On a recent balmy and breezy Monday evening, The Ocean House’s executive chef, Tom Woods, and celebrity chef Ming Tsai worked to prepare appetizers for 80 at side-by-side tables in a tent outside the Dennis Port restaurant.
The event was a private fundraiser that brought in thousands of dollars and raised awareness on Cape Cod for the cancer support group Family Reach.
The impetus for Woods and Tsai working this fundraiser together started a long time ago with a story that also explains why a good slice of the Ocean House menu has a Pan Asian flair.
Twenty years ago, as Woods was finishing a two-year degree at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, a mentor told him to choose a chef he admired, who was also a good business person, and to go work for him or her.
“It took me about four months of trying pretty much every day to get a job with Ming Tsai at Blue Ginger in Wellesley in 2001 or maybe 2002,” Woods said. “I would go to the restaurant almost every day. I eventually got a sit-down with Ming and he looked at my hands that were all burned and cut and he said, ‘Looks like you’ve been working.'”
Tsai not only hired Woods but also gave him the unlikely and highly rewarding task of crafting an amuse-bouche — a single bite-sized hors d’oeuvre that is not sold but given to the chef’s VIP guests to begin their meals.
“I had to bring this little bite to him every day so he could taste it. It was exciting to be able to spend hours preparing this little bite, often from ingredients we had at the restaurant. He would say this needs more texture, more crunch, more acid, more heat,” Woods says. “At a young age, I was working with Ming on menu items.”
At the Family Reach fundraiser, chef Tsai was making “new-style sashimi,” and saying, “I’ve gotten 1,000 people to try raw fish with this.” The dish starts with slices of paper-thin raw tuna onto which Tsai ladled ginger-lime-soy sauce, followed by a small shot of steaming hot madras curry oil, which flash-cooked the center, leaving the edges raw.
“The Chinese have been doing this for centuries,” he says. On the very top, Tsai sprinkled sweet and salty crisped jasmine rice.
While Tsai’s appetizer was special for the fundraiser, one table over, Woods was putting the finishing flourishes on a version of the Lobster Shumai with black truffles that is regularly on The Ocean House appetizer menu ($19). The dumpling-like two-bite hors d’oeuvre has a shrimp mousse with a piece of lobster nestled on top and everything wrapped in dough.
Passed appetizers at the reception also included regular menu items, including Sweet Corn and Chive Fritters ($12) and Grilled Chatham Oysters ($14) with Thai basil, citrus butter, briny oyster and delicate salty pancetta.
Every week, Woods builds a new $45 Bento box — which features three to five hors d’oeuvres, usually three seafood and two meat, or maybe a vegetarian option — that can be ordered as a meal. Woods estimates between dine-in and takeout, he sells 60 or so a week, with some people ordering the adventure without even asking what is in it that week.
OpenTable, the reservation system, named The Ocean House Restaurant among the top 100 most scenic spots in the United States and it is immediately evident why. The beach side of the restaurant is a wall of oversized windows that give the optical illusion that a diner could open the window and trail his or her hand in Nantucket Sound.
The dining room and outdoor-dining tent seat 240 people, with room for another 80 to 100 in the Ocean House Beachside (which closed for the season on Labor Day).
There are deep family roots at The Ocean House. Janet Barbato’s parents opened the 60-room Three Seasons Resort in the 1960s, which Barbato’s daughter, Kari-Anne Hart, still operates today. In the mid-’80s, Barbato razed two cottages and put up The Ocean House restaurant.
Although Woods, having trained with Tsai, brings a strong Pan Asian flair — think Chinese, Japanese, Thai and even Korean barbecue — The Ocean House menu is still grounded in native Cape seafood. Woods grew up summering on the beach in Jamestown, Rhode Island, digging clams and diving for lobsters. “Every summer day was about food, all day long,” he recalls.
The Ocean House fish menu can make fish-lovers drool. It includes: Cape Cod Potato Chip Crusted Fish and Chips ($25); Lacquered Chilean Sea Bass ($35); Pan-Roasted Dayboat Halibut ($43); Macadamia Crusted Yellowfin Tuna ($34); and an Ocean House Seafood Bowl Provencal ($36) with Littleneck clams, jumbo shrimp, scallops and sea bass. There is also a $75 Ocean House Family Tower with a half-dozen popular fried offerings, including whole-belly clams.
“It wouldn’t be fair to not tell you about our sous chef Nicholas Branchut, who came over 20 years ago on the boat straight from France,” Woods says of The Ocean House’s second-in-command. “He is the heart and soul of this place. He cooks every piece of fish.”
Although they will be surrounded by breathtakingly close ocean views and a dozen types of fish (many from that ocean), The Ocean House also has a small window for landlubbers. The menu features a Wagyu Beef Bistro Burger and a plant-based Impossible Bistro Burger ($23 each), Organic Chicken Milanese ($25) and even a Stir-Fried Noodle Bowl with add-ins that include tofu.
Barbato says that while some of the outside dining is seasonal, The Ocean House will remain open through December and, depending on the COVID-19 situation, possibly even for its annual New Year’s celebration.
The Ocean House
425 Old Wharf Road, Dennis Port
Hours: 4-10 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays