Phil Vettel reviews Ocean Cut

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CHICAGO, Ill. -- When David Flom and Matt Moore opened C Chicago last year, they envisioned a fin-and-scales version of their exemplary steakhouse, Chicago Cut. C Chicago featured painstakingly sourced protein in the form of whole fish, priced by the pound; customers proved resistant to the notion of 2-pound fish at $45 per.

In May, the owners changed the name to Ocean Cut (neatly referencing its sister property), brought aboard the well-traveled chef Dirk Flanigan (who put The Gage and Henri on the culinary map and whose resume stretches back to the late, great La Tour) and unveiled a more budget-conscious menu.

Oh, you can still buy whole fish, and pay handsomely for it, but the price is fixed, bypassing end-of-meal check trauma. And Flanigan offers a good selection of standard entrees (fin-based and otherwise) and plenty of smaller plates. Dining at Ocean Cut will never be an inexpensive proposition, but the sticker shock has been muted considerably.

Indeed, the Elevation Menu, the restaurant's prix-fixe option, is one of the best deals in the city. Four courses for $80 may not sound so appealing at first blush, but in addition to three savory courses (at least three choices per course) and a chef-selected dessert, there is wine (one pour per savory course). And not just any wine; on the most recent menu, the five available wines included Dom Perignon '04, Kistler chardonnay and Flowers pinot noir, an incredible value. "You can go all red, or white, or a mix," says dining-room manager and sommelier Jason Platt. "Some people just stay with Champagne all night."

The rest of the menu covers all the necessary bases, including a couple of indulgent shellfish towers, a half-dozen crudo (the hamachi, with umeboshi, sesame and bird pepper, is especially good), oysters, crabcake and clam chowder. Borrowed from Chicago Cut's menu are four dry-aged steaks and something called "lobstercargot," a $29 appetizer (but it's huge) in which lobster tail chunks are presented en casserole with escargot butter and cream and a thick blanket of cheese, along with brioche croutons. (Apparently it's a popular dish at the steakhouse, but you'll never taste the lobster underneath that excess of cream, butter and cheese.)
Flanigan augments the basics with a few nifty, chef-y dishes. Pork belly and snails is an intriguing surf-and-turf; the crisped-on-top pork belly (just fatty enough in the middle) is topped with three rice-flour fried, basil-marinated snails, accompanied by a creamy goat-cheese vinaigrette. Flanigan places seared scallops on truffle-braised endive, surrounded by a foamed spring-pea broth; a beautiful dish of squid tagliolini matches a tangle of jet-black pasta to thinly sliced octopus, basil and fried garlic in a lightly briny tomato sauce.

"Ge Goki" is Flanigan's whimsical name for crab knuckles in Korean spices, riffing on the dish bulgogi. (I'm not fond of the name or the inevitable explanation; "crab bulgogi style" is likely to raise more questions than it answers.) The crab knuckles, very meaty and split for convenience, get a quick dunk in marinade (soy, ginger, chilies, mirin, sesame) and arrive under a pile of julienned vegetables. It's a very good dish in search of a better label.

He also fashions an Ocean charcuterie platter of brandade, smoked sable, seafood sausage (shrimp, lobster, scallop) and eel and foie gras terrine, along with vivid-green persillade sauce, fennel mostarda and mustard; the terrine, with its alternating layers of barbecued eel, foie and fresh eel, is the star of this plate.

Fish entrees stick to the tried-and-true (whitefish, tuna, salmon), but I've no complaints about the halibut with uni butter and spring vegetables, nor the caviar-topped swordfish with compound butter and black-pepper sauce (a nod to steak au poivre).

Flanigan is much more restrained regarding whole fish, where simple preparations defer to the quality of the product. Dover sole is a $55 indulgence, but it's a delicious one, filleted tableside with all the ceremony (and rich brown-butter sauce) this royal fish deserves. Snapper ($40) offers sweet, lean meat with a gentle nuttiness. When it's available, gurnard is a treat, a meaty but mild fish much favored by the sustainable-fish crowd; it's so ugly it's cute, and a single gurnard ($45) yields enough meat for two.
Desserts show considerable ambition; even the Key lime pie, a holdover from the C Chicago menu, is a visual treat, presented as a round lime-and-cream ball coated with crunchy feuilletine flakes. Flanigan contributes blackberry genoise cake, topped with strawberry cremeux, alongside blackberry sorbet and charred strawberry jam; a chocolate vacherin that layers chocolate cake, pastry cream and raspberry, sealed in tempered chocolate ganache; and a very pretty composition that combines lemon-yuzu curd, strawberry-rhubarb sorbet, tea-poached rhubarb, compressed strawberry and sugar-crystallized basil.

I'm happy that the decor hasn't changed, because this is one of the prettiest dining rooms in River North, offering soaring ceilings and white-linen tables with plenty of room to stretch out. Chairs are upholstered in green, the color echoed in the waiters' ties, held in place by Chicago city flag pins.

Service, particularly wine service, is personable and professional, putting customers at ease without skipping any of the finer points. Like Chicago Cut, Ocean Cut has a computer-tablet beverage menu, great for browsing, but when Platt is on the floor, I just consult with him.

One caveat is that I was recognized so early in the game (maybe five minutes into my first visit) that I might as well have announced my arrival at the top of my lungs. I should try that sometime.