yellowfin Tuna, one of two dishes that have never come off the menu (the other is Loup de Mer en Croute), gets punch from daikon radish, black cardamom, turmeric and horseradish sorbet, which helps the fish stay pleasingly cold in the mouth. You don’t often see seafood and fruit paired, but at Oceana, pan-roasted striped bass comes with creamy endive, speck ham and lingonberry-chicken jus, and the loin of Atlantic swordfish is accessorized with Agen prunes and an Armagnac shellfish sauce.

Global influences are everywhere on the menu: Eight Hour Mulligatawny Soup, with spice shrimp, toasted coconut cream and Middle Eastern spices; Nigiri Zushi Freestyle, to the kitchen’s whim; and Pan Roasted Skate with tomato confit, Parmigiano Reggiano orzo and zucchini roasted garlic vinaigrette.

Not surprisingly, Gallagher sources seafood from all over the world, working with nearly 20 different purveyors with access to products from France, Greece and the Mediterranean, Hawaii, Asia — you name it. He buys fresh Everglades frog legs from Gary’s Seafood in Orlando, Fla., live Scottish langostine from Scottish Wild Harvest in Plainfield, N.J., and piballes (tiny glass eels) from Browne Trading in Portland, Maine. He’s found sources for Hawaiian blue marlin and Spanish carabinero shrimp, so fat and red from eating krill that they stain the fingers of anyone who peels them.

Gallagher cultivates these relationships with care; many were first established when he was at Daniel.

“That gave me a leg up, because sometimes when you’re working with new suppliers, they’ll test you,” he explains. “They’ll give you their best stuff for the first month or so, and then the quality starts dropping off.”

Gallagher has had no such problems since coming to Oceana.

“I know if I order something from, say, Bobby DeMarco of Peerless Seafood [in Brooklyn, N.Y.], it’s always going to be perfect.”

Gallagher’s sous chefs are programmed to be his eyes and ears at the back door, doing all the actual purchasing, ordering and inspection of product as it arrives. In fact, Oceana is very much a chef-driven restaurant.

When Gallagher took over almost three years ago, one of his first orders of business was remodeling the kitchen to make it more streamlined and easy to work in. The production flow was changed completely, with a capacious central plate-up area instead of the old chef’s pass with room for only one person. The huge old griddle was replaced with individual flattops at all stations, which cook more quickly, minimize damaging flare-ups and allow for more segregation of different kinds of fish. Big, space-eating reefers were replaced with efficient under-counter lowboys, and the wattage in the overhead lighting was doubled to make the food much easier to see. Even the cookware was changed.

Collectively, the changes have had a major effect on how the kitchen crew perceive their jobs, says Gallagher; the level of professionalism in the back of the house was boosted. The new setup also allows him to supervise every single plate that goes out, for both lunch and dinner shifts.

Specials also play a role in the dynamics of the kitchen. Oceana’s sous chefs have sole responsibility for any number of high-profile features, from daily specials and VIP extras to the components of elaborate 10- to 15-course tasting menus.

Work with sous vide cooking techniques (a French method whereby foods are slow cooked in their own juices in sealed pouches) has led to the development of several new recipes, including salmon slow cooked in melted duck fat.

“Slow cooking is an amazing way of handling some kinds of fish,” says Gallagher. “You get the cooking medium just barely heated, so that you can keep your finger right in it as you count to three seconds, and a 7-ounce piece of fish will take 15 to 20 minutes to cook.

“As soon as the albumen begins to bead on the surface, you know it’s done, but just in case we’ll insert a cake skewer into the fish to make sure it encounters no resistance. That’s why you’ll see cake testers at every station.”

No wonder Gallagher considers a job in the kitchen at Oceana the equivalent of a “school in fish.”

May 2005 - SeaFood Business


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