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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
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
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.”