The Whale's Tale
You have to get there pretty early to beat Fair Lawn’s Peter Panteleakis (a.k.a. Mr. Whale) to the best seafood at the Fulton Fish Market.
Posted April 9, 2012 by Debbie Galant
New Jersey Monthly - Click here to view article
Fair Lawn restaurateur never sleeps
Thursday, February 21, 2008
By Bill Pitcher
Smack! A loud, staccato thump breaks through the morning din of clinking glasses and clanging pots and pans in the kitchen at Oceanos restaurant in Fair Lawn. The head chef doesn't flinch, continuing to stir his cognac sauce for the filet mignon. The manager, carrying a bucket of ice to the shellfish display in the dining room, doesn't blink.
Smack! It repeats again two seconds later. And again.
In a corner of the kitchen, next to the back door, 60-year-old chef-owner Peter Panteleakis is giving a ball of bread dough a workout. A forceful knead against the work surface, then a hard smack. Again. And again. In a few minutes, four dozen loaves of marbled white and seven-grain sourdough bread will be ready to rise. He won't actually bake them for two more days.
"Nobody understands how long this takes," he said. "And nobody knows how much time I put into the bread."
Early start, late finish
It's not just the bread. Panteleakis has been awake since 5:30 a.m., and in the kitchen since 6. By 9 a.m., he'd have baked a few dozen loaves of bread, started the dough for a few dozen more, inspected the olives and olive oil from his property in Greece that will be served alongside the bread and prepared pastries to give to customers -- "not on the menu, just a little something special for when they leave," he said. About 18 hours later, he's often still working, headed to New York's New Fulton Fish Market four times a week to handpick the next day's selections. And when he gets back to New Jersey in the middle of the night, he'll often hit the kitchen for another round of baking.
"All that work and so much the customers will never know about to appreciate. Nobody works harder," said Alex Kalivas, the restaurant's manager. "But that's just Peter."
He was born Panagiotis Panteleakis, the son of a palace guard, and learned the value of family and hard work from an early age. As a youngster, he shucked clams in his Greek seaside town. As a teenager, he joined the Hellenic Air Force, albeit to play saxophone, flute and clarinet in the band. And when he was 21, he headed to America to launch a life in food service.
He started with diners, owning the Tom Sawyer in Ridgefield, the Travelers in Dover and the Wallington Coach, but sold them after being unhappy with the quality of food he could afford to serve. In 1977 he opened Peter's Whale, a casual seafood restaurant in Glen Rock, then added The Whale, a Glen Rock fish market, and then a second Peter's Whale in Fair Lawn.
But the demands of two growing restaurants, a fish market and a growing family in Ridgewood were too much. The Glen Rock restaurant was closed, the market was sold, and his family moved to the tiny house adjacent to the Fair Lawn restaurant -- not that they were ever actually home. His wife, Barbara, and his youngest son, Demetrious, spent their time in the restaurant kitchen; older son Nikos worked in the dining room.
About three years ago, with a grander vision, Panteleakis closed Peter's Whale and transformed the space into a Mediterranean fine-dining destination -- the kind of place where wineglasses are examined three times for spots -- and surrounded himself with familiar, reliable faces. Nikos, an architect who supervised the renovations, was named general manager. Kenny Messinio, Panteleakis' faithful kitchen companion for 25 years, became head chef, keeping watch over 15 cooks. Barbara and Demetrious kept things running smoothly between the kitchen and dining room, now being run by Kalivas, a former restaurant owner who came out of semiretirement. Even Panteleakis' mother and mother-in-law, who live with the family in their new home next door to the restaurant, were enlisted to chop vegetables and taste-test.
That left Panteleakis to spend his hours to focus on the little details that he says set Oceanos apart from other restaurants. And he really puts in every hour. Even on the easy days, he rarely gets to bed before 1 a.m. A Greek siesta -- a 90-minute nap between lunch and dinner -- and the occasional sip of espresso are all the fuel he needs.
"If I get an hour of sleep, I'm good for two days," he said. "This is my DNA."
He doesn't even rest on vacations. He spends a month in Greece every summer and rises each day at 3 a.m. He spends his mornings fishing and his afternoons amid the 400 acres of 1,000-year-old olive trees and beehives. The olives, olive oil and honey are processed in the co-op he partially owns, bottled under the Krokees label and shipped either to Italy or the Oceanos kitchen.
For Panteleakis, each morning at the restaurant starts in the neighboring park with exercises -- the same regimen as his Air Force days. He's in the kitchen by 6 a.m. in a white chef's coat over a henley shirt and a day's worth of stubble on his face, adding scoops of flour freehand to a 30-quart Hobart mixer, which sometimes will yield white sourdough with lavender, sometimes seven-grain sourdough. "Sometimes eight-grain. Sometimes 10-grain," he said. He prepares two doughs every morning, which are later married in a signature marble loaf.
He'll also bake the bread that's already risen, all of the desserts -- baklava, carrot cake and phyllo-wrapped apple truffles one morning -- and start the day's soups. And he'll do it alone, sweeping up the stray flour that flies out of the mixer and the shards of phyllo dough that litter the worktable.
Through lunch and dinner, he alternates between his chef's coat and a suit and tie, sometimes grilling fish or searing steaks, sometimes visiting with customers, who watch him work the room in the hope he'll stop by their table and extend a hand. When the restaurant finally closes at 11 p.m., Panteleakis returns to the kitchen to start the yeast for the next day's bread. He's had the sourdough starter -- the fermented mixture that gives rise to his loaves -- for 45 years, he said. "And I have no idea how long they had it in Greece before that."
By 1 a.m. Panteleakis has traded his chef's coat and his suit for an old flannel jacket and is leisurely crossing the George Washington Bridge, half-listening to classical music on WQXR, half-talking with his eldest son, Nikos, about what they'll be looking for at the Fulton Fish Market at Hunt's Point in the Bronx. Planning ahead means they can walk briskly from seller to seller, peeking in boxes and gazing into each fish's eye, checking freshness.
Fishermen see the chef coming and know to pull out their best. One reaches his gloved hand into a pile of ice and produces a gorgeous halibut, still green from the sea. Panteleakis chooses Spiny Creek oysters from Montauk Seafood, black sea bass from Blue Ribbon and Dover sole flown in by Lockwood & Winant. Nikos follows along with the clipboard full of checks, trying to keep up. In an hour, they'll have spent about $12,000 -- $12,050 if you count the crisp $50 bill Panteleakis always carries to grease the delivery guy.
"I sell to 100 restaurants, and nobody buys better fish than this guy," said Tim Wilkisson, the fourth generation of his family to sell at the market.
Selecting the best
Fishermen whose catch, quality or quantity doesn't measure up rarely make a pitch to Panteleakis. He'll reject them with a smile and a friendly but dismissive wave -- the kind that suggests you're silly even to make the suggestion. He'll wave off 10-pound bags of stone crab claws and boxes of red snapper. And when a wholesaler raises his eyebrows at the high-end brand of shrimp being ordered and tries to warn him of the cost, Panteleakis turns away with the same wave and smile. He doesn't want to know.
"We never ask the price," Nikos said. "Whatever it is, it is not as important as the quality we give our customers," said Peter, who keeps his menu insulated from temporary price spikes and says he has served Copper River salmon below market price just to be able to offer it. "I know we lose money on some. That's not important, if we're doing everything else right."
After the market, father and son are still at work, decompressing and planning for the next day, often over turkey club sandwiches and bottles of water. It's at the Red Oak Diner where he contemplates the question: At age 60, will he ever give up the early mornings of baking and the late nights of fish selecting and delegate to his staff or family?
"I don't think so," he said, without hesitation. "All my life is here, in the restaurant. If I retire, I'll die."
Only at 3:30 a.m., when his car finally pulls back into the Oceanos parking lot, lighting up the building's facade, does his day finally appear to be over -- 22 hours after it began.
"No, it's not," he said, turning toward the restaurant and giving that dismissive wave. "Back to the kitchen. Bread to bake."
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Eating Out: Oceanos in Fair Lawn
By Nancy Thorpe
The vivid blue illuminated sign looks like an animated undersea fantasy, the submerged white block letters of Oceanos all wavy alongside colorful fish and coral. The undersea fantasy continues inside -- not with the decor, which is decidedly more elegant -- but with the food. If you are a seafood lover, you simply must visit Oceanos and take advantage of the Panteleakis family's passion for fresh fish.
Day boat scallops are the perfect example: Plucked from the sea and unmarred by preservatives, these plump, precious beauties are available only to restaurateurs willing to make the predawn excursion to the fish market and score a premium haul. Peter Panteleakis, who spent 20 years at the helm of Peter's Whale at the same location, or his sons, Nick and Demetrios, make that journey every other day.
Chunks of crab
Their expertise in selecting the finest and freshest was evident with my first bite of Arctic char ($23). The super-fresh fillet was perfectly cooked, its crackling crisp skin protecting moist, delicately flavored flesh. A roasted lime beurre blanc had a lovely smoky-citrus flavor, kicked up with just a hint of spicy ginger.
Meanwhile, those scallops ($27) -- so firm, so sweet, so naturally perfect -- are simply presented on a bed of sauteed spinach alongside lemon-roasted potatoes. Delicious.
Shrimp lovers have a few options, including stuffed shrimp ($29). The jumbo creatures are topped with a nice-sized dollop of stuffing with lots of large, sweet chunks of crab. A white wine sauce accented with lemongrass was so terrific I wished there were more of it.
Thrilling side dish
There are ample opportunities to feed your carnivorous tendencies as well. The "steaks" section of the menu features prime beef -- rib-eye, filet mignon, T-bone -- as well as my selection, double-cut lamb chops ($29). Three thick chops, meaty and juicy, were drenched in a rich, smoky, brick-red demi-glace and perched on a melange of fresh sauteed green beans, spinach and carrots. I was thrilled by a side dish of hot, crispy Belgian-style double-fried potatoes.
In addition to a raw bar starring a variety of boutique oysters, there are plenty of intriguing first-course options.
Three jumbo coconut shrimp ($14) were generously coated with coconut and deep-fried to crunchy-yet-tender perfection. The Thai-chili dipping sauce seemed like the standard orange marmalade with a sprinkle of red pepper flakes for heat.
Crab cakes ($14), heavy on the sweet lump crab, were nicely seared for a delicious, crispy crust. The Dijon aioli dipping sauce had a marvelous, vibrant flavor.
A generous portion of oven-roasted beet wedges ($8) was drizzled with a beet puree that had no verve. Even the accompanying almond paste, while interesting, was a bit bland. I love beets, so I wasn't unhappy, but this dish could use a little oomph.
I adored the sampler of four Mediterranean spreads ($12), presented with perfect pita triangles – soft and fresh, slightly charred on the grill. The feta cheese dip had a nice salty tang, with bits of roasted sweet red pepper delivering little bursts of garden freshness; the hummus was smooth and subtly seasoned; and the roasted eggplant salad was terrific, with a mouth-watering dose of juicy lemon. I was least fond of the caviar dip taramosalata, whose texture and flavor were reminiscent of mayonnaise.
When the Panteleakis family decided last year to close Peter's Whale and open Oceanos, son Nick, who is an architect, oversaw the renovation, with impressive results.
Flow and sparkle
The atmosphere is classy and comfortable. Tall-backed banquettes are covered in chic fabric with thick stripes of smoky blue and chocolate brown. Tables are decked out with crisp linens, sparkling glasses and gleaming flatware. Wood blinds and Roman shades cover the windows, and an inspired stripe of mirror lining the walls at chair rail level adds flow and subtle sparkle to the space.
Low lighting and soft strains of Greek music set a relaxed mood, and the servers are warm, friendly and experienced. A basket of warm, crusty bread (baked daily by Peter) and a dish of olives are presented on arrival, a welcome prelude to a good meal.
As often happens, service did slow a bit at dessert time, but overall it was attentive and professional, from excellent wine recommendations to swift post-dinner table crumbing.
Desserts (all $7) were impressive in size and presentation -- perhaps overwhelming after such a satisfying meal. Chocolate Vesuvius is a multilayered chocolate extravaganza, very intense and rich. An individual cheesecake is dense and creamy, beautifully decorated with berries and wafers.
Apple truffle is sliced, spiced apples wrapped in crisp phyllo dough and served with vanilla ice cream. The Greek dessert ekmek features custard and meringue atop a layer of shredded wheat and honey; it's lighter than it looks and very tasty.
An Offering of Olives
By Abigail Leichman, Pic Peter Monses,
Fruit of distinction: Olives come from six continents, and their preparation and flavors are a reflection of that diversity.
The gleaming white bowl filled with five varieties of olives is a still life in greens, reds and purples. There is a scattering of acidic pepperoncini and chili peppers to keep the fruit crisp. Fresh out of their bath of salt water or homemade wine-vinegar brine and just-picked herbs, each of these oval beauties has a distinct character and must be handled accordingly.
“I hate to go to the supermarket and see how they mix them all up together,” says chef Peter Panteleakis of Oceanos in Fair Lawn, whose artful assortments are served with dinner. “This kind needs one hour in salt water; that kind needs two hours in brine.”
While even a carelessly constructed melange of olives is an attractive addition to any table, it pays to learn how to differentiate among the vast varieties coming from trees on six continents. “The first time customers come in, it can be confusing,” concedes Al Sozer, owner of Pickles, Olives Etc. in Lyndhurst and Manhattan with his wife, Yonca. “We are patient and give them tastes because we want them to be sure they know what they’re really buying.” Sozer stocks 22 kinds of olives — whole, pitted, stuffed, cracked and scratched — from Greece, Turkey, Spain, Italy and France.
Greek varieties alone require a mini tutoring session, so we turned to Oceanos restaurant’s Panteleakis family, importers of olives harvested from 11,000 trees in their hometown of Krokees, on the Peloponnesian peninsula. Nikos Panteleakis learned everything he knows from his father, Peter, on yearly trips to Krokees and in the Oceanos kitchen. As he describes each olive, the young restaurateur plucks it from the dish and pops it into his mouth, depositing a clean pit in a separate bowl with his fingers.
The calcidica must soak in citrus juices. Olive oil spoils its texture. The Kalamata needs four days in salt water to draw out its bitterness. It’s distinguished by an eggplant hue and almond-shaped pit. (”Kalamata-style” olives actually are green olives dyed purple.) The nafplion has a surprisingly sweet taste. The green hondroelia is the product of grafting.
These four varieties are cracked with razor slits in their flesh to allow the appropriate marinade to penetrate. The fifth variety in the bowl, a chubby Greek version of the South American alfonso olive, remains uncut. “It’s meaty and dense,” explains the olive aficionado. “Cracking would ruin it because the brine would deteriorate the meat.” Sozer sells a yellowish Edremit Turkish olive that’s scratched rather than cracked. “It’s the bigger, green olives that get cracked in order to soak up the marinade,” he says. “Edremit are smaller and softer, so scratching is enough.”
When the makers of Chopin vodka served hundreds of martinis to guests at a recent Armani fashion launch, it was Sozer’s lemon-stuffed olives that graced the glasses. ‘Country’ look Cocktail olives, of course, get pitted beforehand, as do olives added to salads and entrees. But table olives — never. “It’s unnatural to eat an olive without a pit in it,” Nikos Panteleakis says. “People like something to do with their food by hand,” adds Tim Vlahopoulos, managing partner of the new Greek restaurant Axia Taverna in Tenafly. “It’s part of the eating experience, and it provides the perfect ‘country’ look.” Sozer, who is Turkish, wouldn’t think of setting his table without a boat of rich, salty, oil-cured Turkish olives. “Without black olives, the table is not complete,” he says.
Though olives require no eating utensil other than fingers, you may want to offer your assortment with pretty appetizer picks or slotted metal or olivewood serving spoons, suggests Jennifer Fuchs, a spokeswoman for Lindsay Olives in California.
Fingers are perfectly acceptable, however, for removing pits from your mouth. “Put a little dish near each place setting where people can dispose of the pit,” Fuchs says. “Otherwise, they can spit it into a small cocktail napkin.” Some diners prefer to use a fork to transfer the pit from mouth to plate. Still others extract the pit beforehand by squashing or slicing the fruit with a knife. ‘Anything goes’ There is no right or wrong way — short of hurling the pit at your dinner mate or dropping it on the floor. “Anything goes with olives,” Fuchs says. That applies not only to etiquette, but also to combining the ancient, healthful fruit with appetizer and main-dish ingredients.
“My chef, Alex Gorant, uses olives in many things, from meatballs to crusted salmon,” says Vlahopoulos. “Some are spicier, like the Spanish volos olive. Some need a little oregano or thyme to bring out their flavor.” Sozer says his oregano- and rosemary-marinated and garlic- or cheese-stuffed varieties are particularly popular for salads and snacks. But he suggests that olive novices buy a mixed assortment and decide for themselves. Prices range from $6.50 to $9.50 per pound.
In a Mediterranean Mood
By Susan Leigh Sherrill
On my first visit to Oceanos last July, shortly after its debut, I had high hopes for the former Peter’s Whale. But while the food was generally good, I found that the Panteleakis family, who had revamped their previously casual eatery into a swanky Mediterranean-seafood concept restaurant, were still getting their feet wet. Nearly a year later, both the kitchen and dining room are firing on all cylinders, producing dishes with a significant "wow" factor served in an atmosphere that is genuinely warm and inviting.
The two dining rooms have a vaguely nautical air, with lots of polished dark wood, grass-cloth wall coverings and black-and- white prints of vintage sailing yachts. The look is crisp, contemporary and clean, befitting a restaurant focusing on seafood.
You could easily whet your appetite with the warm bread – baked each day by owner Peter Panteleakis – vibrant green olive oil and marinated olives brought to your table; however, the large selection of appetizers prompts ordering several to share. I especially enjoyed the Mediterranean spreads – zesty feta with red pepper, roasted eggplant, hummus and salty, creamy taramosalata (with red caviar) – served with wedges of grilled pita bread. Excellent crab cakes (in my estimation, one of the benchmarks of a seafood restaurant) were meaty and mild. Beets star in an unusual appetizer worth sampling; simply roasted and cut into chunks, they are served with a thick, earthy, almond and garlic spread, which is a perfect foil for the beets' mild flavor. Oysters – Long Island Blue Points and Spinney Creeks from Maine – were ultra fresh and plump, although we were surprised to have to ask for lemon.
The fish that dominates the entrée portion of the menu is also clearly fresh and of high quality. Fat, dayboat scallops were simply seared to crisp the exterior, and served on a bed of garlicky spinach. A generous portion of sushi-grade tuna was also quickly seared, to arrive at the table perfectly rare as requested, and was nicely matched with a tangle of gingery sesame noodles and creamy wasabi aioli. A special of soft-shell crabs was offered deep-fried, française-style, or sautéed with olive oil and garlic. We chose the latter, and were very pleased with the crisp-tender result.
The menu does include a selection of whole fish, which can be served whole or boned for you. I particularly enjoyed the lavraki, a Mediterranean sea bass whose mild flavor was boosted by lemon, olive oil and herbs. Very good desserts were another happy discovery. My favorite was quite possibly the galaktobourko – quivery egg custard wrapped with crisp filo, cinnamon and honey – but I also loved its cousin, ekmek, a crust of shredded filo topped with custard and soft meringue. A chocolate-lovers dream named Vesuvius sandwiches cheesecake between layers of chocolate cake and mousse. The least successful dessert offering was the tangy Greek yogurt with cherries, walnuts and honey; the dish was made with chewy, reconstituted dried cherries instead of the usual stewed fresh fruit.
All of these culinary pleasantries are enhanced by extremely friendly service, which begins with an enthusiastic welcome at the door, and – if you are especially fortunate – will continue with the witty and knowledgeable waitress Lorraine. She and her colleagues are all doing their part to put Oceanos firmly on the list of Bergen’s best restaurant experiences.
AOL City's Best
By Tom Tauchert
Whether it's a family out celebrating an occasion, a young couple looking for a romantic dinner or a group of guys gathering to watch the Yankee game together, Oceanos has what they're looking for. Formerly know as Peter's Whale, Oceanos is tucked away a little off of Route 208 on Saddle River Road in Fair Lawn. Closed for six months of renovations, the new place is well worth the wait as Panagiotis Panteleakis remains executive chef while his sons Nick and Demetrios have stepped forward to manage it. Scrumptious Mediterranean entrees are available, including a fine mix of fish and steak selections.
Highly recommended is the grilled yellow fin tuna, which features a delicious dipping sauce. Be sure to top off any meal with Muscat, a sweet after-dinner wine. With refurbished hardwood floors and mirrors along the walls, Oceanos is a hidden gem that may make you forget you're not in New York City. Even better is the extremely courteous staff and the larger than usual portions. During warmer months, try to get a seat outside next to the garden and fountain.
Greek goods are proffered at this Fair Lawn Mediterranean offering an array of mezes, a raw bar and whole fish selections; the list of wines (including a number of varietals from Greece) is shipshape for oenophiles.
From Tommy Eats
By Tommy Eats
Intro: From our first to our most recent visit to Oceanos, we've noticed a continuous refinement in the cooking, and the overall approach. It might be our imagination, but it seems that Oceanos is blossoming into what it wants to, and should, be: a Mediterranean seafood restaurant with overtones of a classic Greek estiatorio. At first I thought the combination could lead to, or was an indication of, a lack of focus. Judging by what has evolved here, I clearly had no reason to worry.
The approach: Owner Nicos (Nick) and his father (and executive chef) Peter Panteleakis know seafood. I'm pretty sure Peter is picking the day's selections out himself by hand. That kind of attention to detail and that kind of passion for seafood translate onto your plate: you're getting pristine seafood. When I joked with Peter about the extra time and effort that goes into overseeing every piece of fish, he responded immediately with his gentle smile "I have to." Peter, who has been in the restaurant business in the Fair Lawn area for a few decades, knows no other way. And his customers are all the beneficiaries of that dedication and experience.
Recent food: There are only a few months a year that soft shell crab is available. But you don't have to remind Oceanos about this: they're on the case. The soft shell crabs we've had at Oceanos have been some of the meatiest and freshest-tasting in memory. And trust me, that's a lot of memory. And, you can have them one of four ways (deep fried, sauteed, lemon/butter, garlic/olive oil). We chose deep fried recently, are were really thrilled from first bite to last. It is one of the dishes that compels you to say "let's come back tomorrow for more." And we just might do that. I would say that if you get an order of soft shells (fried), a side of their excellent twice-cooked (Belgian-style) french fries, and a couple of glasses of champagne, you'll have yourself one helluva meal.
Not to be outdone by soft shell crabs, Copper River salmon is another seasonal fish, available for only a few weeks a year, and one you probably don't come across as often as the crab. These salmon are nice and fatty and have a complexity of flavor that I don't find in run-of-the-mill salmon. In fact, I don't even like salmon (unless it's raw). But the Copper River salmon is a unique fish, and is not to be missed. And Oceanos pulls through...
A perfectly cooked piece of fatty salmon topped with a mild ginger and scallion sauce is served with some basmati rice. The skin is crisp and the flesh is tender and luscious.
Also worth trying are the roasted beets with and almond-garlic spread, crab cakes (some of the best we've had), the plump and perfectly-cooked sea scallops, and oysters. The oysters here are handled with the respect and consideration that oysters demand: the liquor remains intact. I'm amazed at how many restaurants screw this up.
The environs: We've also noticed that the room with the smallish bar is considerably more lively than it was during earlier visits. The widescreen TV is kept on during dinner service (it's not intrusive), the music is ramped up a bit, and the room just seems more what it should be in my mind: a more casual alternative to the main rooms. However, even with a big Saturday crowd, neither the main rooms nor the bar room get very loud. I'll take lively over loud any day.
The restaurant is very nicely decorated with dark wood tones and white table cloths. All very clean and to-the-point. Servers are dressed sharply and seem professional and proficient.
Summary: Get your bad self down to Oceanos. If it's a weekend you should certainly make a reservation. Apparently, the word is getting out.