Kimchi and Calamari: Jazzed Up Seafood Hits the Right Notes at Ocean House Restaurant
We are all pleasure seekers looking for a good time. It’s human nature and most often the sole purpose of vacations. Getting away, seeing new sights, tasting new flavors—it’s as important as air, water, lemons and limes.
We are fortunate to live on a 339-square mile island called Cape Cod, where it is estimated that 5.23 million tourists visit yearly, with 65 percent of those visitors here during the Cape’s three warmest months and the other 35 percent spread out through the back nine. Within those three precious months a kinetic tornado of controlled chaos ensues. People stand in line for reservations that were penciled into hostess books and filed under “fantasy”. Beaches bulge with bathers, while lines of over-heating cars creep east over the bridge. Young, green waitstaff are pushed into service, only to crumble like oyster crackers under the pressures of the seasoned server’s glare. Menus are often streamlined and simplified while carefully concocted cocktails have unwelcome shortcuts stirred into them to keep up with the fevered pitch. It’s a natural hyper-vacuum that occurs everywhere in the world that experiences such a catapult of culture in such a short window of time. We accept it, in fact we flock to it, because fast and busy is how we live. Life often feels like a runaway train, even when we’re seeking our pleasures, which is one of two reasons why we chose to write about the Ocean House Restaurant for the fall issue. This article is being written in the steam of that seasonal locomotive, and we needed a reliable brake man—or in this case a brake woman—so we retreated to Janet Barbato’s restaurant on Nantucket Sound in Dennisport for a delicious evening of complete R&R.
Anyone who has sought out the pleasures on a cruise ship will be instantly transported back on board while walking toward their table at the Ocean House. Grand archways offer views of the open ocean, with ne’er a speck of land in sight. It’s as if somewhere in between handing off the car keys to the valet and the hostess pulling out your chair you’ve covered 200 nautical miles. The only reminder that you’re not out in the middle of the Atlantic is the occasional seagull gliding by the dining room’s massive windows, and a glimpse off to the west of the restaurant’s Beach Bar and Cafe. But before our table of four shoved off on its culinary adventure, we asked to take a tour of the engine room, which, at 5:15 pm, is already at full speed ahead.
To make the assumption that a commercial kitchen is the hottest place to work in the middle of the summer would probably be correct, and Executive Chef Anthony Silvestri’s kitchen is no different, in spite of its cathedral ceiling. A row of saucepans is trembling over red-hot flames and the resonant knock of heavy porcelain plates and bowls—which seem to be stocked in every size and shape imaginable—is the most significant sound throughout the kitchen.
The four men behind the line are quiet and focused on two things: their kitchen chits and how to make those chits come alive on the white porcelain. Among them there is almost 40 years of manning the Ocean House pass: Chef Silvestri, who is celebrating his eighth season as the Executive Chef; veteran sous chef Nick Branchut, who has been with the restaurant for 15 years; and Bernie Macedo and Michael Jacek, both line cooks for eight years.
The food being plated in Chef Silvestri’s kitchen exemplifies grace under pressure. Many of the appetizers and entrées look as though they have been created by skillful food stylists, despite the fact that the kitchen staff is not only cooking for the dining room guests, but also a packed bar and lounge and the new bustling oceanfront beach bar.
Inventive twists crown otherwise commonplace classics like crab cakes, which are drizzled with a sweet kimchee peach sauce, and fried calamari jazzed up with cherry peppers and chorizo. Chef Silvestri understands that a beautiful painting deserves a suitable frame, which explains the towers of bowls and plates ranging in so many shapes and sizes.
Part of our first course was on the way out of the kitchen, so we followed it to our table. Yellow Fin Tuna Tartar “Ice Cream Cones”, a signature dish at the Ocean House, turned every head as it was brought to our table. The eye-catching composition includes four miniature cones held upright in what can only be described as a cone holder. The four miniature sesame-flecked cones—tiny bites of sushi-grade tuna with a gentle bite from a ginger vinaigrette and wasabi foam—are the perfect sharing appetizer if you’re sitting at a table of two or four (an odd number may cause the loss of a friendship).
If any menu item showcases the kitchen’s creativity it’s the New Age Bento Box, which changes nightly. This evening’s offering included rich lobster mac and cheese bites, roasted jumbo local sea scallops in a chorizo and corn cream, local littlenecks steamed in white wine, quinoa vegetable cakes in a killer cilantro vinaigrette, and the highlight—we all agreed—chilled fresh lobster and rice noodle salad with creamed peaches. It was bursting with ethereal waves of summer flavors. The $34 price tag of the evening’s bento box seemed expensive when first soaking up the menu, but it covered four individual culinary cravings and showcased the Cape’s typical local bounty in some not-so-typical ways.
After graduating from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, Silvestri honed his culinary skills at various restaurants on Long Island, but it was a six-month sabbatical that changed everything when he packed his bags to soak in the flavors of Hawaii, New Zealand, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia. At these exotic destinations, Silvestri sought out the most experienced culinary professionals and offered himself up as an apprentice. He took cooking lessons from any of the locals who were willing to share their knowledge. These worldly influences and Silvestri’s exposure to exotic ingredients and spices—especially from his stint in Singapore—can be seen and tasted throughout his entire menu. Upon his return to the United States, Silvestri headed home to his native Long Island and opened the now iconic East by Northeast in Montauk, where as an executive chef he showcased his new love of Pan-Asian flavors. In 2005 he and his wife Tamara, a front-of-the-house crackerjack, moved to Yarmouth Port where they now reside with their five-year-old triplets: Sophia, Cole and Blake.
Fresh and seasonal is a pronounced theme on the Ocean House menu, and in that vein, fresh salads are showcased and prepared with whimsical elegance. On the menu is the no-nonsense-named 10 Vegetable Summer Chopped Salad with fresh romaine, kalamata olives, cucumber, tomato, summer corn, celery, onion, red pepper, artichoke and chickpeas topped with Maplebrook feta cheese tossed in red wine vinaigrette. We went with a salad a bit closer to our hearts: Miss Scarlett’s Mixed Greens, featuring tomatoes, red onions, Parmigiano-Reggiano and dried miso in a truffle soy vinaigrette. Miss Scarlett’s Blue Ribbon Farm in Yarmouth Port happens to be a chicken egg’s throw from Silvestri’s house and you can find him there on any given morning perusing what farm owners Jim and Susan Knieriem have for his menu.
“I started buying from Miss Scarlett’s last year, but the volume that the Ocean House does in the summer made it challenging,” Silvestri stated. “Jim and Susan would often buy from other local farms just to help me keep enough items on the menu that were Cape Cod grown. This year Miss Scarlett’s turned things way up!”
The excitement builds in Silvestri’s voice as he talks about the farm. “They’re growing bok choy, Chinese pole beans, Vietnamese shiso (a kind of mint & basil hybrid), lemon basil, Thai basil, Italian basil, and just about every size, color and sweetness of tomato known to man!” Also from the farm is a bok choy hybrid called pok choi, which recently made it onto the menu along side a cedar-roasted Chilean sea bass with Chinese sausage, summer basil and yellow tomato vinaigrette.
Whether talking about the bread he gets from Pain D’Avignon Bakery in Hyannis, the Cape Cod Potato Chips that “crisp” the night’s fresh cod, or product found over the bridge like meat from Pineland Farms in New Gloucester, Maine, Silvestri has a passion for his suppliers. And the feeling is mutual. The second reason we went with the Ocean House for this season’s Through the Pass was at the urging of the Ocean House’s biggest fans: Susan and Jim Knieriem of Miss Scarlett’s Blue Ribbon Farm.
Back at our table more food has arrived. Three slabs of perfectly grilled yellowfin tuna with “forbidden” black rice, crispy bok choy and a sweet chili and black bean sauce were calling me back to my chair. One of my dining companions ordered arguably the highlight of the menu—the G.G.L. Roasted Local Lobster. Weighing in at around 2½ pounds, steamed in ginger, garlic and lemongrass and served “lazy style”, the only effort the diner has to exert is to figure out which of the four dipping sauces to plunge into first: the drawn butter, the drawn butter with citrus, the tangy chili sauce, or the kimchee cream sauce, a perfect blend of spicy, sweet and salty, bold enough to stand up to the lobster meat, but not so creamy as to add to the richness of the moment. Aside from an order of perfectly grilled Pineland Farms ribeye with lobster mashed potatoes, sweet corn, tomato salad and basil, all our dinners were from the sea (although there is a great deal to chose from for the landlubber), so we ordered a luscious bottle of Meiomi Pinot Noir, a favorite at home, and fairly priced at $45. The wine list is a perfect companion to Chef Silvestri’s menu, but the inventive cocktail menu is truly a list to behold and should be examined on its own (see sidebar opposite page).
The dessert menus delivered to the table came with a high bar, and pastry chef Debbie Kimberg met that bar with ease. Debbie has been with the Ocean House for four years, and is the reason countless locals, who may have even eaten dinner elsewhere, end up at dark-wooded lounge for something sweet with their nightcap. As the dessert deliberating began at our table, something brown, gooey and magnificent was waltzed by on the way to another table. It was the Chocolate Bag Sundae for Two—a large “bag” made out of chocolate and filled with vanilla gelato, chocolate and caramel sauce, brownies, banana and whipped cream. The menu states “for two” but following the previous courses of hearty portions we figured one bag would be perfect for the four of us. That is, until we spied Warm Chocolate Molten Cake with coconut gelato and berries and Key Lime Pie with toasted marshmallow, graham cracker and brown sugar crust-crushed blueberries on the menu.
As we each secretly tried our best to cover the mess we had made of our section of white linen, Janet’s daughter Kari Anne Reardon, who is hostess and reservations manager, stopped by our table to ask how the evening went. Laughter and joyful chatter from the tables immediately around us resonated with accents ranging from European to just up the street. Down at the Beach Bar the faces of diners were lit up with an orange glow from the setting sun. As the summer’s warm breeze met the autumn’s night chill, a circle of diners moved their chairs in closer to one another and a waitress kept the evening going, turning up the flame of a patio heater. Yes, this summer the pleasure seekers made it to Cape Cod once again, but it’s the ones who set their sails to the Ocean House Restaurant who found what they were looking for and more, and it tasted wonderful.
425 Old Wharf Road, Dennisport
508-394-0700 / www.oceanhouserestaurant.com
Lounge opens at 4:00 pm
Dining room opens at 5:00 pm
The Ocean House Cocktail Menu
Over the years, what has compelled me to become a regular at any given Cape Cod restaurant has evolved as much as my family has. The must-haves of years past have changed. Previously, it was all about a kids menu and quick service, whereas now I’m drawn to the spot that offers ambiance, a knowledgeable waitstaff, tantalizing food and even better, an intriguing cocktail menu. If you are like me, you yearn for the place where the drink is as good as the food. Welcome to The Ocean House.
I have a confession to make: during my numerous visits here, I have never sat in the dining room. I guess my many years of working as a bartender have taught me that the food is just as good at the bar or lounge and the drinks are often better. There is just something about the sound of the bartenders wielding their shakers. However, snagging a coveted barstool or two in the high season at Ocean House is like hitting the number. Odds aren’t always in your favor. Plan B is to request a table in the lounge. Be forewarned: the service in here is always more than efficient even though table placement is pretty tight.
Once seated, it’s all about studying the diverse cocktail menu. My drink selection invariably comes from the “straight up” section. For one solid year, every trip to the Ocean House included the Blackberry Patch: fresh blackberry coulis, (a reduction of blackberries, sugar and liqueur), Grey Goose vodka, St. Germain and fresh lemon juice: an integrated, well-balanced blend of flavors. My cousin Cheryl prefers the Cactus Flower: silver tequila, hibiscus cordial, fresh grapefruit and lime juices, and a dash of agave nectar. My friend is a huge fan of The Pear, an intriguing mix of Grey Goose vodka, Belle de Brillet (produced by infusing Brillet cognac with the essence of pears), organic pear nectar and garnished with a fresh pear slice. These drinks are available in two sizes—7½ and 10½ ounces—so the novice can opt for the smaller version.
Over the last season, a new obsession has pushed my old favorites aside: the vodka infusion. An infusion is created simply by adding fruit, herbs or spices to a base liqueur to create your own customized blend. The Ocean House offers up the traditional Stoli Doli (pineapple-infused Stolichnaya vodka) along with my personal favorite, the Blackberry & Raspberry Infusion. I have made attempts to replicate this at home to no avail. Bartender Jamie says to get intense flavor he allows twelve days for the flavors to peak before straining out the fruit. The resulting elixir is then shaken and strained into a sugar-rimmed martini glass. Though the coloration is faintly reminiscent of the ZaRex I poured over shaved ice in my youth, beware: this is no kiddie drink! This seemingly innocuous blend has the tendency to be a “creeper.” Its effects tend to sneak up on you. Equally delicious are the cocktails on the sweeter side.
Who needs dessert when you can drink a delightful concoction like the S’mores (Godiva milk chocolate liqueur, Svedka vanilla vodka, Drambuie, and a splash of cream, all garnished beautifully with a graham cracker and cinnamon rim)?
If you are more of a martini “purist” or just want a straightforward classic cocktail, the mixologists at the Ocean House will not disappoint. The pour here is generous and the bar staff is always quick to offer up suggestions from the simple to the exotic.
I’ll admit that I probably can’t distinguish the house-brand Merlot from a fine vintage, but I do consider myself to be a bit of a cocktail connoisseur. Whether I’m looking to toast that special occasion or simply unwind with an expertly mixed drink, The Ocean House will be the place to find me.