Having a potentially fatal food allergy and trying a new restaurant is a little like jumping into a one-night stand of unprotected sex: You have to have faith that someone you know nothing about is telling you the truth.
My poison: dill in any form. Since it shuts down my respiratory system like a Vulcan death grip, I've come to learn the dishes most likely to contain it and avoid them like the plague. (For me, dill is about as deadly.) Fortunately, dill is one of the more conspicuous herbs, and I can usually spot it long before I raise my fork--not only is it generally visible, but its scent is deeply embedded in my memory. Making the identification process even easier is the fact that 90 percent of the time, restaurant menus list dill as an ingredient, probably because it is one that many people don't like. The system isn't always foolproof, however. My most recent run-in came five years ago, when I was on deadline at a daily newspaper. I ate stromboli--from the same restaurant I'd eaten stromboli at a million times--and quickly turned bright red as my throat began to close up. Minutes later, when I was at the hospital being pumped full of Adrenalin, a doctor called the res-taurant. "Oops," they said. Turned out the dill was right next to the parsley on the prep table in the kitchen.
Although dill works particularly well with fish, especially salmon, I'm almost always able to avoid the herb's unexpected appearance by grilling a waitstaffer. So I thought I could safely venture into Ocean Grill, a little eatery with a small menu to match that shares a Greenwood Village strip mall with Bourbon Street Pizzabar & Grill.
Imagine my joy, then, when an order of fish and chips ($10.95) at Ocean Grill turned up covered with dill. I have never seen dill on fish and chips--in the tartar sauce, yes, but not on the fish itself--yet here it was. And not just a sprinkling, either: This was fish and chips and dill. I pushed the plate over to my husband and said, "You'll have to eat this, and I'll eat yours." But his seabass ($13.95) was covered with the stuff, too. So I sent the fish and chips back and asked the waitress if the kitchen normally uses so much dill. "Oh, it's on a lot of things," she said. "The chef really likes it."
Well, if the chef thought everything needed dill, I felt obligated to try it his way. So I had a talk with the doc, who prescribed a large dose of an antihistamine and told me to take along an Epinephrin pen (an Adrenalin shot that reverses allergic reactions) just to be safe. Thus armed, I returned to face the enemy. I'm talking dill here, not Ocean Grill. Actually, we'd been fairly pleased with our second round of fish and chips--the crispy batter was light and non-greasy, and the fish inside was juicy and flaky. And while the seabass was a smallish portion for the price, it was nicely grilled and obviously fresh.
This time, we knew we'd be adding dill to the lineup. But we never dreamed just how much dill. For starters, the shrimp and calamari kabob ($7.95) appetizer brought a skewer of beautifully grilled black tiger shrimp and squid cubes--abundantly dusted with dill and accompanied by two delicious dipping sauces, one a Russian type seasoned with dill and the other a cocktail-sauce variation not seasoned with dill. Being big squid fans, we also took on the regular calamari ($6.95), splendidly chewy strips fried in a thin batter and then, of course, sprinkled with dill. The otherwise excellent Maryland-style crab cakes ($7.95) also featured copious amounts of unnecessary dill; each cake had been fried until its exterior was golden and crumbly, and the interior was full of soft chunks of high-quality crab. Only the top-notch clam chowder ($2.50) was free from the evil weed: The soup had a thick, creamy consistency, with plenty of clam shreds, just enough tender-but-not-pasty potatoes--and nary a sign of dill.
The herb made a reappearance, though, on the sauteed sea scallops ($15.95). The lackluster scallops--one of the few seafood items on the menu that aren't grilled and probably should be--were blanketed with dill, but its taste didn't obscure the mollusks' watery blandness, and there was no hint of the promised lemon-garlic sauce. Surprisingly, the basmati saffron wild rice under the scallops was wonderful, flavored with a sort of salsa of onions, tomatoes and cucumbers and a decent amount of saffron. The rice's billing, however, made no sense: Wild rice isn't really rice at all; it's the long, thin, dark-brown marsh grass you find in so-called wild-rice mixes. This was simply basmati rice, which isn't harvested wild--so who knows what the kitchen meant here.
We noticed some other lapses. While bread was mentioned on the menu, we never received any; and although homemade coleslaw and fresh market vegetables were promised with each entree, the scallops came with neither. The Florida swordfish ($14.95) was accompanied by no coleslaw, steamed broccoli, more of the oddly named rice and, yes, dill, which provided the only flavor this fish had. The swordfish was dried out from overcooking and utterly tasteless; this time we didn't mind the too-small-for-the-price portion.
When I asked owner John Karimy why he uses so much dill, at first he said, "In my opinion, dill is very healthy and very good with seafood." Later he told me that he uses herbs and spices according to his mood, so on any given day, a dinner at his restaurant may not be so dill-treated. (Otherwise, he might consider changing the name of his place to Ocean Dill.)
Karimy, who moved to Colorado from Florida in 1993, says he wanted to provide the area with more fresh fish--and in that he succeeds. His spot is charmingly decorated, too, in a part of town that could use some charm. But Karimy needs to keep an eye on his kitchen's consistency.
He could take a lesson from the nearby Bourbon Street Pizzabar and Grill, which knows all about the importance of consistency--and staying power. Like Ocean Grill, this place survived the Great Fire of 1995, when an "accidental electrical fire" that neither restaurant was responsible for ruined the strip mall. After repairs, Ocean Grill stayed in its original space; Bourbon Street owners Mike and Laura Brody decided to move to a bigger space at the opposite end of the plaza. They then turned the new spot into a veritable shrine to Mardi Gras. Laura designed the colorful dining areas--complete with Mardi Gras masks and New Orleans knickknacks--and directed two guys who used to work on theater sets to complete the scene.
The Brodys also decided to enlarge the menu, adding pasta and rice dishes, sandwiches and salads to their wonderful pizzas. To verify that the pizzas are indeed still wonderful, I ordered Dracula's Nightmare ($7.50), a nine-inch pie covered with roasted garlic, sliced fresh mushrooms, chunks of spicy turkey sausage and Bourbon Street's thick, slightly sweet tomato sauce. This Nightmare combo was still dreamy.
On another visit we tried the hot spinach and artichoke dip ($3.75), a fairly standard version of the appetizer that's become popular at office parties and church picnics. More interesting were the "killer onion straws" ($2.50), thin onion and jalapeno strips breaded and deep-fried, and the "great balls of fire" ($4.95), small shrimp coated in a fiery-hot breading. These are the kind of addictive munchies that would improve attendance at office parties and church picnics.
The rest of the meal continued the winning streak. An order of Thai Shrimp 'n' Coconut on rice ($8.50) brought large shrimp slicked with a mildly spicy peanut sauce and tossed with green-pepper pieces and coconut. The River Boat jambalaya ($6.95) was a decent take on the Creole classic, with the "holy trinity" (onions, celery and green peppers) cooked down with tomatoes and turkey sausage. The sausage had given the gravylike base some depth without turning it greasy; the jambalaya's bite was more flavorful than it was powerfully hot. For the spicy shrimp po' boy ($6.25), the kitchen tucked the shrimp inside a heavy coating of Cajun breading, then stuffed them into a big, dense roll and slathered on the piquant mayo dressing.
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We polished off the meal with Bourbon Street's magnificent pecan pie ($3.50), as good as ever. So the only reaction I had to the new Bourbon Street was a favorable one.
Ocean Grill, 5121 South Yosemite, Greenwood Village, 796-0611. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Bourbon Street Pizzabar & Grill, 5117 South Yosemite, Greenwood Village, 721-6150. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday; 4:30-10 p.m. Saturday; 4:30-8:30 p.m. Sunday.