Dallas, you have a serious dining disorder. Local chef-driven restaurants offer creative cuisine cooked from the heart, but you choose to spend your money on steak, seafood, and crème brûlée. Why do you swarm like clouds of starlings from one high-priced, mediocre restaurant to another? Follow-up question: do you have to eat a Caesar salad with every meal?
I was flabbergasted by the hordes of well-heeled patrons packed into the dining room and bar at the recently opened Ocean Prime in Uptown’s Rosewood Court Building. Who are you people?
The first time I stepped into Ocean Prime, it was 6 on a Monday night. Why so early? It was the only reservation I could get. As we pulled into the circular driveway lined with luxury automobiles, I guessed that the glistening Lamborghinis, BMWs, and Bentleys must have been loaned to the restaurant as props to lure in wealthy customers (and the ladies who love them). I quickly saw that my suspicions were wrong. The bar was mobbed with men in expensive suits holding glasses with three-finger pours of Scotch. A group of overly coifed women dripping diamonds and wrapped in full-length minks surrounded the hostess stand. Each held a bizarre drink in her manicured fingers. The deep pink liquid in the martini glasses bubbled like a witch’s cauldron. Layers of fog swirled around their tight faces and drifted in horizontal layers across the room. I felt like I was in a surreal remake of Dr. T and the Women.
“We put dry ice in all of our cosmos,” piped an overly cheery server. “It’s a very popular presentation.”
Turns out, many things at Ocean Prime are “popular.” At each of my three dinners, I asked for a recommendation. Like trained robots, three different servers went into sales speak and referred to the same dishes—Kansas City strip, pecan-crusted trout, Chilean sea bass, and Scottish salmon—as “our most popular.” Servers, why don’t you listen? I don’t want to know what is popular; I want you to ask me what I like and steer me to a selection on the menu. Give me relevant advice. Make me something special. And, please, if you don’t know the answer to a question, do not make it up. I lost respect for Ocean Prime on my first visit when our waiter went into a long spiel about the diver sea scallops.
“Our diver sea scallops are actually farmed by a diver who actually is going down and finding them instead of a ship or boat coming through and just raking them up from the bottom,” said our waiter. They were priced at $29 for four, which made me doubt his claim. Genuine hand-harvested scallops bring premium prices, and they are sold to high-end eateries in New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. I know of only two restaurants in Dallas that serve them (and only periodically): Aurora and the French Room. Twenty-nine bucks might buy you four real diver scallops—if you were paying wholesale. Too many menu writers refer to scallops as “diver” when, in fact, they are serving large (U-10) scallops harvested by dragging the ocean floor with dredges.
“So, are they from Maine?” I asked, knowing that Maine is where most true diver fisheries are located.
“No,” he said. “They are from New England.”
Rather than ask him to name the capital city of New England, I perused the wine list. What an insult to perceptive wine drinkers. To say that the selection is uninspired is letting Ocean Prime off the hook too easily. I sent the list to a wine expert I know. He called it “a cocktail drinker’s wine list.” It is populated with labels you can find at any froufrou grocery store—Duckhorn, Jordan, Chalk Hill, Charles Krug, Estancia.
The website boasts: “Ocean Prime encompasses retro elements of a supper club, including warm finishes and rich woods, combined with contemporary-styled sheer drapery, and state-of-the-art lighting.” Is “retro” a synonym for Rat Pack? The private dining rooms are named for Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Frank Sinatra. Maybe that schtick still plays in Peoria. But don’t you think it’s time we move forward and designate a new past as retro?
I’m sure when the weather changes, the outdoor patio with cushy chairs and a fireplace will be the new Uptown hangout. The crowds that once boozed in the nearby Rattlesnake Bar at the Ritz-Carlton and Capital Grille at the Hotel Crescent Court have already migrated to the stools in the lounge at Ocean Prime. According to one industry insider, “The bar is printing money.”
Well, that’s good for Cameron Mitchell, the entrepreneur behind Ocean Prime. In 2008, he sold his Mitchell’s Fish Market and Mitchell’s/Cameron’s Steakhouse to Ruth’s Chris for $92 million. Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, comprises 17 “units” and seven different concepts with locations in six states. Mitchell is a master at printing money.
I wish, though, that he would print a menu that made me hungry. The food isn’t bad. But it is, like the wine list, unimaginative. There is nothing about Ocean Prime that stands out enough to make me want to go back. All the steaks I tried—the 16-ounce Kansas City strip ($38), the 18-ounce rib-eye ($39), the 10-ounce filet ($38)—were average. They’re served a la carte, “dusted with Ocean Prime steak dust,” and garnished with a baked half-bulb of garlic. The KC strip ordered medium rare might have had a chance—I like the musty flavor of dry-aged beef—but it was delivered well-done. Any concentration of flavor gained in the aging process had been cooked away, leaving the meat dry and dense. The Oscar-style rib-eye ($46) was well-marbled and served with a juicy red center.
A thick slab of broiled Scottish salmon was lovely, and the translucent champagne beurre blanc sauce didn’t complicate the nutty flavor of the fish. The U-10 sea scallops, as verified by a different server, were undercooked; a minute more in the pan would have given them a crispy sear on the outside. Instead, they collapsed into the mustard cream sauce on the plate and turned to mush. Blackened snapper was slightly spiced. Anyone who has eaten Cajun food would consider this version as cayenne-light. The mild fish was overcooked, making it thin and tough on the tooth. Oddly, Ocean Prime does not offer fresh lobster. Instead, it sells a 7-ounce Australian lobster tail ($31), which our waiter assured us was flown in fresh every day. “I don’t think it comes directly here,” he said. “I think it makes a few stops before it gets here.”
I wish he’d been kidding. I also wish I could get back the $23 I paid for the Amish chicken from Park Farms in Ohio. The scrawny bird looked more like a large quail. There was a faint gamy taste to the dark meat, but the white meat was rigid. I had to peel off the top layer to find meat tender enough to chew (and chew) until a big ball of chicken meat refused to break down in my mouth. Eventually, I spit it into my napkin.
Ocean Prime offers eight different potato preparations. One order of potato latkes yielded 19 silver-dollar-sized discs. How a fried, grated potato can end up bland is beyond me. I tasted no egg or onion, and scooping on tablespoons of sour cream and apple sauce seemed like a waste of calories. The 9-inch twice-baked potato was overloaded with a thick layer of Wisconsin cheddar and studded with chunks of Nueske’s smoked bacon. Even the bacon fanatic in our group admitted it was “too much of a good thing.”
The 10-layer carrot cake with thin layers of moist cake separated by cream cheese icing was also too much of a good thing. But that didn’t stop me from eating the entire 2.5-by-2.5-by-6-inch tower.
It’s too bad that even a fabulous dessert will not allow my brain to erase my fondue experience at Ocean Prime. I get that it’s a retro dish. The warm, melted blend of Tillamook, aged Wisconsin cheddar, Parmesan, Swiss, and Velveeta is served with a sloppy display of salami triangles, carrot circles, broccoli tops, and grape tomatoes. But there is a reason why fondue disappeared along with the ’60s. It doesn’t work in a restaurant. To the horror of my guests, I proved my point by picking up a squishy piece of broccoli and wringing the water out of it like a wet mop.
But who am I in Cameron Mitchell’s scheme of things? He has found a way to seduce you, dear Dallas, with his modern American retro supper club. And though I can’t understand how this city has room for another steak, seafood, and crème brûlée restaurant, you obviously do. Frank Sinatra once said, “The best revenge is massive success.” Touché, Mr. Mitchell.
Get contact information for Ocean Prime.