Several months ago, when I first heard that Ocean Prime was opening, I wondered if Tampa could handle another high-end steakhouse — a chain, in fact — during tough economic times. Hell, considering the massive representation steakhouses have in the Bay area, I'd ask the same question in good times. Considering the crowd on a Tuesday night in April, I guess I have my answer.
The place isn't packed, but you wouldn't know it from the loaded parking lot. The dining room is full, happy people are lounging around the exterior bar area and the restaurant feels like it's hopping. As the night goes on, the long patio dining area overlooking a surprisingly pastoral retention pond on the border of the International Plaza parking lot starts to fill up. Maybe Tampa isn't ready for more of the usual luxe steakhouse clones, but it certainly seems to have accepted Ocean Prime.
The tasty and capable food is part of that, but I doubt it's the main draw. Ocean Prime is a gorgeous place that feels more like an entertainment complex than merely a restaurant. Decked out in impeccable modern design — from a gas-fed fire pit separating the interior lounge entryway to the massive, cantilevered canvas umbrellas protecting the patio — it's miles ahead of any of the other chains, and even offers a big touch of bright Florida outdoors that puts the cave-like Bern's to shame.
There's a huge interior lounge complete with piano-man belting tunes good enough for Ocean Prime to pump his stylings throughout the restaurant. Another bar fronts the dining room and horseshoes out to the patio, which is decked with all-weather couches, molded Scandinavian barstools next to high-top tables, and a bricked fireplace between the lounge and the exterior dining. Give yourself a moment to soak it in and you may forget — or stop caring — that you're in a mall out-parcel next to a soon-to-open Crate and Barrel.
You also may forget the steaks and seafood that form the core of the menu, especially after downing one of the innovative and expertly constructed cocktails on the Ocean Prime martini list. The cucumber gimlet is easily one of the best mixed drinks I've sipped in years and, as far as recipe and preparation is concerned, is the best thing served here, food included.
That's not to say that the food doesn't do justice to the setting. The menu reads like you'd expect, with a long list of raw bar items, starters, sides and salads aim more for restrained elegance than innovative cookery. And, of course, there's a half-dozen beef cuts and fresh fish filets.
Devilled eggs ($11) are stripped to the basics, the yolks whipped and seasoned and topped with two tiny shreds of shaved black truffle that mesh with the fat to coat your mouth in unctuous earthiness. Rosy red tuna ($15) that looks like cubed gems, piled atop rich avocado and crunchy shreds of wonton, could use a sprinkle of sea salt even with the sweet ponzu dressing on the plate.
Ocean Prime's "surf and turf" starter ($16) is a study in classic simplicity: velvety mashed potatoes, two scallops crusted in a salty sear, a discrete pile of tender meat pulled from braised shortrib, all doused in a perfect little red-wine demiglace that compliments without taking control. Philosophically, it's steakhouse cooking taken to its logical conclusion, but it would also fit into almost any high-end restaurant.
Fish at Ocean Prime may be a better bet than beef, like perfectly cooked snapper ($32) coated in just the right amount of punchy blackening seasonings and accented by green and bright jalapeno-laced sauce. Even salmon ($29), the workhorse of every restaurant from mid to high, is ideally cooked, if a tad bland.
Steaks, which are all prime, could use a more assertive hand with the salt. There are a number of toppings, but that night was probably not the right time to bother with extras: my dollop of truffle butter came to the table melted to nothingness on a ribeye ($39) more room temp than fresh from the 1200 degree grill. Our likeable waiter struggled through the item descriptions, table clearing and order entry — perhaps thanks to a debilitating party of 10 that sat down shortly after us.
But in the end, that did little to dent the charm of Ocean Prime. We just sat back and watched the turkey vultures alight on the fountain at the center of the retention pond, wind in our hair and cocktails in our hands, perfectly at ease. No matter how good the food, it's almost secondary to the luxe joys of this getaway in the heart of commercial Tampa.