Restaurant News & Reviews

Ocean Grill serves it fresh, simple

If your jaw doesn't drop at the price of the iced raw bar tower for two at Ocean Grill, it surely will when your waiter delivers it to your table; a lavish display of seafood on a two-tiered tower so large it nearly eclipses the tabletop.

And once you've tallied up your catch -- a generous mound of jumbo lump crabmeat, shrimp cocktail, Virginia littleneck clams and your choice of oysters from a selection of five or six varieties ranging from Apalachicola to Malpeque -- you'll realize that $35 is a reasonable price, after all.

But it isn't just the sheer quantity of seafood, or even the fact that it's all impeccably fresh, that impresses. It's little details such as the cheesecloth-wrapped lemon, the freshly grated horseradish on the cocktail sauce, the fact that the oysters are expertly shucked with nary a drop of their precious liquor spilled.

The raw bar tower is the most expensive thing on the menu, but in other respects it exemplifies the dining experience at Ocean Grill. One key to that experience is the freshness of the seafood, which includes half a dozen or more varieties of fish that are flown in daily and filleted on the premises. Another is that attention to detail, which shows up time and again, from the sprig of thyme pressed into the butter that accompanies your bread at the beginning of the meal to the paper bag in which sugar and spice dusted "donuts" are served in a whimsical dessert presentation at the end.

It's a good idea, too, to let the exquisite simplicity of the shellfish on the raw bar tower set the example when you're ordering the rest of the meal. With few exceptions, "simpler is better" is a reliable guide.

It doesn't get much simpler -- or better -- than the expertly broiled filet of tilefish that is sometimes offered as one of the Today's Fresh Catch selections. Or sauteed halibut, moist and flaky under an ethereally light, buttery crust. Or grilled cobia, its meaty flesh accented by subtle smoky notes of the grill. In each case, executive chef Franz Propst shows a sure hand in execution, as well as an unerring instinct for well-matched accompaniments -- Boursin mashed potatoes and blanched asparagus here, lemon caper butter and a leek potato cake there -- that compliment the fish without upstaging it.

While the chef's talents shine brightest in straightforward preparations such as these, they're sometimes obscured by more elaborate dishes. Some of the shellfish are overcooked in Low Country bouillabaisse. The tempura lobster roll would rate no better than average in a Japanese restaurant. And it's hard to believe that the same kitchen that served those pristine jumbo lumps of crab on the raw bar tower could turn out such generic crab cakes.

Shrimp "hushpuppies," on the other hand, are a delightful surprise. Turns out they aren't the the cornmeal fritters with bits of shrimp that you're expecting (at least, that's what I expected), but plump whole shrimp fried in a light batter whose shape does indeed resemble hushpuppies.

Service is friendly and attentive, though familiarity with the menu and wine list are variable. Fortunately, the California-leaning wine list offers helpful descriptions of its 40-plus listings (14 of which are available by the glass or split).

Ocean Grill is the second restaurant for Steve and Julie Adams, who also own the popular Peak City Grill in Apex. Judging by the crowds on weeknights as well as weekends, it appears that the couple have another hit on their hands. Chef Propst, who previously worked at Peak City Grill, is certainly capable of keeping the customers coming back for more.

The owners have created an exceptionally inviting space, too, commissioning local artists to decorate the dining room and bar in a contemporary nautical motif. You can almost feel the ocean breeze as you look up at the wavy band of shells and sand that run along the tops of the walls. And if you look closely at the bar, you'll discover tiny fish incorporated here and there in its faux-painted wood grain -- yet another one of those little touches that set Ocean Grill apart.