It’s like watching the Detroit restaurant version of Brad and Angelina having a child.
Cameron’s Steakhouse and Mitchell’s Fish Market in Birmingham got together and gave birth to Ocean Prime, a new beautiful baby, long awaited especially by commuters who daily drove by the construction site where little Prime gestated at the corner of Coolidge and Big Beaver in Troy.
Two months ago, Detroit’s newest — and certainly the fanciest new restaurant in a few years — opened for business.
“A lot of people describe us as being a mix of the two, but we really want to step away from them,” says General Manager Steve Singleton. “There’s a lot of deviation. At Ocean Prime, we’ve really dialed it up a few notches. I like to say we’re a modern American supper club.”
But now that this bundle of joy has arrived, inquiring minds want to know: Is this new kid greater than the sum of its parts? The short answer: Ocean Prime is a chip off the old block, but on steroids.
It’s a gorgeous restaurant, worth a visit for the ambience alone. It has a bar that’s one of the most stunning around: beautiful, elegant, and hip.
In the dining room, table service is superior. The food, however, is undergoing teething pains, you might say, although that likely will smooth out when its permanent teeth are in.
From the outside, Ocean Prime feels more South Beach than metro Detroit. It has an almost 1930s sleek Art Deco smoothness in its curving lines and rounded corners, a theme that continues inside, where it becomes far more dramatic.
Open the front door, and you find yourself walking down a long two-story couloir washed in afternoon light flooding down from a glass atrium 28 feet above. Through the glare, the chest-high reception desk appears almost mirage-like in the distance, where three cheery-looking hosts wait to log your arrival into a computer and lead you to a table.
Behind the hosts is a soaring glass wall that fronts the wine vault and rises to the pitch of the ceiling, inside of which is a startlingly tall rack that holds several hundred bottles, each mounted sideways in its own holder so that you can read the labels from the outside. The bottles are accessed by climbing this Mt. Everest of wine on an oversize, sliding library ladder anchored at the top of the vault at about the same height as roof gutters on a two-story home.
Not a mission for the vertigo-challenged.
The elegantly curved dining room is tasteful and has a rich yet simple feeling, decorated in warm mahogany with brushed aluminum insets, offsets, and accents. Diaphanous white draperies that cascade from the high ceiling are illuminated from the inside by a hidden track of soft purple light. It’s effective and remarkably pretty.
The bar alone is worth visiting, dotted with high-topped tables and stools at which diners can have a more casual dinner. (There’s a patio as well, one that’s buffered from Big Beaver-Coolidge traffic by careful landscaping.) In the bar, a jazz combo sets a sophisticated musical mood. The room is softly lit, which allows the bar to be the dramatic focal point. Its soaring, ceiling-high glass storage rack for liquor bottles serves as a piece of art that’s set aglow by fluorescent lighting from behind opaque glass. It’s truly exquisite.
The staff has clearly been well trained. On our first visit, the waitress was friendly, flawless, and totally attentive. The pacing of her service, the arrival of dishes — all was smooth and immaculate.
On the second visit, another waitress had clearly undergone the same training and passed the test, but was rote in her presentation. When we told her that we weren’t keen on the Baked Alaska, she didn’t know how to respond.
The food was the most erratic part of the experience, as if Ocean Prime isn’t quite sure what it wants to be.
There are some items on the menu that are very good. For example, on both visits, the Chef’s Features were far better than anything we picked from the regular menu. One was breaded sautéed jumbo shrimp served with a lobster coleslaw and watermelon salsa. The salsa was sensational, and the coleslaw with lobster was generous and delicious. And the huge prawn-sized shrimp, cut in two, were springy, sweet, and fresh. The Key lime pie tart with white chocolate shavings was superior.
On a second visit, the Chef’s Feature sounded unlikely but was great: sautéed walleye in a Ritz-cracker crust served on a beurre blanc with spinach wilted in a dash of vinegar and thin-sliced red onion. The fish was cooked just so, with a lovely firm, golden crust. The beurre blanc was delicate, and the two combined perfectly.
But then came the first culinary disconnect: To the walleye, they also added a big dollop of acrid tartar sauce that detracted from the entire dish.
That kind of disconnect appeared in other dishes across both visits: Good dishes, nice preparation, good ingredients, but marred by something unnecessary. A nicely cooked fried calamari, for example, in what seemed a good imitation of La Choy sweet and sour sauce, but with red pepper flakes.
Several side dishes were disappointing, as well. Creamed spinach was overpowered by smoky bacon. A scallop-and-rib appetizer combo had soupy mashed potatoes.
The first thing brought to the table is a crudité bowl that includes carrot and celery sticks, a little cup of Wynn Schuler-style cheddar cheese, radishes, pimento-stuffed olives, sweet gherkins, and little plastic wrapped packs of Keebler Club crackers. It’s a touch that recalls the era of Joe Muer’s and other venerable fish houses.
“The idea goes back to the old supper clubs of the 1930s, when they would put out the relish trays,” Singleton says. True. But in my opinion, American fine dining has grown up and moved away from that.
We experienced another disappointment when the wine, a bottle of Bouchaine Pinot Noir, arrived at the table almost warm, well over 80 degrees, and I had to ask that they chill it in an ice bucket. Our server said other diners also had complained. Apparently, all those reds in the vault are stored in direct sunlight.
Not a wise move.
Ocean Prime is billed as fine dining. Right now, it’s a gorgeous place with good service. And clearly there’s skill in the kitchen. But the planning of the individual dishes is uneven, ranging from near perfection to dull.
It may just be that this new kid on the block needs a few sessions with a culinary coach to figure out what it wants to be. If it gets it together, it could be really great.
2915 Coolidge Hwy., Troy; 248-458-0500. L Mon-Fri. D daily.
Cook is the chief restaurant critic of Hour Detroit. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.