When Ocean opened in February 2006, tucked away on Ferry Street, it was easily the sleekest addition to Downtown Easton’s dining scene. From its frosted glass window and clean and curvilinear forms to its progressive but approachable New American menu, there was nothing quite like this stylish dining spot.
Ten years later, there’s still nothing quite like it. Ocean holds its own in what’s evolved into a city boasting a lively restaurant scene—and a region with a rapidly growing food consciousness.
“Even with the dense landscape of restaurants in Easton, we have seen consistent growth in business,” says Ciprian Muntean, manager-owner of Ocean. “Last year was our best, and based on the numbers so far, this year will be even better.”
And the experience itself? The interior vibe, with its dim lighting and myriad of blue and grey tones, still suggests the depths of the ocean, in subtle, classy ways; the curvy sheetrock atop one of the dining rooms has held up. (It was moistened and then put into a mold in order to achieve that wavy form.) The three discrete seating areas offer plenty of space for private and communal conversations, depending on preference. And the cuisine still works, too. Ocean has retained the same executive chef, Ryan Kor, for nearly the past five years. Ocean’s bar manager, Nok Kumperngsai, has been mixing drinks since the very first day. Muntean says that its core staff “has been the same for an average of more than seven years—we grew together, it feels.”
Likewise, many of its most beloved and recognizable menu items remain. The truffled fries are still there, with a trio of dipping aiolis. The calamari dish is revered. “Most people who don’t like calamari love ours,” says Sarne Singletary, front-of-the-house manager.
What’s so special about it?
To say Kor is self-effacing about it would be an understatement. “It’s fresh; it’s marinated in buttermilk for a day,” he explains, as though it were no big deal.
“No, but people aren’t accustomed to that kind of smoky sriracha aioli with it, either,” says Singletary.
“I don’t think most people are accustomed to calamari that’s this fresh. We have deliveries coming every day,” says Kor. “If we run out of an item, I just 86 it. If it’s out, it’s out. I don’t substitute anything,” he says. Freshness is paramount.
The quest for freshness doesn’t only relate to how recently the fish was caught or when the tomatoes were picked—it’s also about the currency of the menu and keeping those options
fresh. When Ocean opened, it was strictly a tapas place, “with about 50 small plates, serving lunch and dinner six days a week,” says Muntean. Its menu of exclusively sharable appetizers was somewhat unusual for Easton at the time.
A slow shift has taken place. “We evolved, based on the client needs, into a full-service establishment for dinner only, Tuesday through Saturday. That’s when things took off,” says Muntean. As growth occurred, the portion size of the tapas did, too, and full-fledged entrées were introduced. These days, the appetizers are more substantial than the small bites that comprise true tapas. “They are good appetizer portions,” says Kor.
There’s a curious tension at work in most restaurants, one that’s usually, but not always, invisible to diners. It’s the tug between expectation and innovation. Loyal customers often expect certain items to remain on the menu; they associate a place with a particular dish or two. Or a special mixed drink. And Ocean is no exception.
Customers would be upset, for example, if the lobster mac and cheese unceremoniously disappeared from the menu—which happened a few years ago.
Muntean recalls their attempt to bring more weeknight dinner business to Ocean. “One idea was to have lobster mac available only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Yes, we had a lot of angry people, so that only lasted about three months,” he says. It proves that humans are creatures of habit, and that the comfort food combination of pasta, creamy Gruyere cheese and succulent lobster is hard to resist. And even harder to retire.
“It’s a bit of an old dish, but it’s still good, people still like it and he still likes it—so it stays,” says Kor.
The “he” in question is Muntean, more commonly known as Chip. If you’ve been to Ocean, you know him as hands-on and magnanimous. He’ll shake your hand or offer a peck on the cheek and unflaggingly remember your favorite beer or dish. He’s fairly omnipresent, especially considering how established Ocean is; it’s often more common for owners to become absentee when restaurants become successful. He’s an integral part of what makes Ocean succeed. Muntean started working at the River Grille, owned by Mick Gjevukaj, two weeks after it opened in 2003. Five years later, he partnered with Gjevukaj to open Ocean just around the corner. The names of both restaurants pertain to water—Muntean and Gjevukaj share an Eastern European heritage that reveres water as representative of good luck and fortune.
But that name serves a dual purpose as Ocean, of course, is known for its fish and seafood. Through the years, the core of the menu persists, although the accompaniments may vary slightly from time to time. There are several classic protein-and-potato dishes—filet with truffled mashed potatoes and wild mushrooms, crispy salmon with asparagus, fingerlings and mustard beurre blanc, and boneless braised short ribs with a balsamic glaze, potato puree and cipollini onions. There’s always a succulent scallops dish, too. Ocean’s menu changes about four to six times a year, but it only partly morphs. “It’s a little bit here and there. We bring in some seasonal items; that keeps you creative,” Kor says. And the specials serve their function too, sometimes inadvertently working as a test run for new menu items. That tension between expectation and innovation persists.
“I keep myself inspired. I walk down to the market; I pay attention to what other people are doing, what they are cooking. Most of my friends work around here,” says Kor, gesturing behind him to indicate the general downtown area.
The 42-year-old has spent much time in the Valley cooking, most recently at the Perryville Inn before it closed. He is a graduate of Northampton Community College’s Culinary Arts program.
For as long as he’s lived, it’s always been food, whether it’s been working at country clubs or “flipping burgers somewhere or catering his friends’ high school graduation parties,” he says.
His grandparents had a 15-acre farm in Warren County, where they’d grow berries, apples, asparagus and all kinds of produce. “We’d go hunting, too, and
have game dishes. I grew up eating rabbit and squirrel. It kind of gives you a different palate for food. I wasn’t eating chicken fingers,” Kor says, with a chuckle.
Kor has been in kitchens for so long, he’s firmly guided by his own palate. He’s the type of guy who orders meat rare—and so if you order a burger rare at Ocean, it won’t be medium rare. (“That drives me nuts,” he says.) And he doesn’t understand why people salt and pepper their food before trying it.
“I just do what I like to eat. I never got into foams, or fancy stuff,” he explains. Partially, it’s not feasible for him to do dishes that are more labor intensive—Kor and two other sous are the only ones back there in the kitchen. But it’s also a reflection of the restaurant’s personality, too. “What we do here is a little more fast-paced than that—we have to simplify it, but keep all the flavors,” he says. The grouper dish achieves a balance of flavor, texture and color. “Presentation is so important. It has to look pretty—muted colors aren’t appetizing.”
The bar program, too, has seen a gradual evolution with the times. “Nok has always been great at following or even being a bit ahead of industry trends when it comes to cocktails.
Together with Robin [Capner] and Crystal [Smith], our other two main bartenders, they consistently find ways to come up with original ideas or improve classics, sometimes with a twist,” says Muntean.
For example, earlier this year, Ocean started doing infusions. Their Spicy Chef, with a house-infused fresh pineapple vodka, hot pepper simple syrup and Cointreau, has become a big hit. Warm weather also spawned a watermelon tequila cosmo: tequila infused with watermelon, simple syrup, Cointreau, fresh lime juice and cranberry juice. Ready in No “Thyme” has also been popular—that’s a house-infused strawberry and lime gin, with a thyme and honey simple syrup, and lemon-lime soda. “Many of these drinks are naturally sweetened, so they aren’t full of extra sugar. They are fruity and fun and not too complicated,” says bartender Robin Capner. Times have changed in bartending; the craft cocktail is more of the norm than it was five years ago. As Muntean bluntly and humorously puts it, “We hope the days of pre-made mixes, fake flavors and blenders are behind us.”
As for those ten years of going with the ebb and flow of business, and adapting accordingly?
“It feels like it happened in the blink of an eye,” says Muntean.
235 Ferry St., Easton | 610.559.7211 | ocean235.com
Tues.–Sat.: 5 p.m.–Midnight
Street and two parking decks downtown
Always recommended, especially on the weekends. They can accept them the old-fashioned way, “with paper and pen,” says Sarne Singletary, front-end manager, or via the website’s auto-form.
Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover
What To Order:
Fried Panko Crusted Calamari, house-made meatballs, Tuna and Crab Napoleon, boneless braised short ribs, Ocean Burger (with blue cheese, bacon, fried egg, tomatoes and aioli), seared grouper. Cocktails: Spicy Chef, Ready in No “Thyme,” and look for new seasonal libations.
Happy Hour, from open until close, Tues.-Thurs.; 5–7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, which includes $2 off wine and cocktails and $1 off bottled beers. Special happy hour menu with items priced $7 and under; see restaurant for more details. The lower level was remodeled two years ago, and Muntean says “Our customers really enjoy the new look—we get booked for holiday parties way in advance.”