A new life on the Oceana

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The Independent Culture
OCEANA

Jason Court, 76 Wigmore Street, London W1N 9DQ. Tel: 0171 224 2992. Open Mon-Fri 12-3pm and Mon-Sat 6-11.15pm. Bar open Mon-Sat 5.30-11pm. Two-course set lunch and pre-theatre menu, pounds 12. Average price, pounds 28 per head. Credit cards accepted

Some weeks back, I had a fairly grisly evening at your expense at Hollihead, situated in Jason Court, a little passage off Wigmore Street opposite a hair replacement centre which featured in its window some rather disagreeable enlarged photographs of scalp disorders. The restaurant, which opened last October, was decorated in an affected modern style, served what the management at the time described as "Modern European" food which could have been better cooked, seemed to cater largely for overseas visitors, and reminded my wife of a Lebanese restaurant in West Africa. I suggested unkindly that unless readers wanted to be alone they should give Hollihead a miss.

Restaurant reviewing being an odd, if highly enviable, business, I found myself, last week, re-entering Jason Court. I hesitate to claim any status as the Butcher of Kensington - others, it seems, had been equally unenthusiastic - but Hollihead was finished. It had been relaunched by its young proprietor, Tony Kitous, picking himself up, as the American song has it, dusting himself down and starting over again, as Oceana.

Whether it was the anticipation of a new beginning or the fact that it was a very wet night, we got past the scalp disorders without too much distress, and went down the blue-carpeted stairs expecting a revelation, a complete refit. Accord-ing to the publicity material, the talented young chef Andrew Thompson had returned from the Lenox Room on New York's Upper East Side, and I'd pictured a Woody Allen-style intellectuals' eatery. Not at all. Same waiters, same blue leaf-shaped decoration on the ceiling, same high-backed chairs, same restaurant.

It took time to realise that there had, in fact, been some minor changes, proudly pointed out by the manager, Jacques Carlino. There was a new carpet in the bar. The reservation desk that had stood facing the door had gone. A more sombre and comforting carpet had replaced the designer's maritime fantasy pattern in the main part of the restaurant. There was a great deal of "art" still to be hung on the walls. But the real change was in the atmosphere.

M Carlino slightly pussy-footed about the possible reasons, but everyone felt it. My wife had muttered under her breath that there were an awful lot of men having dinner. Where they had come from, whether or not they were survivors from the wreck of the Hollihead, they seemed to be local businessmen. They yakked happily away, pushing their spectacles up their noses, shouting "Excuse me!" from time to time when they wanted something, but they were obviously having a good time. The new name, M Carlino thought, was important. The staff all liked it. Some people thought it suggested, wrongly, that they were exclusively a fish restaurant. The blue ceiling might remind you of a boat. Oceana sang, it had a nice sound. Hollihead, of course, had been the name of the former chef, Garry Hollihead. He thought he had been a good cook, but there had been perhaps just occasionally an uneasy atmosphere in the kitchen, some of the waiters had been alar-med. Not wanting to become involved in a libel case with Garry Hollihead I'll leave it at that.

The truth is, and I suppose anyone with experience of running a restaurant would have known it, that the "atmosphere" of it begins in the kitchen. Whether it was the relaxed mood of the waiters or the easy confidence of the proprietor, a young Harold Pinter lookalike, who strolled among the tables and helped out with bringing the food, the decor faded into a comfortable blur. When the food itself arrived the transformation was complete.

Oceana is now a place I can safely recommend. However Andrew Thompson might describe it, the food has that delicate balance of good native cooking with every kind of oriental influence that you find in the best restaurants in Sydney, and I suppose in New York. Among the starters, which included for the stout-of-heart, a warm salad of lambs' tongues, the most delicious was the marinated shrimp spring roll with a sauce of lime juice, chillies and ginger, though the steamed mussels in a red Thai curry sauce were remarkably good. There was also a tuna tartare with Szechwan dressing which we ordered as an extra dish as we were very hungry, also in the alpha class, served with crisp white noodles and a ring of sliced radishes and avocado.

The wine list concentrates on less expensive bottles from Europe, beginning at pounds 12 and with few costing much more, and on wines from the New World. We chose an Argentinean Norton Barbera 1990, at pounds 17, which began a bit sunburnt and colonial but got better and better. For the main course, there was steamed brill with a tomato and herb crust, seared red mullet with a bouillabaisse sauce, spicy quesadilla of auber-gine and courgette, as well as pan-roasted pigeon with braised cabbage and black pudding, roast chicken and sauted calf's liver. My wife had spiced pork belly with green lentils and shitake mushrooms, and I had braised ox-cheek Bourguignon with horseradish mashed potatoes, both of which were memorably good.

For pudding there was an outstanding praline souffle, and I regretted choosing the chocolate and banana terrine with coconut crisps - too sticky, and the coconut biscuit too dry an accompaniment - when I could have had apple tart or what looked like some excellent sorbets.

Tony Kitous will, I hope, be an encouragement to others. A relaunch is a risky business, and he deserves credit for getting it right.

Oceana also does bar food at lunchtime and in the early evenings, with smaller helpings of things like crispy fried oysters and barbecued quail for pounds 12 a head for two courses. Dinner for two of us, including the "optional" 12.5 per cent service charge, came to pounds 74.81.

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