Ocean Prime, the Modern American Supper Club, doesn't seem like the most prudent choice in this economy, in this restaurant climate, even in this steak house-choked town.
Prudent or not, Ocean Prime, which opened Jan. 23 adjacent to International Plaza, is fabulous.
The ninth restaurant concept of Columbus, Ohio, entrepreneur Cameron Mitchell looks like the dining room of a stately old cruise ship: porthole windows and gleaming wooden paneling, huge amber-lit chandeliers that you can imagine swaying a little with the waves. The dining room staff, clad in white servers' jackets (also very cruise ship) are exceptional, whisking in and out to crumb a table or refill a glass. They'll guide you through the luxurious menu or stop to tell you a little story (explaining, for example, that the expression "Pittsburgh rare" comes from when the Pittsburgh steel workers would bring a raw steak to work for lunch and sear it on a cooling piece of steel. It means the steak is charred on the outside and nearly raw inside).
The talent they've managed to assemble, from bartenders, hostesses and servers to pianists and singers in the lounge, is nearly unprecedented for a fledgling restaurant in this area. They're as polished as a new penny.
Which brings us to the topic of money. Bring a lot of it. House cocktails show a prodigious talent at the bar, but most will set you back at least $14. Still, it would be a shame to miss the refreshing cucumber gimlet ($13) or the au-so-courant sea salt caramel martini ($14) with its dramatic black lava salt.
It's an a la carte steak house, with prime meats and fresh fish cooked at 1,200 degrees and served simply. A handful of "chef's specialties" bring more composed plates with sauces and veggies, but the bulk of the entrees are protein-only, with sauces, potatoes and other sides ordered separately. Many of the sides are stunning versions of classics: potato gratin ($9) gets an uplifting jalapeno smolder; spinach ($9) is lush with cream and smoky bacon. These are big and shareable, as are sauces like a textbook Bearnaise ($3) or heady black truffle butter ($5).
An 18-ounce prime rib eye ($39) didn't need much gussying, its dry rub tasting faintly garlicky, the meat as flavorful and tender as any steak I've had in Tampa. But Ocean Prime is the kind of place where gilding the lily seems appropriate: a side of vinegared plank fries ($8), a bowl of sauteed wild mushrooms ($9) and a big drizzle of that Bearnaise finished things off.
Seafood should not be given short shrift, from the showstopper shrimp cocktail ($15; that's only three shrimp, but they're big) served amid a puff of dry ice smoke, to a moist Chilean sea bass ($36) served with a drinkable champagne truffle sauce and surrounded by tiny carrot coins. Diver sea scallops ($29), seared perfectly, rest atop a mustard cream and are complemented by tiny green beans and caramelized pearl onions.
If you've eaten at some of the Tampa Bay area's other big-league dinner houses, you've seen this food before. But Ocean Prime would come out on top in most steak house smackdowns, its elegant supper club vibe deliciously retro but somehow hip.
Ocean Prime, with its shimmery cool blue neon exterior, has enough glamor to make it Tampa's hottest splurge spot, lousy economy or not.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.