As head chef at Oceana (55 E. 54th St.), Ben Pollinger tries to create a menu of seafood specialties showcasing fresh, flavorful ingredients. Pollinger discovered his love of food while cooking part-time in his college dormitory while studying economics at Boston University. He attended the Culinary Institute of America and completed two externships in New York City under Jean-Jacques Rachou at La Côte Basque and Christian Delouvrier at Les Célébrités, before heading to Monte-Carlo to work as a stagier at Le Louis XV under Alain Ducasse.
Where is your favorite place to eat in the city?
There are so many great places to eat in this city. Molyvos is great for Greek food and Tabla for Indian. For high-end Italian, I like San Domenico, and for casual Italian, Crispo on 14th Street. After a late dinner shift, I go to Woo Chon, in Koreatown. It’s this Korean place that is open until 2 a.m.
What do you cook for yourself at home?
When I’m at home, I am busy with my two kids, so I do a lot of simple grilling. My kids love baked wild striped bass, rice pilaf and broccoli. I also use fresh vegetables and herbs from my garden when they are in season.
Which ingredients should everyone have in the kitchen?
Good extra virgin olive oil, cherry wine vinegar, and whole peppercorns in a pepper mill.
What is the best meal you’ve ever had? The worst?
The best meal I’ve ever had in a restaurant was at El Raco de Can Sabes in San Celoni, Spain. I was dining by myself and had a 15-course tasting menu.
My best non-restaurant meal was on the balcony of my hotel in Barcelona overlooking Las Ramblas. I had a meal of cheese, bread, olives, sausages and wine. It was so memorable because during that meal, I proposed to my wife.
The worst, or more accurately, the most disappointing, was my first meal in France. It was my first time in France, when I was on my way to my job working for Alain Ducasse in Monaco. I flew into Paris and had one day to spend there. I had this very romanticized vision of the typical meal in France and found a little bistro that I thought would provide an authentic, delicious experience. I ordered a glass of local wine and the rabbit in a mustard cream sauce. Everything was awful. The wine was horrible, the rabbit was tough and dry and the cream sauce had started to separate. Every romantic vision of French cuisine that I had in my head was smashed to bits with that one meal.
Do you have any memorable stories from the kitchen?
I have a few. My first day working in New York City, 12 years ago, at La Côte Basque. The chef, Jean-Jacques Rachou, didn’t have a station for me to work, and just wanted me to help the cooks on the line. Then, in the middle of the dinner service, the chef fired one of the line cooks! He turned to me and said, “So you want to work here?” “Yes,” I said. “Then learn this station right now.” He told the chef de partie to show me all of the plates once, then “he’s on his own.” I just had to fly by the seat of my pants for the rest of the service. After the shift, he patted me on the back and said, “Good job, you can come back tomorrow.”
Sautéed Lobster with Malfatti Pasta, Baby Spinach & Blood Orange Cream
1/2 pound semolina flour
1/2 pound all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
4 whole eggs
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Grated zest of one blood orange, no white pith
Combine all ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer. Knead on low speed with a dough hook until combined. Knead 3-4 minutes more. Let rest at least one hour, preferable overnight. Roll out with pasta machine or rolling pin to 1/8 inch thickness. Cut into rough rectangular shapes approximately 1 1/2 x 3 inches.
4 one-pound lobsters
1/2 cup salt
Bring 12 quarts water to a rolling boil in a large pot. Add salt. Add lobsters, boil 5 minutes. Chill in ice water. Separate lobsters into head, tail and claws. Remove meat from tail, claw and knuckles. Remove top part of shell from head, cut in four pieces.
4 lobster heads, chopped
4 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 small onion, sliced
1 small fennel bulb, sliced
2 tablespoons butter
1 sprig each of parsley, thyme and tarragon
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon black pepper, crushed
1 cup white wine
1/4 cup Madeira
2 cups chicken stock
2 cups fresh blood orange juice
2 cups cream
Salt to taste
Heat an 8-quart saucepot. Add olive oil. Sweat onions and fennel in olive oil with no color. Add lobster heads, cook until they are well colored. Add butter, stir until it becomes foamy. Add herbs, bay and peppercorn. Add wines and reduce by half. Add stock and reduce by half. Add juice and reduce by half. Add cream, simmer until sauce is reduced by one quarter. Strain through fine strainer. Blend in a blender for one minute. Adjust seasoning with salt and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice if needed.
Heat a large sauté pan. Season lobster meat with salt and pepper. Add a little extra virgin olive oil and butter. Add lobster meat, heat through.
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 shallot, chopped fine
1 pound baby spinach, washed
1/2 cup chicken stock
Segments of two blood oranges, sliced into pieces.
1/4 cup chervil, picked
1 bunch chives, minced
Heat a large sauté pan. Add olive oil and butter. Add shallot, sweat. Add spinach, wilt. Add chicken stock, orange segments, and 1/2 cup sauce. Heat through. Boil pasta in a large amount of salted water until just cooked, approximately two minutes. Drain well and add to spinach. Season with salt and pepper, add herbs. Place pasta in center of large bowl, arrange lobster meat around, pour sauce over lobster.
I make my own pasta. A reasonable substitute would be lasagna noodles, broken into pieces before cooking. If blood oranges are not available, naval oranges are a good substitution.