It’s fair to say that chef Tanapat “Tee” Vannopas caused a small tsunami when he quietly opened the high-end Seven Ocean this winter in west suburban Oak Park.
Yes, there was the frosted glass front window that prevented passersby from seeing the lovely, minimalist space. But there was also his (then) $55 seven-course prix fixe-only menu of Thai contemporary and Asian fusion fare — an unusual concept for a jeans-and-sneakers town that caters mostly to families. A local blogger even asked, “Can a restaurant be too fancy for Oak Park?”
Since then, Vannopas — who also owns Chicago’s Tatsu, a casual sushi bar and pan-Asian eatery — has added a four-course ($35) truncated version of his tasting menu in addition to a handful of starters ($7 to $12) and entrées ($15 to $19). The chef, who will change his menu seasonally — with some periodic dabbling in between — says he made the modifications mainly to give his growing base of regular customers some different dishes to experience.
“It’s just a way to not limit ourselves,” says Vannopas, who also resides in Oak Park.
Still, he estimates that 85 percent of all customers are going full-out for the grand prix fixe.
“For many people [the prix fixe] is uncharted territory,” Vannopas says. “It shows we are comfortable enough in our abilities. And we decided to take a risk where people would have to take an equal risk so we could share the same reward.
“People are just pleasantly surprised. Many people are saying they like having the option of something like this in our community.”
“The reward” is the chef’s creative and carefully plated cuisine, which is served with an air of urban sophistication. In other words, don’t expect a big bowl of chicken pad thai to come flying out of Vannopas’ kitchen.
A Bangkok native, the chef relies heavily on the wonderful ingredients commonly associated with Thai cuisine — like lemongrass and cilantro, for example. But he also utilizes Japanese and other Asian flavors.
“I want to be able to express my creativity by bringing the best parts of Asia into my own creations,” Vannopas says. “There’s no reason to put a cap on our creativity.”
The Husband and I decided to try Seven Ocean on February 15, after we had an unanticipated disaster of a Valentine’s Day. When Vannopas heard our about our sad little evening, he kindly offered to recreate Seven Ocean’s special Valentine’s tasting menu just for us. (The menu featured dishes that will likely appear on Vannopas’ upcoming spring menu.)
The Husband went with the seven-course, while I opted for the four — and stole bites of the dishes that were absent from my tasting menu.
We both started with the four seasons salad, a deconstructed mix of greens, turnips, grilled zucchini and beet bites served with an herbaceous ginger-parsley pesto and a cleansing lime foam.
Next up for The Husband was black rice noodles. Vannopas’ squid ink pasta was plated with dried shrimp and a pineapple dice, both which provided added texture and flavor for this cold starter.
I was back in the game with tuna tartare, a compilation of exceptionally fresh ingredients including Asian pear and avocado and a dusting of tobico. Chip-like crispy lotus root slices made perfect dippers for the tartare.
Normally Seven Ocean allows substitutions only to accommodate food allergies and dietary restrictions. But because of our unique situation, the kitchen let The Husband swap his Valentine’s Day (coconut) soup for the restaurant’s regularly featured one. I was truly thankful that The Husband was willing to share his edamame cream soup, a truffle oil-laced twist on soothing split pea. We’re still raving about the silky soup, which brilliantly subs in salty tobiko for traditional ham.
From there, The Husband moved on to grilled teriyaki cod filet. Sweet and smoky, the thick and meaty filet was served with Japanese cucumber — in a classic sweet and vinegary Thai preparation — and spongy, ginger-soaked eggplant.
Both of us received fork-tender sautéed chicken breasts with sides of haricots verts and jasmine rice. The pleasantly portioned entrée was served over a refined Thai green curry sauce. And although Vannopas wants the dish to be an upscale take on traditional curry, I couldn’t help but long for an extra touch of his rich and spicy sauce.
The evening concluded with pandan tapioca. (Pandan is a Thai leaf commonly used to sweeten desserts.) Served with coconut ice cream, the tapioca was set — in honor of Valentine’s Day — over a chocolate sauce “rose” personally drawn by the chef.
Sneakers and jeans be damned, these Oak Parkers will be back.
122 North Marion Street
Oak Park, Illinois 60201
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