You can’t beat the commute that the Panteleakis clan has from home to their restaurant, Oceanos, in Fair Lawn. The family members, who work together, also live together—in the same house in Fair Lawn. Peter, his wife, Barbara, and their younger son, Demetrios, share kitchen duty alongside chef Kenny Messineo, who is practically family, having cooked in Peter’s restaurants for nearly 30 years. Older son Nikos, the manager, is also the architect who redesigned the restaurant when it reopened in 2005 after 20-plus years doing business as Peter’s Whale, a seafood spot.
“We wanted to upscale our menu and our look while keeping our clientele,” says Nikos. “We’re a seafood bistro now.”
The restaurant’s steep food and wine tabs are quite literally upscale, as are, more graciously, its black-aproned servers, attractive nautical air, and genuine warm welcome at the front door. Nikos’s clever redesign, with aqua-and-black-striped booths and dark-wood window louvers, recalls the interior of a yacht. (The smaller, 36-seat bar room is more halftime than maritime, with a giant screen piping in sports.)
Every morning Peter arises at 5 to bake Oceanos’s magnificent bread. It’s made from sourdough yeast starter hand-delivered to Fair Lawn from the family’s southern Greece hometown, Krokees, which also furnishes Oceanos’s olives, olive oil, and honey. The loaves are marbled, with distinct light and dark bread flavors. Before baking, Peter rolls them in seeds—a mix of pumpkin, sunflower, flax, and black and white sesame—imparting a sweet, earthy crunch to the crust. I wish I had known that the staff gives take-home loaves to diners who muster the nerve to ask for them.
Oceanos, which bills itself an “oyster bar and seafood grill,” serves numerous oyster species plus shrimp and crab cocktails. Seafood is delivered daily and augmented by fresh catches hand-picked by Peter and Nikos on almost daily father-son forays to the Bronx’s Hunts Point Market. (“After 35 years buying,” says Nikos, “they offer me the number one fish.”)
About a dozen prepared appetizers, mainly seafood-based, complement the raw bar. I was most impressed by the fork-tender octopus, a half-pound of tentacles first softened by a steaming in cider vinegar, then marinated in olive oil and herbs and charcoal-grilled. And I can endorse a pair of hefty pan-seared crabcake patties prepared simply with fresh Maryland lumpmeat and a bit of scallion and dill. Calamari rings that could have been thicker arrived with an extra crispy panko-batter crust and an unabashedly sugary dip made with duck sauce and Sriracha Vietnamese pepper purée. Coconut-crusted fried shrimp come with the same dip.
Other appetizers failed to deliver. Sliced pan-fried zucchini and eggplant “chips” were heavy and sodden. A platter of classic Hellenic spreads presented lifeless hummus; lackluster roasted, mashed eggplant; and creamed feta that tasted more like churned buttermilk. Only one dip, a winningly garlicky taramosalata roe-and-garlic spread, met North Jersey taverna standards.
Oceanos’s inconsistencies do not end with appetizers. Entrées ranged from delicious to disappointing. In the smile category are whole fish, simply and expertly charcoal-grilled Greek-style. Seafood linguini is served al denté, bathed with sprightly, naturally sweet pomodoro tomato sauce made in-house, and heaped with tender scallops, mussels, shrimp, and clams.
But a pan-seared yellowfin tuna filet had an oddly mushy texture, and its wan flavor was trampled by Cajun-style spices. Shrimp stuffed with crabmeat is a bland-on-bland bad idea. Softshell crab scampi mired the crustaceans in a gummy reduction of olive oil, butter, and white wine with zero discernable garlic.
Side dishes are equally hit-or-miss. French fries, though hand-cut and double-fried for crispness, were limp. My guests liked the roasted spears of “lemon potatoes,” but I found them leathery.
A half-dozen desserts are house-made, save for Vesuvius, an insipid chocolate mousse/cheesecake monster. Various custardy Greek desserts are light on flavor, and an apple “truffle” (more of a tart), featured undercooked, underseasoned apple chunks, a brittle phyllo shell, and icy-cold, purportedly vanilla ice cream. I was happy only with the baklava, hand-made by Peter daily with pistachios, pine nuts, walnuts, and thyme honey produced by cousins in Krokees.
Service is well meaning, though one waiter mystifyingly opened a bottle of French wine instead of what I ordered, an Argentinean Torrontes from the Astica winery. (Oceanos charges $25 for this wine, which goes for $4.97 at Wine Outlet in Secaucus.)
A multigenerational, family-run restaurant is a heart-warming idea, but warm and fuzzy can’t overcome inconsistent execution.