By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
The Japanese tend to take a less-is-more approach to eating. Americans prefer to think in terms of more is more (which probably is why our populace is among the most bloated in the world), though a growing health consciousness has had a moderating effect on our national per-meal consumption. Ocean Grill, a stylish sushi and seafood restaurant at the Waterways at Aventura, attempts to satisfy those partial to both less and more dining prejudices.
Also those in between, as a duo of voluminous menus provides an opportunity to mix and match the best of East and West. The sushi listing includes some 80 items, while the globally inspired American grill menu proffers an even greater number of soups, salads, steaks, pastas, pizzas, poultry, and, of course, plenty of seafood. It's a matter of giving the people what they want -- anything they want -- which, along with fair prices, prodigal portions, and personable accommodating service, explains why the place gets packed to the gills.
The curvy, contemporary dining room, warmed by woods and earth tones, also is designed to please the masses -- and with a capacity of 416, I do mean masses. The seating is comfortable, the lighting and thermostat set just right, the music piped in at the proper level. The acoustics of the space can get clamorous at times, but that's to be expected when hundreds of diners are chattering away and clicking their silverware simultaneously.
The sushi menu starts with the obligatory miso soup, gyoza (pork dumplings), shu mai (shrimp dumplings), spring roll, and vegetable tempura -- two cleanly fried pieces each of broccoli, eggplant, and sweet potato with a mildly sweet soy dip. Salads are based on singular ingredients: asparagus, kim chee, oshinko (Japanese pickle), spinach, spicy cucumber, and seaweed, the last a light sesame-dressed delight. Regular hand rolls, most $3.50 apiece, come wrapped around all sorts of fish, like tempura shrimp, spicy tuna, and salmon. Chef Ruey Yan's specialty rolls are way more interesting -- some perhaps too overwrought with cleverness, which is how I'd describe the Birthday Roll: avocado and strawberry atop tempura shrimp, eel, scallion, cream cheese, and masago. The rolls are beautiful to look at, delicious to eat, and burdened with cutesy names like Spice Girl (snapper on top of California roll), Popeye the Sailor Man (spinach, cucumber, and crab), and the No Name Roll -- guess they ran out of ideas. The list rolls on and on, but none was more satisfying than the Ocean Grill Roll, an egg crêpe (sans seaweed or rice) cradling tuna, salmon, and hamachi, the half-dozen one-inch-thick slices tied with chive and sitting in spicy citrus ponzu sauce.
Superfresh sushi and sashimi selections run $2 per piece but better to catch them as full dinners for two, three, or four people, wherein a wooden boat sails to the table stocked with a full sushi crew of anywhere from 10 to 36 items. Soup and salad are served on the side and also accompany sushi lunch specials that are unbeatable at $9 to $11.
The regular meals proved less scintillating. The aforementioned strength of extensive menus, that of offering a wide variety of dining options, is more often than not offset by an inherent weakness in regard to quality of product -- meaning a sprawling compilation of 90-plus foods is bound to harbor a few undesirables. One such clunker was a one-dimensional main course of "Caribbean" red snapper that was crusted in onion and fried and served over mashed potatoes with fried onion-crusted onion rings. Florida black grouper was much better, crunchily coated in Japanese bread crumbs and blanketed by bulky cubes of pineapple, mango, and guava bound by an orange aioli.
Foreshadowing the snapper's heavy-handedness was a crab-stuffed mushroom appetizer, a pair of flabby overcooked portobellos topped by a giant gratinéed mound of bready roasted-garlic aioli crab filling; it boasted a potent flavor, which I'm not certain had much to do with crab, but lacked even a hint of delicacy. Even a usually light entrée such as grilled yellowfin tuna was marred by superfluity, accompanied by rice, black beans, and -- in addition to the menu-mentioned lemon beurre blanc -- what I suppose they thought to be a bonus barbecue sauce; either would have worked well alone, but together they created a confusing clash of flavors. The rectangular cut of tuna was fresh, deftly seasoned, and raw in the center -- perfectly fine if ordered that way, but we had requested medium rare. Back to the kitchen it went, returning shortly thereafter cooked to a medium state and very hot, as if microwaved, the faint pink center fading like the last seconds of a sunset.
You can witness a real fading sunset from outdoor tables facing the Waterways' marina, and from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. take advantage of sunset dinner specials, as we did one balmy evening. We started with a bowl of thick, tomato-based conch chowder (smooth New England clam chowder was superior), proceeded to a large plate of linguini with littleneck clams in a buttery wine sauce enlivened by slivers of roasted garlic, and finished with coffee and dessert. Tab: $9.95. We could have chosen a main course of pork chop, pan-seared mahi-mahi, or honey-mustard chicken for just a dollar more (entrées regularly run from $15 to $28). The mostly white-haired crowd appeared to be appreciating their dinners immensely. The patrons get younger and the house fuller as the evening progresses.
On one occasion, after a particularly filling meal, I keyed in on sorbet for dessert, thinking a tart citrus flavor would hit the spot. The trio of offerings turned out to be vanilla, chocolate, and pistachio. I went with the last, which was, well, not what I really wanted and just similar enough to inferior pistachio ice cream that I can imagine others not wanting it either. Cheesecake and key lime pie are displayed along with a limited number of other postdinner treats, all of which possessed that sterile, commercially produced quality that makes them less than enthralling. I can't explain exactly why, but it irks me to know there are diners in a dozen other restaurants who are, at that very instant, indulging in the same dessert.
Aventura's Ocean Grill is the newest of three, the others in Boca Raton and Palm Beach Gardens. Obviously the operators possess the know-how to orchestrate a professional and enjoyable dining experience. This is, in fact, a great place to eat sushi, and with the proper picks, it also succeeds as a solid seafood restaurant and grill. I found the "less" to be more than the "more," but ultimately Ocean Grill does manage to please all types of diners -- more or less.