Houston, the city that loves sushi in all its forms, will have a chance to see how devoted it can be to its Hispanic cousin, ceviche, the appetizer that moves to main course at the about-to-be-opened Ocean's Restaurant at 819 W. Alabama (the former Bistro Vino location).
Brothers Jorge and Isaac Alvarez, both from Mexico City originally, have taken the Montrose house at the corner of Alabama and Roseland apart and put it back together with a pale yellow exterior, and new lighting inside and out. They ripped out "horrible carpet," removed deteriorated window framing and refinished the oak floors and bar, said to be more than 50 years old. It helps that Jorge operates Alvgar Construction, a custom house building business.
The most dramatic change outside is in the backyard patio area where "120 new plants" and trees have been moved in to the garden, Jorge said, and seating for 106 diners (the wrought iron table and chairs were salvaged from Bistro Vino) has been arranged on the extensive decking. Ocean's will serve lunch and dinner seven days a week and has some dining tables inside and an upstairs lounge with seating for another 50 people. A ceviche bar downstairs will allow diners to watch chefs prepare ceviche in all its various forms.
The result is an atmosphere-heavy restaurant with a lot of attention to detail and lighting, along with wonderfully tropical flavored margaritas as part of a full bar. It is a point of pride with Jorge that there should be: "No margarita mixer, no Cointreau, no Splenda" in the margaritas.
After Bistro Vino was closed, there were plans to put a mid-rise in the Montrose neighborhood, plans squelched when the Alvarez brothers took over. They named the restaurant Ocean's, Jorge said, because "we don't want people to say this is just another Mexican place and we're going to have chips and salsa." Instead, he said, he wants to show Houston the many great varieties of ceviche there can be.
He described the food as a "fusion between all the regions of Mexico." In a media tasting, the standout dish was the Ocean's ceviche, presented on a handmade corn tostada. The fish was tender and covered with fresh avocado and just the right amount of lime accent.
That plate also included Asian ceviche, the same basic dish but with Asian flavorings of soy sauce and other spices.
In another dish, jumbo shrimp were presented on a larger tostada with purple onions and avocado. This was a little hard to handle; Jorge said it would be in a tostada that could be handled like a sandwich when the restaurant opened, expected to be May 21 or sometime shortly thereafter.
Chef Rafael Corzo then presented a scallops dish with large scallops in soy sauce, olive oil, lemon juice and coriander. The consistency of the raw scallops was a little different, but the taste was wonderful. Corzo, who'll be flying back and forth between Houston and his projects in Mexico, said the restaurant may go with slightly heavier fare in the winter months.
Oh and if you're a tres leches aficionado, Ocean's version is a rather nice capstone on the evening.