The executive chefs all fly into Columbus, Ohio. Before they step into the kitchen, before they sharpen a knife, they sit down and have a meeting, an open dialogue. They examine the whole menu: What’s working? What needs fixing? And then they get to work.
Ocean Prime has 14 locations around the country, all known for a particularly luxurious style of steaks and seafood. As Adam Polisei, executive chef of the Tampa location, puts it: "We originally described ourselves as a modern American supper club, kind of Rat Pack meets Sex and the City. More recently we’ve shifted to describing ourselves as unapologetically luxe, a place where adults have a playground."
The trick with all this is how to change a menu, how to decommission dishes that aren’t selling and add dishes that speak to the current zeitgeist, without ever swerving from the core message and sense of identity. In April, the company’s chefs met in Columbus to brainstorm a new lunch menu. Polisei couldn’t make it because he had just welcomed the birth of his second child, Nora "Scottie" Scott.
But that doesn’t mean Polisei didn’t contribute. Once the chefs had come up with some ideas — proteins and sides and garnishes and sauces they thought would play well in 2018 — Polisei was charged with testing them out in Tampa, feedback solicited from diners in a number of ways.
We sat down with Polisei recently to dive into how a menu gets changed without alienating longtime customers.
"We start thinking, what are we doing that we’re not getting credit for; what is making our lives more complicated than they need to be?" he said. "We throw as many darts as possible at the board."
Example: A recent calamari dish got a garnish of julienned snap peas and peppers, something that requires painstaking cutting skills in the kitchen. Plates were coming back with the veggies uneaten: They’ve got to go. Before that, the calamari got a treatment of thin fried lemon wheels, fried arugula and a garlic aioli. Again, a lot of work that didn’t seem to garner diner enthusiasm. The answer for the new menu is something a bit simpler, just the fried squid with a sweet chili sauce.
Steakhouses around the country are trying to figure out how to attract millennial diners. For the Ocean Prime team, they spit-balled ideas: How about an avocado toast? Or a poke bowl? They opted for both of these staples in the millennial wheelhouse, the toast more of a knife-and-fork affair on a fat, crisp bread, the avocado blended with sweet peas for an electric green color and butter-poached lobster set down on top ($23). Lobster and avocado are a natural pairing, a bit of salty-tangy preserved lemon providing a high note. And with the poke bowl, it’s an architectural and composed plate, made in a circular mold with sushi rice, cubes of ahi tuna and marinated salmon, a layer of avocado and a dribble of punchy sriracha vinaigrette ($22).
"Sometimes you swing and you miss," Polisei said wryly. He gave an example. In an effort to make things a bit more contemporary, they recently tried to remove the beloved chop chop salad in favor of a "superfoods" salad with kale, wheatberries and other buzzwords. No dice. The chop chop came back after a hue and cry. Three years ago, a major lunch menu overhaul brought 10 new items and retired as many — but many of those original dishes have crept back.
"You can’t fight it if it’s a dish people love."
But that doesn’t mean you can’t tweak it. Polisei brings a new take on a crab cake from the kitchen. It’s panko-crusted and pan-seared on the top and bottom, giving it a good outer crunch and a plush, soft center. They nixed a previous deep-fried version and a Maryland-style baked cake in favor of this, spinning the accompaniment in a more au courant direction: A little pouf of dressed kale is paired with pickled fennel, redolent of celery seed, and comes with a pool of horseradish mustard sauce ($19).
Kale in, but corn out. Corn used to be a versatile accompaniment and garnish — now lots of folks are avoiding it, so other veggies get a starring moment.
"Things are shifting toward lighter foods, which isn’t necessarily our M.O. So the key is to lighten things while staying true to our mission," said Polisei, who has been with the company for 12 years. Ocean Prime as a company celebrates a 25th birthday this year. Trends like paleo and keto diets (low carb, high fat) have kept steakhouses relevant, but Polisei sees it as a Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest situation.
"Some dishes are iconic, but all of us know that every dish is potentially up for the chopping block."
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.