Ocean Prime: Center City chain is tough to swallow
We arrived just a few minutes after our reservation time at Ocean Prime, and a pleasant hostess greeted us with Chapter One of the universal Corporate Steak Chain Manual (the Pre-Meal Bar Soak): "Your table will be ready in 20 to 25 minutes. Would you care to wait in the bar?"
The scene buzzing hungrily through this swanky, new, fish-and-red-meat supper club from Cameron Mitchell Restaurants of Ohio was not so different from the crowds at numerous other chains near City Hall - equal parts expense-account starch and surgically enhanced, fur-trimmed ladies.
One woman beside me had so much going on she appeared to have four eyelids. Corporate captains with martini-rouged cheeks, meanwhile, randily brushed past on their way back to one of the glass-enclosed fishbowl conference rooms that ringed the bi-level space of the former Roy's. (Some, no doubt, freshly spritzed with the Consort hairspray and mouthwash provided in the men's room).
I was delighted when a hostess finally led us to our table in a relatively quiet corner of a side room. But then . . .
"I'm sorry, we're going to have to ask you to move," said the same woman, straight-faced, as though she hadn't just seated us there minutes ago. "This table has been reserved."
Already settled, we looked at the suggested table nearby, not yet properly set and wedged beneath a TV showing a fireplace – and politely declined.
There is no page for squatters' rights in the Manual, it seems, or for such a bizarre exchange, and the staff awkwardly relented. But suffice it to say, our first bites (besides bread) were not brought to the table until about one hour after our reservation time.
It wasn't worth the wait. And it wouldn't have been even if they'd been served promptly. I ate some of my most expensive meals of the year at Ocean Prime. Unfortunately, they were also the worst.
The lobster bisque was thick and bland, poured tableside atop a doughy fritter of corn goo. The seafood Cobb salad was a plate of greens limp with too much dressing and $20 worth of overcooked lobster and shrimp. The crab cake, filled with tiny lumps of mediocre crab, tasted mostly of tartar sauce. ("Are you sure you don't want to change tables?" they asked again.)
No. And the cooking did not improve.
With entrees running into the mid-$40s, you'll be lucky to escape from three courses with tip, tax, and a glass of mass-market wine (marked up to the cost of a retail bottle) for about $100 a person.
Of course, good steak dinners are never cheap. But that's not the adjective I'd apply to the thick hunks of beef I was served. Pale gray and char-free, despite the 1,200-degree broiler, these cuts were uniformly underseasoned (a rarity at a steak house) and had none of the long, lingering savor I typically associate with prime beef (touted here). Our bone-in filet, a weirdly heart-shaped cut that drooped from the bone with a sinew running through its overcooked middle, was a $46 disappointment. So was the New York strip, a tender-but-tastelessly unsalted slab also ribboned with silver skin. A blue-cheese crust lent a modest zing to the equally underseasoned rib-eye. Only the dry-aged Kansas City strip had a rosy, complex succulence that I'd order again.
Next time, though, I hope they'll garnish those plates with something other than the roasted Chinese garlic heads that turned, instead of deep brown, an eerie blue-gray. The signature jalapeño gratin potatoes should also be drained of the pooling grease atop their cheesy lid.
As my guest and architect friend noted, surveying the spindly, pink-coral centerpiece and golden onyx "cloud" that is essentially a glowing drop ceiling over the reportedly $5 million, 250-seat dining room, $4 million would have been better invested in better quality and value on the plate. (Speaking of which, the chef might use a tidier linen to wipe plate rims that came to us unappetizingly streaked. See "clean towels" in Manual.)
There's plenty of smoke for show, including a double-chambered goblet with dry ice that shrouds three huge - but also dull-flavored - shrimp for an $18 cocktail. In general, seafood shared the same lack of finesse that afflicted the red meat, from an overcooked blackened snapper strangely dolloped with tartar sauce to otherwise tender fried calamari totally sogged with sweet chili sauce. The "surf-n-turf" scallops had possibilities until they hit the wickedly oversalted meat gravy of the braised short ribs.
The $43 Chilean sea bass would have been passable banquet food if the champagne truffle sauce had not developed a skin. The canned truffles were also a theme with the otherwise decent tuna steak (except for the price). The persistent aroma of cheap truffles (canned and oiled) eventually overtook us like cheap cologne until a group of servers arrived with more plates – one of them reeking of cigarette breath, the other a disturbingly pungent body odor.
Even if the Manual doesn't bother to mention "inspect server hygiene," it seems like common sense.
But as I dug into desserts that were the only good things I ate here (a 10-layer carrot cake and fluffy peanut butter chocolate pie), I marveled at a packed room of diners willing to pay richly for stunning mediocrity in a city otherwise flush with excellence.
Common sense? Nowhere to be found.
On Dec. 29, Craig LaBan reviews the restaurants he has visited in 2013, in "The Year in Bells."
Marc A. Oppen, the general manager, talks about Ocean Prime at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews. Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at www.inquirer.com/labanchats.