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A Pirate's Life for Me

Sea and be seen: There are plenty of fish in this Ocean.
Mark Manger

There's one thing you'll never want for at Ocean: service. On a Thursday night, dozens of bodies are on the floor -- servers and bussers and runners in pale-blue chambray and black, captains in shirts and silk ties, managers of every description. Three tenders and a barback in the pit of the wraparound bar, all wearing black T-shirts with the Ocean skull-and-crossbones pirate logo; two white jackets behind the sushi/garde manger bar at the back of the lounge; two hostesses working the stand by the front door who -- with their stunning profiles, perfect hair, vapid smiles and ability to stand very still for a long time -- look to be on loan from a high-rent modeling agency. The hostesses sing along with whatever's playing on the house P.A. (Pussycat Dolls, Bon Jovi and the Ramones -- a very interesting club mix for Cherry Creek) when they think no one's looking, and pose in the spill of lights from the dining room when they think someone is. Standing with the hostesses, another manager watches the door, blue spotlights heliographing off his cufflinks and tie pin. He greets everyone who comes in while still keeping an eye on the valets jumping off the curb -- knowing that if Scooter wrecks up that brand-new Audi he's muscling out into traffic, it'll be his ass.

When I roll in -- late, underdressed and without a reservation -- I'm consigned to the bar for only ten minutes before I'm fetched by a model, thanked for my patience and whisked back to my table among the very rich, the terribly powerful and those who are eating on someone else's dime. Like me.

Life aboard a sailing ship was anything but comfortable. Seamen lived in cramped and filthy quarters. Food spoiled or became infested and fresh water turned foul. One staple of most ships was hard tack, which seamen often ate in the dark to avoid seeing the weevils that infested the square biscuit. Pirates restocked their food supplies by stealing from other ships' stores. Sea turtles were easily snared on land and were kept alive in the ship's hold until needed. They drank bombo¬Öa mixture of rum, water, sugar and nutmeg. When food was scarce, they resorted to more desperate measures to stay alive. Charlotte de Berry's crew ran out of food and purportedly ate two slaves and her husband to sustain them. In 1670, Henry Morgan's crew ate their leather satchels. -- Pirates and Privateers: The History of Maritime Piracy

I eat a half-dozen cracked oysters, immaculately fresh and cold, tasting of iron and the sea. I eat rock-shrimp pot stickers that are exactly like those served in Vietnamese and Japanese strip-mall restaurants with more good intentions than money. If this copycatting was intentional, the kitchen hit it right on the nose. If not? Well, then the pot stickers seem just a bit cheap and common.

The 24-ounce delmonico ribeye is anything but: a pound and a half of beef done a perfect, blood-soaked rare and dressed in a toasted brandy-peppercorn sauce. It is a big meal for big men with big appetites. It's a king of a steak, royalty even beside the filet mignon (a boring softball of meat, insipid and pretentious), the bone-in Kansas City strip and the wagyu Kobe with which it shares the menu.

When I return early Friday evening, the place is jammed with investment bankers, futures traders and young captains of industries I have no names for who can use words like "annuity" and "fiduciary" in a sentence without sarcasm and for whom "pork" means something other than the delicious end product of raising a pig. They're drinking sherbet-colored cocktails and drinks in martini glasses that aren't three parts gin and one part olives, so I order beer and sushi and seafood ravioli and sit alone at the elbow of the bar, thinking about what I could have done in my life to make me more like them.

Less drugs and more studying, perhaps. Maybe if I'd balanced my checkbook more. Or ever.

My red sushi roll is just plain wrong -- flashy fusion run amok with sticky rice and red chile and tuna all out of proportion. But the seafood ravioli are a marvel: pillows of rough-chopped seafood paste, almost like a torchon, wrapped in thin, pliant skins and bathed in a thick cream sauce that tastes like lobster stock and velvet, punctuated with dots of infused oil out of the squeeze bottle. Served in a plain white bowl, the ravioli are delicate and filling at the same time, incredibly complex yet melded into a simple, seamless whole. This is an example of cuisine being used as cuisine is best used: as a set of rules and strictures and tradition out of which might be born something truly new. In this case, a ravioli -- Italian pasta with a vaguely Asian filling in a classically French sauce dotted with a touch of fancy New American chemistry.

I leave half the sushi uneaten, but the ravioli bowl is clean enough to be rotated right back into service when I finish with it. In the meantime, the crowds have begun to drift away from the bar and concentrate in the dining room and on the patio, where there are seats for the regular rich and special tents for the maxi-rich. They are set with couches and pillows and low tables like the den of a pasha or the pavilion of a particularly fashionable king. Seating in one of these tents costs a thousand dollars. And there is a waiting list. I get up from the bar, pay my bill and go across the street to the Village Inn for a cup of coffee.

Culliford didn't fly a skull-&-crossbones but rather a blood-red flag that meant: "No mercy unless you surrender immediately." His surgeon was named Jon Death; he once ordered his men to haul the china dishes off a captured ship and load them into cannons to shred the sails of his next adversary. --The Pirate Hunter

Ocean occupies the physical space once occupied by Mao, the first venture by the Sullivan Restaurant Group. Mao gave up the ghost on January 1, after which the group -- bossed by Jim Sullivan, spun for the press by Jim's daughter Leigh and run by executive chef Troy Guard, Leigh's husband, who is also the exec at Nine75 and Emogene -- transformed the location into Ocean, which opened in May. But while the psychological space was changed, if you look close, you can still see Mao living in its bones. Granted, you have to look really close, because Ocean was awash in people from the start, while Mao was empty long before the end.

In the center of the floor, what had been a sushi bar and lounge is a raw bar now -- almost identical in structure, entirely different in intent. The actual bar (the one where the liquor comes from) is the same, the big flatscreen in the back showing Johnny Depp staggering and slurring his way through an endless loop of Pirates of the Caribbean. In the men's room, the mini-flatscreens are playing Finding Nemo where once they delivered Cinemax-style softcore and kung fu movies.

On a very busy Saturday night, a friend and I are attended to by a waitress who is both casual and funny -- she jokes about the menu that is half sold out by nine -- and yet still obvious in her formal training; always serving across the empty side of the table, clearing from the left, laying out silver with the obsessive precision of one who knows no other way.

Me and my man-date have lobster tacos (like the seafood ravioli, a riff by Guard on a Nine75 favorite) -- four tiny, crisp shells filled with lobster and mushrooms and pico, set upright on blobs of guacamole. We have what may be the best calamari I've had all year -- perfectly cooked squid in crisp breading playing peekaboo through a forest of bitter greens dressed in a fantastic sweet-and-sour orange vinaigrette -- and more sushi. This time I try the Ocean roll, the kitchen's signature, which turns out to be a fairly simple, inside-out maki with avocado and fish and rice, each piece topped with a rapidly browning blob of guacamole. Sushi has been around for thousands of years; for thousands of years the cuisine has been refined and pared down and edited until only that which is most vital is left. Proper sushi is a flavor haiku, stripped to its purest essence. Ocean's sushi is a free-verse love poem written by a fifteen-year-old girl with a big vocabulary and no self-control.

My friend has the swordfish steak, sliced oddly thin and doubled up on the plate. One thick steak would have been better, because the two thin ones are a bit dry, but the composed lemon-caper-butter sauce on the side is amazing. The coconut curry sauce is also amazing. So is the heirloom tomato sauce (not so much a sauce as a tomato, chopped, and left more or less alone). And the lobster-basil. Guard and his crew have a wicked way with sauces. Where austerity is so crucial to sushi, sauces welcome excess, and every sauce here is like Escoffier on acid, dropped on a Singapore street corner and roughly mugged by an Italian cross-dresser.

Every sauce but the mango salsa on top of my halibut. But then, mango salsa is the lazy man's way of sprucing up a boring fish -- a no-brainer solution when you've already used your best tricks elsewhere -- and I wouldn't have ordered the halibut at all had there been any other options.

We stay at dinner until after midnight, and we are not the last to go. We leave behind drunken middle managers hitting on the bar staff. Angry Chinese men hissing at each other like cats. Insane heiresses cornering anyone who'll listen to their stories of prisons and secret adoptions and millions in the bank.

The 19,925-ton, Liberian-flag tanker Louise was attacked while drifting about 18 nm off the Guinea coast. The ship was approached by a gray craft with fixed machine guns. The craft came alongside the tanker in an attempted boarding maneuver, but to prevent this from succeeding the Master got under way at full speed. At this point, the attackers opened fire on the ship with machine guns, aiming at the accommodation, bridge and radio room. As the distance between the tanker and the craft increased to about 0.4 nm, the attackers switched to rocket fire. As the distance increased to about 0.6 nm, the attackers aborted their pursuit. The assault lasted for a period of thirty minutes of continuous gunfire. No crewmen were injured. -- The Federation of American Scientists' 1999 report on piracy and anti-shipping activities

Many of the restaurants and all of the kitchens I've known over the years have been organized along piratical lines and run under the seagoing traditions of rum, sodomy and the lash. But Ocean is rare in that it revels in the pirate image, sailing the fickle seas of Cherry Creek's trend-humping economy under a grinning Jolly Roger and raking in the loot at every tack and turn. The good ship Ocean and her veteran crew are also the most cunning of reavers: They lure their prey to them, wining and dining them, giving them comfortable chairs in which to sit and fawning servants to see to their every need. With all this, the plundering seems almost painless. You don't feel the emptying of your bank account until the next morning, when suddenly you wonder if the $38 steak, $7 asparagus and $15 crab cocktail were really worth it. The irony of a $16 lobster po'boy is precious. And at thirty dollars for three ounces of cheapjack American Kobe, your server might just as well come at you with a cutlass and brace of pistols as a menu, a napkin and a bill.


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