By Jan Walsh // Photography by Beau Gustafson
When Ocean celebrated its 15th anniversary in March, executive chef and owner George Reis paid tribute to former chefs and bartenders by featuring them as guest chefs and bartenders during the week-long celebration. But after the celebration and shared memories, there was no looking back for Ocean. Reis immediately rolled out an exciting new menu. And this is only the beginning of the next chapter for this restaurant, as it aspires to elevate its cuisine, creating cutting-edge seafood dishes you won’t find anywhere else in town.
Ocean underwent a lovely remodel in 2016. But they did not change where they keep the good stuff. Just beyond the hostess counter and on display are fish and lobsters on ice. Atop the marble oyster bar are Alabama’s own famous oysters—ready to be opened and slurped. The dining room is awash in coastal blue and white, creating an airy ambience. Ocean boasts two bars—one overlooking the open kitchen and trickling waterfall and another on the covered patio. And Ocean also has spaces to host private parties and special events, for 10 to 200 people.
Chef Reis was born in the Midwest and raised in upstate New York. After living in New York, Dallas, the Gulf Coast and Atlanta, George realized his dream by moving to Birmingham and opening Ocean in March 2002. He later opened 26 next door, which he eventually closed to open 5 Point Public House and Oyster Bar. But Reis is not alone in his pursuit of excellence. He graciously credits his key players: floor manager Larry Denmark, chef de cuisine Jason Daniel, sous chef Cory Bolton, and bartender Ronnie Moore.
For this review we dined twice: the finale night of the 15th anniversary week and a couple of weeks later to taste the new menu. On our first night, Moore lit up the night with his Vulcan cocktail by flaming the orange twist for this deep dark rummy drink. We also enjoyed The Storyteller, a peachy, frothy, golden concoction served in a martini glass. In addition to the house cocktails, there are also lists of temperance drinks and oyster-friendly beverages.
On our second visit we began with Ghosts of Sloss, a tasty treat made with fresh, squeezed-to-order grapefruit. And sommelier Carlos Cisneros treats us to a unique experience with the sparkling wine Movia Puro Rosè 2006, which he disgorges table side. It is beautifully dry, medium in body, offering grassy and yeasty notes, with a generous and lasting effervescence. We pair it with appetizers of Crab Salad, Lobster Roll, and Halibut Sashimi. The new crab salad is a gorgeous mix of fresh crab, compressed watermelon, cucumber, and pitted mustard seeds, topped with micro greens, and served with tasty, crisp, house-made naan crackers. The lobster roll’s bread is fresh and light, overfilled with bites of lobster in a tarragon aioli that adds the perfect balance of creaminess and acidity. Ocean flies its halibut in whole, overnight from Yakutat, Alaska. Thus the sashimi—with sesame, ginger, chive, and ponzu—sings with freshness.
For entrees, we enjoy Wasabi Pea-Crusted Lobster Sushi, Red Grouper with Spring Succotash, and Flounder with Lobster. The sushi is pristine and exceptional, served in eight pieces with a fried lobster atop the middle piece. The succulent halibut entrée rests atop a beautiful, black summer truffle risotto with wild mushrooms and fresh, spring asparagus, and is crowned with a taste of citrus—blood orange foam. And accents of watermelon radish and absinthe béarnaise further enhance this delicious dish.
The red grouper is grilled to a light gold on the outside and is white and shiny on the inside. It is accompanied by a spring succotash of diced green tomatoes, fava beans, and pickled jicama apple slaw, adding layers of texture and acidity. For dessert, our caramel lava cake oozes hot caramel into the whipped cream on first cut, making it a hot and cold sensation, and a dessert to remember. •