Restaurant Reviews

Suburban salvation

Pity the poor suburbanite, adrift in a sea of asphalt from which chain restaurants rise like barren islands. Though he has eateries aplenty to choose from, why bother, when the food they serve is manufactured somewhere in the Midwest and shipped to Plano, Carrollton, or Flower Mound in plastic baggies? When each recipe is meticulously constructed to reflect the well-researched tastes of some demographic Everyman who prefers his food over-salted and over-sugared?

For the suburban exile contemplating his dining choices, it's clearly a case of waiters, waiters everywhere, and not a bite to eat.

That's why it's such a welcome event when a real restaurant opens in the 'burbs. The Ocean Grill is on the southern outskirts of Plano, offering locals one of the few decent dining options between their city and the Oak Lawn area. No longer do Planoites have to fight traffic or brave valets in order to enjoy a well-cooked meal in a pleasant setting.

Not that you could guess Ocean Grill's virtues from its exterior. Located in a typically unprepossessing strip mall at Preston and Frankford, the restaurant presents a declasse facade likely to scare off discriminating diners. Most restaurants in this class derive their names from a Romance language and have a valet out front. The Ocean Grill takes a different tack. With its pedestrian moniker and downscale storefront, the restaurant cries out "hush puppies!" and "fried catfish!" louder than a guilty conscience.

Once inside, however, it's a different story. You immediately realize this is a white-tablecloth joint, with no scent of fish and chips. The Ocean Grill achieves the relaxed sophistication it is aiming for with a cool white color scheme, walnut or dark cherry furniture, and an interesting track lighting design featuring wires strung from the ceiling hung with what look like old-time bicycle headlights. A wall-length mirror, a handsome armoire, a colorful aquarium, and a cozy bar round out the more obvious appointments. Small but telling touches, like scallop-shaped light fixtures, Mikasa place settings, and quiet, unobtrusive music help complete an atmosphere conducive to both gustation and conversation.

The Ocean Grill obviously is the work of a professional, in this case Dallas restaurant veteran Anson Chan, previous owner of Yoli's on Skillman and the Plano Cafe, both of which remain open. He's joined by Executive Chef Willem De Froy, a Belgian who was head chef at Sambuca for six years. Manager Bill Valentine, who also was associated with Sambuca, rounds out a seasoned team.

Though the menu still is evolving, the kitchen is aiming for what Valentine calls "New World Cuisine," basically meaning eclectic dishes of mostly Mediterranean, French, and Asian origin, with an emphasis on fresh seafood. The wine list features a limited but canny selection of accessibly priced California vintages, with a smattering of non-California wines tossed in.

Dining with two companions allowed for a sampling of starters, including fried calamari, fish soup, shrimp cocktail, and a Caesar salad. All fell within the "usual suspects" category and were competent, if not flamboyant. The final menu will include more interesting hors d'oeuvres like lobster tacos and scallop pastry, and it's to be hoped they will have a little more panache than the current lineup.

In honor of the late Jacques Cousteau, I chose the sauteed grouper with cucumber relish. Cousteau's divers always seemed to encounter this large, ugly fish with the petulant, Charles Laughton pug. Fortunately, it tastes better than it looks. Glazed and crunchy on the bottom, but tender and savory throughout, it provided a robust meal with enough left over to cart home.

Grilled marinated salmon and shrimp puts two seafood favorites on the same plate, with some pasta, in a blatant but effective attempt at crowd-pleasing. A good piece of salmon doesn't need much seasoning, and the marinara is mostly for the pasta and the shrimp, which was large and succulent.

Chef De Froy also knows his way around a chicken. The pesto-rubbed chicken breast had the texture of a juicy steak and came on a creamy, almost pudding-like bed of arborio rice. Side dishes included some very sweet grilled bell peppers, asparagus spears, and potatoes.

For dessert, we sampled bread pudding with vanilla sauce, and "chocolate towers," two shot-glasses high, diaphanous chocolate cups filled with fresh berries and cream. The bread pudding was good but a tad heavy for the heat of high summer, which calls for something more gossamer. The chocolate cups were right on the money--sweet, but light, cool, and creamy.

Throw in attentive, professional service, give the management more time to tinker with the menu, and you've got a very user-friendly, stylish dining spot perched on the edge of Plano, a place where trees and good restaurants generally are not suffered to grow.

Now, if it can only work in one of those plastic playgrounds for kids, Ocean Grill could be in business.

Ocean Grill. 18101 Preston Road, Suite 102. (972) 248-9983. Open Monday-Friday, 11:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 5:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.

Ocean Grill:

Fried calamari $6
Shrimp cocktail $6.95
Sauteed grouper with cucumber relish $14.95
Grilled marinated salmon and shrimp $17.95

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P.b. Miller