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Oceana

Nestled between the office towers and luxury high-rises of Manhattan's East 54th Street, Oceana is a cab ride away from the nearest pier. Yet when you walk past the glass doors, you have the urge to look for the mooring ropes.

The interior is reminiscent of the classic ocean liners of the 1930s. The 50-seat main dining room exudes a relaxed elegance, refined without being intimidating. Ocean-scene prints line the walls above the banquettes; white linen covers the tables.

The gracious room merely serves as the setting for the true artistry of Oceana--chef Rick Moonen's skill with seafood. Former chef of New York's Water Club, in 1994 Moonen came to Oceana, where his reputation has soared. He and his staff's creations range confidently across the seas: lobster ravioli are bathed in a light yet hearty tomato basil broth and a refreshing salmon tartare with osetra caviar, pea shoots and toast points comes wrapped in a piece of salmon smoked to perfection. Yet the greatest surprise is yet to come: marinated grilled sardines on nan bread, imported weekly from Portugal and marinated in a solution of vinegar and salt in Oceana's kitchen, then preserved in Spanish olive oil with spices. As invigorating as a cool ocean breeze.

Moonen's entrées appear simple at first glance: steamed Maine lobster, seared blackfish, a grilled salmon fillet. But the simplicity is deceptive. Moonen's mission throughout is to extol the seafood's virtues. The salmon, fresh from the Bay of Fundy, arrives on the plate framed in chive oil atop a bed of avocado and arugula, surrounded by a fresh and bright heirloom tomato salsa and runner bean salad. The flavors meld beautifully, yet the focus is always on the fish--firm, tender and flavorful. A special of the evening, grilled striped sea bass in a yellow tomato culis, lives up to its billing. The succulent bass plays excellent counterpoint to the almost sweet sauce.

The service is attentive and friendly, yet never intrusive, with a talent for sensing, and matching, the moods of each table's diners.

The list of offerings from maître d' and wine director Robert Fairbrother's 15,000-bottle cellar is pricey, but well chosen. We took Fairbrother's suggestion and ordered a 1994 bottle of Le Sophiste ($55) from Bonny Doon vineyards in California's Santa Cruz Mountains. It is a blend of Rousanne and Marsanne grapes with character that complemented the range of flavors throughout the dinner.

Come dessert, pastry chef David Carmichael's warm banana strudel with banana nut ice cream and passion fruit Anglaise makes me want to commit the flavors to memory, while a huckleberry torte has me chasing the last berry around the plate with my fork.

But the evening is not over. Fairbrother brings two flute glasses of Belle de Brillet, a pear eau de vie. The ripe pear fragrance is dramatic, yet not overly sweet. We then adjourn upstairs to Oceana's small yet spectacular bar for a cigar from its 200-capacity Alfred Dunhill humidor, featuring a changing selection of eight brands, from $7 Temple Hall coronas to Dunhill Aged Centenas for $24.

Cigars are not an afterthought here. Fairbrother and Moonen are aficionados, as are Moonen's Oceana partners, Paul McLaughlin and, occasionally, Nick Livanos. Only New York City smoking ordinances keep cigar smoking limited to the bar, except during private functions. (Attending one of Oceana's semi-annual cigar dinners is a must; Moonen amps up the spicing of his dishes to the level where they can contend with even the most robust cigars and Scotches.)

Built during the restaurant's renovation in August 1995, the bar is made of a warm mahogany that soars more than 25 feet to the vaulted ceiling. Across from the bar is the 50-seat upstairs dining room, which gives an even stronger feeling of liner luxe than does the downstairs room, with rich mahogany arches and framed Art Deco posters, such as Cassandre's Normandie, from the cruise liners' golden age. The upstairs room and the brick-lined 24-seat wine cellar are available for private functions, including cigar friendly events. "When customers rent the space," says Fairbrother, "it's theirs to do with as they want."

--Terrence Fagan

Oceana
55 East 54th Street
Phone: (212) 759-5941
Dinner: $52 prix fixe, $75 six-course tasting menu, both without wine

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