“This table is reserved for Humphrey Bogart.”
A kitschy placard boasts what could easily pass for a real reservation inside Indianapolis’s latest restaurant embodying the 1950s decade du jour – Ocean Prime, located just east of The Fashion Mall in the Keystone Crossing Corridor.
The upscale seafood and steak restaurant may have just opened in June, but it’s not hard to imagine the ascot-wearing playboy seated inside one of the espresso-colored leather booths ordering another bourbon to wash down his Kansas City strip steak.
Ocean Prime is the brain child of Cameron Mitchell – whose approachable take on seafood and steak has yet to disappoint at his eight other Ocean Prime locations nationwide. He believes his tried and true mix of sophisticated cool is just what the Circle City needs.
Executive Chef Shawn O’Brien couldn’t agree more. “I don’t even call this work. It’s my life. I kind of feel like it’s my baby…because my name is on the front door,” says the towering 28-year-old who moved to Indianapolis in April.
And while O’Brien may be new to Indianapolis, he’s been honing his culinary chops with Mitchell for more than seven years. He started at the original Mitchell’s Fish Market (now owned by Ruth’s Chris) in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, while enrolled at the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute where something felt “just right.”
Since then, O’Brien has had his hand in many of the company’s pots, working everywhere from Mitchell’s Ocean Club in Columbus (the original concept for Ocean Prime), to Ocean Prime locations in Phoenix and Orlando. “I can’t picture myself working for another restaurant company,” says O’Brien, whose unwavering dedication to the restaurant is clearly reflected in his dishes.
The menu does not read like a vision of trends or tricks, but of what is essential, long-lasting and true about food. Old classics like “Surf n Turf” are gaining new traction using sea scallops and slow-braised short ribs, while deviled eggs are dressed up with white truffles and caviar.
Their French Onion soup may sound simple, but it takes nearly 40 hours to make. “It takes 4 hours to caramelize the onions, 24 hours to make the veal stock, and 8 hours to make the chicken stock,” O’Brien continues. “Then we roast the bones for 3 hours and make a mirapoux (carrots, onion, and celery). There’s so much work and so much appreciation going into that one soup.”
The same can be said for the tuna tartare. The chef manipulates the ahi tuna with the care of a sushi master — gently topping the fish with chunks of avocado before drizzling it with a ginger ponzu sauce. (Download recipe)
One of the most lauded dishes is the Chilean Sea Bass finished with a champagne truffle sauce. And the perfectly-seared sea scallops over creamy parmesan risotto, served with English peas and citrus vinaigrette, is not to be missed.
“The secret is using the freshest and the best quality food,” O’Brien confides. True to form, Ocean Prime sources out its own “specially fed cows” for the restaurant from Michael’s Finer Meats & Seafood in Columbus. “I order my meat before 3 p.m. They cut it between 3 and 5 p.m., and then they pack it and send it the next day.”
From there the meat is simply seasoned with salt, pepper, onion, and garlic powder, and cooked under a double broiler – using the “right technique,” of course. “When you’re paying $50 for a steak, that steak better be perfect, taste perfect, and look perfect – or else,” he warns.
The same goes for their fish – “frozen” is not in their vocabulary. Instead, every single day fresh fish is ordered and filleted in house. And those fish aren’t ordered exclusively from one company – O’Brien has at least four on speed dial. “If the Chicago place is closed on Wednesday, I can get it from Cleveland so I’m getting the freshest quality.”
O’Brien not only maintains a great relationship with his food vendors, he’s personally toured their warehouses. “We’ll go as far as to cut open a head of lettuce and make sure it’s not brown inside. If it is, we’ll send the whole case back,” he exclaims.
“No one else in this area is getting the same beef that we’re getting. No one is getting the same quality of fish. The quality that you’re getting is totally worth the price.”
But if paying $23 for a chicken dish is not your thing, consider this: Ocean Prime’s chicken (from JC Miller Farms in Zionsville) is not only free range and organic, it’s brined for 6 hours before each half roast is cooked to order and served with fresh asparagus in a lemon pan jus.
Even the linguini is made locally and delivered fresh twice a week – then tossed together with shrimp, spinach, tomato, garlic butter, and goat cheese – making up one of the chef’s more popular compositions.
Their infamous 10-layer carrot cake is also made fresh at 6 a.m. every morning. Their seasonal sorbet is spun by none other than Steven and David Buckner who own Sundaes Homemade Ice Cream on East 79th Street.
The people serving those dishes have been vetted just as solicitously as their vendors – and it shows. The service staff is never less than courteous, and the dining experience isn’t hushed but rather pleasingly civilized. “Yes is the answer. That’s our philosophy. Yes is the answer. What’s the question,” O’Brien says of their omnipresent credo.
Indeed. O’Brien recounts a situation at their Orlando location where a customer didn’t care for the restaurant’s brand of ginger ale. “For some reason, they wanted Seagram’s. So she (the server) grabbed $10, ran across the street to the gas station, then poured it tableside for the guest.”
“Just because they didn’t like our ginger ale, she went above and beyond. They didn’t even ask her to. She just did it. That’s what everyone lives by in this company,” says O’Brien, who adds that the staff is encouraged to take holidays off.
“We have every holiday off. We even have Super Bowl Sunday off. That’s not a holiday, but to him (Mitchell) it is. He figures everybody wants to watch the Super Bowl. They just treat us really well. It’s just a good vibe.” And it’s those good vibes that O’Brien hopes keep customers coming back.
While it may be 2012, it’s time to dust off your father’s fedora because the old days are back and Ocean Prime has definite staying power. Here’s looking at you kid.