Makeover Hasn't Redeemed Restaurant Once Called 'Everything Wrong With Humanity'
By Anthony Todd in Food on May 25, 2016 7:50PM
The "fish market" at Ocean Cut. Photo via Ocean Cut’s Facebook Page.
"It's like we're eating dinner on the Titanic," my dining companion said, not-yet-ironically, when we sat down in the cavernous dining room of Ocean Cut (formerly C Chicago). This River North restaurant, now on its third concept and with a new menu by Chef Dirk Flannigan, has a gorgeous space and, seemingly, a can't-miss concept: good, fresh fish from a restaurant group known for good, fresh steaks.
We didn't know it yet, but sort of like those diners on the Titanic (but, of course, with less freezing and death), we were about to go down on a very expensive ship.
The initial reviews of C Chicago, the previous iteration of Ocean Cut, were mixed, with one review by Chicago Magazine referring to it, memorably, as representing "everything wrong with restaurants, and humanity." While that's certainly an amusing quote, I was determined to go into Ocean Cut with a totally open mind. I've enjoyed Flannigan's food before, I love a good crudo eaten in a capacious space with a grand staircase, and I was ready to have a good time.
The first round of cocktails came immediately, and were strong and good (if a restaurant with a steakhouse sister can't make a martini, it's got serious problems). We put in our order, beginning with a dozen delicious East Coast oysters.
Then we waited.
Approximately 45 minutes later (and this was on a not-slammed weekday), we got some briny sustenance. The servers were apologetic, and the oysters were good, but it was hardly an auspicious start. A scallop crudo with grapefruit and "burnt toast" was equally good, fresh, and delicious with a hint of scallop flavor and a matching hint of citrus, and a good crunch from the bits of toast. My spirits, for a moment, sang. Then I remembered that the kitchen did a good job with scallops back when Jeff Ruby reviewed it, and I got nervous.
Those scallops were the high point of the meal.
The ocean charcuterie at Ocean Cut. Photo via Ocean Cut’s Facebook Page
The ocean charcuterie was, frankly, a mix of terrible and nondescript. It's a variation on a charcuterie plate, except using seafood ingredients. This could be a good idea, I suppose, but ended up tasting mostly bland. The "seafood sausage" tasted like lobster dusted with Italian seasoning, and the foie gras and eel terrine went uneaten after the initial bite, a sad reminder of the fact that a goose (or its liver) should not under any circumstances have anything to do with an eel, unless the eel happened to leap out of the water and strangle the goose to death.
The original C Chicago was focused on whole, fresh fish, and a variety remain on the menu, so I had to try one. We were offered the chance to visit the soon-to-be-dinners resting on ice at the "market" near our table, but my dining companion balked. I chose Gurnard, which our server said would be firm and flavorful, and accepted his recommendation to order it grilled, rather than salt crusted.
Oddly, rather than actually flavoring the fish, the kitchen allows diners to choose a topping; in my case, bok choi with oyster sauce. The fish was utterly, completely tasteless. It needed a healthy dose of salt, which the bok choy and oyster sauce, poured tableside, didn't deliver, since it didn't actually cover the fish. If you took the time to dip each bite in the rapidly-cooling pool of sauce, you got a hint of flavor, but otherwise, you were left to contemplate the fact that you'd just spent about $50 on not very much.
The "salmon with toasted grains" tasted, to steal a quip from my dining companion, like it was served on top of dry breakfast cereal. Which, given a literal reading of the menu, I suppose it was—but it was depressingly boring. Based on the exotic name (hey, that trick works on food writers too), we ordered some Okinawa sweet potatoes, and they were starchy, flavored with cinnamon, and pretty much awful. I have a compulsion to order rapini anytime it appears on a menu, but somehow Ocean Cut managed to cook all the flavor out of the delicious vegetable while leaving only bitterness behind. And yet again, nothing at all had even a hint of salt.
There were other oddities. A chocolate cake was so dry that it tasted like something out of a box; the cocktail list is on an iPad app, even though all the other menus are on paper; and a sazerac came on the rocks (strike one), so sweet it tasted like something out of a fruit cocktail can (strike two) and without any hint of anise (and you're out).
The final issue, of course, is the cost. C Chicago was criticized early on for being overpriced, and while the prices have dropped somewhat at Ocean Cut, when a not-extravagant dinner for two (that just happens to be somewhere between mediocre and terrible) costs $270 with tip and tax, the prices haven't dropped enough.
Ocean Cut has a lot going for it. It has a genuinely outstanding service staff, who attempted, within the limits of the kitchen's ability, to care for our every need. The space is gorgeous. They clearly know how to properly store and care for raw fish, as the oysters and crudo were as fresh as could be. But it's entirely possible that the kitchen, despite the re-concept, is somehow cursed. Hopefully, with more time with Flannigan, the kitchen will improve, but for right now, I'm going to suggest hopping in the lifeboats and making a getaway.