REVIEW WRITTEN BY LEN LEAR
For Digital First Media
There is, of course, an abundance (some might say an overabundance) of outstanding high-end restaurants in Center City Philadelphia, but area residents planning to visit Ocean Prime at 124 S. 15th St. will have to radically adjust their culinary compass. While the prices are by no means insignificant — appetizers between $13 and $19, raw bar between $19 and $32, soups and salads between $10 and $32 and entree prices between $28 and $59 — the food and service at this elegant palace of gastronomy, formerly home to Roy’s, are literally transcendent.
While there were a couple of hiccups in our view (specifics later), we were completely won over by the carefully rendered dishes, ingredients as fresh as sunshine, seasoning applied with the precision of a clock maker and cooking as sophisticated and affectionate as a sonnet by Shakespeare.
Ocean Prime is a high-end steak-and-seafood chain that originated in Columbus, Ohio, and now has 12 locations in the U.S. It may be high tide now for the three-year-old Ocean Prime in Philly, but it was not always smooth sailing. In December, 2013, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s acerbic critic, Craig LaBan, conferred his notorious “No-bell” prize on Ocean Prime, trashing the food and service and even the “surgically enhanced, fur-trimmed ladies” eating there.
Obviously, Ocean Prime has recovered from the whipping.
During our recent visit to the spectacularly appointed, bi-level 250-seat establishment with plush banquettes, rich fabrics and a theatrical vibe, a highlight was an appetizer of airy and translucent tuna tartare with sushi grade tuna, ginger ponzu and crunchy sesame seeds ($17). It made us wax lyrical, while six deviled eggs with soft white truffle caviar ($13) melted on the tongue with the sublime luxury of velvet. (There is a talented, charming executive chef, Rory Baatz, who is so new that as this is being written, his photo and bio are still not on the restaurant’s website.)
Despite the “Ocean” in the name, this garden of eatin’ also offers six prime broiled steaks, priced from $41 to $48. A 16-ounce ribeye was effusive with flavor, but I made the mistake of ordering it “au poivre” ($6 extra), and I had to scrape off most of the pepper because it was overwhelming. I used to make this dish at home and quickly learned the pressing of cracked peppercorns into the meat before cooking has to be judicious.
A Chilean sea bass entrée was fork-tender and exquisite with whipped potatoes and a divine champagne truffle sauce ($44). A side dish of lobster macaroni and cheese was toothsome, but there was very little lobster to justify the $21 price tag, and a side dish of Brussels sprouts was slightly overcooked ($11).
Like the rest of the meal, desserts are unpretentious and satisfyingly homespun, from a paper-thin 10-layer carrot cake ($11) to a ridiculously creamy chocolate peanut butter pie ($11).
Two wines I had by the glass, Trefethen Cabernet and Waugh Cellars Chardonnay, were pleasant enough but way overpriced at $19 each. On the other hand, a Black Orchid cocktail with elderflower liqueur and a real orchid wrapped around a large circular ice cube ($13) was sheer bliss, probably the most delicious cocktail we have ever tasted.
I would be remiss if I did not mention our server, Jerome Ross, a transplanted Californian, who was delightful, cheerful, knowledgeable and efficient. Dining room manager Rob Stipa is another winner.
Although the prices at Ocean Prime can be intimidating, there is an antidote available. Ocean Prime just launched a new 5 & 10 Happy Hour cocktail menu that’s more affordable. It includes 13 quality beers for $5 each, a full cocktail menu for $10 and sushi rolls on the snacks menu for $5, etc.
There is valet parking offered in front of the restaurant for $21,or $40 if you have an SUV. Just one more reason not to have an SUV. For more information, call 215-563-0163 or visit www.ocean-prime.com