Ocean Prime -- So Fancy, They Should Put Goldfish on the Menu

The see-and-be-seen crowd gathers at Ocean Prime, though you’d think they’d prefer better-tasting fish.
Sara Kerens

On a day when you're feeling all up in your fine self, when your wrinkle-fillers have smoothed out the frown lines and your good car is out of the shop, that's the day to go to Ocean Prime. Because any other day? You're going to feel way out of place in this jernt.

This is fah-fah fancy-ville, with a double order of shmancy. The sleek-haired ladies lunching at Ocean Prime totter in on absurdly tall Louboutins, the footwear's distinctive red soles unscuffed thanks to the plush red carpet leading from valet stand to front door of the restaurant. Male patrons have an air of moneyed spiffage too, with a burnish of golf tans on their cheeks, and smiles revealing sizable investment in good veneers. There's not yet a show on Bravo called Real Housewives of Highland Park, but if there were, Ocean Prime would be a prime location for scenes of on-camera table-hopping and cocktail-fueled feud-starting.

Look around the wide main dining room at the noon hour on a weekday. It's packed with shiny, confident, beautiful people. Nobody here appears to mind the jacked-up prices on the menu (or if they do, they're not about to let on). Over shrimp cocktails and she-crab bisque, they're making connections, business and personal (is that his too-young wife in that corner booth or quelque chose de plus?). It's a big, well-lit stage and they are pleased to be on it, giving the smug head-toss and perfunctory wave over the shoulder to the extravagantly jeweled real estate madam, who's managed to eat every bite of her Caesar without smudging her lip gloss.


Ocean Prime

Ocean Prime Truffled deviled eggs $10 Sweet chili Point Judith calamari $12 Ginger salmon $18 7-ounce fillet $27 Chocolate peanut butter pie $7

At lunch in the huge main room, seating capacity 380, over drinks in the noisy Blu Lounge or out on the wraparound patio (room for 115 more), you brush elbows with a segment of the city's business and social strata that's not feeling the pain of the economic dip the way some of us in the pleb class are. Ocean Prime is perched on the nexus of Dallas' priciest residential and business centers: the crossroads of Cedar Springs and Pearl, on 10,000 square feet of the ground floor of Rosewood Court, a 19-story "amenity-rich" office tower. Food is way down the list of reasons why this crowd is at this place. See, it's see and be seen here. Next month it'll be the same see/be seen scene at some other new upscale seafood-and-chop house. One seems to open every few weeks.

There are six Ocean Primes in restaurateur Cameron Mitchell's Columbus, Ohio-based national chain. Designed by restaurant interior specialist Knauer Inc., this "modern American supper club," as they like to call it, sports lavish details in every area but the menu. There's pretty artwork, a waterfall wall, fire pits, private dining rooms, deep banquettes backed with blue neon, and gorgeous overhead light fixtures hanging like glowing amber hatboxes overhead.

They're certainly extravagantly staffed. With 130 employees in the Dallas location, it's bustling with managers, maître d's, reservationists, servers and bartenders. On our visits, once with reservation, once without, we stepped through the revolving front door into a gantlet of young, chirpy female greeters and others—so many on both sides of the foyer, it was almost overwhelming and definitely confusing.

The atmosphere and furnishings hit you with a country-club/cruise-ship/resort-hotel gloss. As one of those perky greeters hands you off to a manager who passes you on to a maître d', you'll walk past stacks of wine bottles displayed in tall, glassed-in "cellars." From inside the Blu Lounge, you'll hear a singer-pianist struggle through a repertoire heavy on John Mayer and Dave Matthews (the music does get loud, even in the dining room). At the white-clothed table, a server, shadowed by a nervous trainee, will introduce herself, take your requests for a couple of the house's "prime cocktails" (at $11-$12 each, so weak they're not worth the trouble) and then disappear for 15 or 20 minutes, popping back sans drinks but ready to push the meal orders.

Chef Sonny Pache's lunch menu is surprisingly scant, listing six salads, six sandwiches and eight entrees, only four of which are fish. Two of those—gulf red snapper and Chilean sea bass—are known as "over-fished" and endangered. Many seafood purveyors have dropped them. (Later, Ocean Prime's public relations office tells us the sea bass is a "sustainable" variety that comes from a South Georgia Island fishery; no word on the snapper, though.)

And so to the food portion of our Ocean Prime experience. Crab cake appetizer, delightful. Fat with flakes of fresh crab, softened by a corn-based cream sauce. We order another. Calamari, ghastly. Whole pile drenched to the edge of the plate in the sort of sticky-sweet red syrup you'd get with Chinese fast-food. Goat cheese ravioli—delicate pillows of pasta that drown, unfortunately, under a heavy tide of lemony melted butter dotted with scallion ends and tough sun-dried tomato strips. Truffled deviled eggs wouldn't pass muster at a picnic, with creamed yolks topped with crumbs of truffle so small they must've been applied with a tweezer.

Entrees, just OK. Ginger salmon with snap peas and sticky rice earns a "feh" from my lunch date. There's no ping of ginger to the fish; no salmon flavor either. And it's undercooked. "It's like the iceberg lettuce of salmon," he says. The peas are about two days past their peak snappability. My 7-ounce fillet, however, is a medallion of graceful beef, a veritable Evan Lysacek of fillets. But the potatoes au gratin next to it are salty glue, and the green beans have been seared by nothing warmer than the line cook's hot breath.

Empty cocktail glasses remain on the table. Water glasses and coffee cups, wanting for refills, are ignored by our server and her student.

Desserts, listed as "Indulgences," are heavy but unremarkable. The peanut butter pie is shaped like a hockey puck—a hard chocolate shell surrounding a creamy peanut butter center. It looks tempting but tastes...like nothing at all. Just cold and sweet. Ten-layer carrot cake is the calamari of desserts, sopping under an over-ladling of toothachy pineapple syrup.

Meal over, we linger a half-hour longer, gazing at the rich folks gliding in and out of Ocean Prime with their good handbags and well-made suits. There's a sense that important deals have been made at other tables, that those parting handshakes we witnessed probably set in motion big things we'll never be a part of. We pay the check (gulp!) and head out past the waterfall, through the revolving doors and down that pretentious red carpet. We may not swim with the sharks of Dallas high society, but we can dine among them.

Ocean Prime 2101 Cedar Springs Road, 214-965-0440 Open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday. Open for dinner 4-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 4-9 p.m. Sunday. $$$$

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