Restaurant Reviews

Wyland's Ocean Blue: Artist Should Stick With Palettes, not Palates

Wyland's Ocean Blue isn't any one thing. It's a restaurant. It's an art gallery. And it's a darn good parlor game.

The conceit behind the maritime eatery is that folks who like to look at paintings of drifting fish would no doubt appreciate finding the same composition on their plates. Ocean Blue's the first restaurant from Wyland (his first name's Robert, but please don't use it), the self-styled environmental crusader who's been churning out sea scenes for 40 years. If you've ever seen a dentist or gone souvenir shopping in Hawaii, you'd recognize his oils: He likes to paint porpoises silhouetted against setting suns.

There's some debate about how Wyland, a native Michigander, came to love the ocean. Internet sources attribute his infatuation to Jacques Costeau's television appearances; a restaurant staffer told me a more dramatic story, in which Wyland was struck with inspiration the first time he saw salt water. Whether he flipped on the TV or took a beach trip or whatever, thank Neptune he did, because—as Wyland's website says—"few artists in history can match the influence of Wyland."

I'd love to buy in to the Wyland mystique. But I can think of more than a few artists who've been at least as influential as Wyland. What's fun is playing the game of picturing them in the restaurant business.

Did Cezanne ever contemplate opening a fruit stand? Did Breugel's friends suggest he do double duty as a pub owner in Brussels? And what of those poor, talented artists whose works didn't lend themselves to cross-promotion? What would Picasso or Miro have put on their menus?

When I first heard about Ocean Blue, I assumed servers would try to upsell prints and posters along with dessert. I envisioned a restaurant wedged into an art gallery, with price lists on the tables and shoppers circulating the room. I had it all wrong.

It's hard to imagine anyone stumbling into Ocean Blue, since the new Villages at Fairview development is still so far from everywhere that there's only one cab driver who services the area. But say an eater somehow ended up there without knowing that the restaurant was an entry in the Wyland Empire. I'd wager he'd leave none the wiser. That's because there's no indication the dozens and dozens of paintings on the walls are for sale, and the formal gallery space is in a side room where most restaurant guests never go.

The goal of Ocean Blue is not necessarily to unload art. Like Wyland Chardonnay, it's designed to build the Wyland brand, which is already well-established in Dallas' northern suburbs. An employee told me Wyland decided to open the first outpost of his planned nationwide chain in Allen because the highest concentration of Wyland collectors is found there. Ocean Blue gives Wyland diehards a chance to live in Wyland world.

If that's an item on your bucket list, you likely won't care that the corporate-blessed menu of food is ho-hum and that the service staff has already put its chain face on, greeting guests with an enthusiastic "How you guys doing?" You'll probably be too delighted with the three-dimensional Wyland fantasia to notice.

Ocean Blue's décor isn't exactly daring—it makes use of the same vinyl chairs and wooden tables that surface in every casual dining restaurant. But the bar undulates like a wave, and the main room is bathed in aquatic blue light.

The fish in the aquarium are the only living sea creatures in the building (and, no, you don't get to choose your dinner). There are figurative fish everywhere, though: The forks are finned, and the bathroom faucet handles are shaped like dolphins. Ocean Blue doesn't do everything it could to complete its "Under the Sea" theme: The stereo's set to the Dave Matthews Band instead of Paul Winter. Still, the restaurant has an agreeably distinctive look.

I've now written more than 700 words about Ocean Blue and haven't yet told you what I ate. If I were reading a review, that would worry me, and it should worry you too. The food isn't terrible, but it tastes like an afterthought, which perhaps isn't surprising in a restaurant designed to advance the career of a man who paints gray-whale murals on the walls of airport terminals.

Ocean Blue deserves credit for keeping endangered and over-harvested fish off its menu. Rather than tangle with tricky issues of sustainability, the kitchen seems to have opted to keep most fish off its menu: There's halibut and salmon and snapper. That's it. The menu implies there's a daily fresh fish special, but the only specials I heard about involved non-finned seafood.

Ocean Blue's crazy for crab, which figures in two appetizers, one salad and four entrées. My favorite was the crab and lobster cakes, made from picked meat minced so thin a hummingbird could weave a nest with it. The cakes, joined by a purple cabbage slaw drenched in chile oil, were deeply fried in what the menu billed as a coconut crust, but the filling was sweet and flavorful.

Chile oil showed up again with a serving of slightly undercooked calamari, this time mixed with mayonnaise in an Asian-esque sauce. While the calamari skewed mushy, the plate got a bit of textural pop from accompanying pickled peppers.

The least successful starter I sampled was the crab and shrimp stack. Ocean Blue's guiding seafood philosophy is "heap it on": The only shellfish allowed to leave the kitchen alone are the fried oysters, shrimp cocktail, steamed mussels, crab legs and lobster tails. Otherwise, Ocean Blue works on the buddy system: A baked stuffed shrimp, which I didn't try, is stuffed with crab and lobster. The Ocean Pasta's ensemble cast includes shrimp, crab and scallops.

The stack, a pressed column of diced mango, avocado, dry crab salad and interlocking curlicues of rigid prawns, is extraordinarily old-fashioned, if that term can be extended to include 1998. Completing the late 20th-century look, the off-puttingly dense stack is served on a balsamic-drizzled square white plate.

While Wyland hasn't yet tapped the mammalian portrait market, Ocean Blue acknowledges its guests might prefer beef, duck and pork to seaborne entrées. There are six "from the land" dishes on the menu, including an osso bucco my server identified as his favorite. But since it felt sacrilegious to eat steak with my fish-tailed fork, I stuck to the swimming proteins.

A grilled snapper was nicely cooked, but a Mediterranean-style salad of olives, peppers and onions strewn atop it clouded its clean flavors. Fortunately, the topping wasn't distasteful. On the other hand, plump scallops were rendered nearly inedible by a sweet vanilla sauce. The scallops were misguidedly caramelized, giving the dish a snickerdoodle cast.

The single seared sea scallop affixed to the halibut Oscar, the restaurant's best-selling dish, was kept safely out of reach of a similarly cloying fruit butter sauce. Impaled on a rosemary sprig, the scallop outshone the crab-stuffed fish.

I wish Ocean Blue would let its fish and seafood sing solo, but that's not going to happen. As his watercolors and brush paintings make clear, Wyland likes when dolphins and whales and clown fish swim together. And this particular vision most assuredly belongs to him.

Wyland’s Ocean Blue 311 Town Place, Fairview, 972-549-4007, Open 11 a.m- 12 midnight Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Saturday. $$$