Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
Grandma Laudig's wisdom has always held up well, except when it comes to reviewing restaurants.
I'm talking about those places I really don't care to set foot in again, but still I go back in the name of journalism. Every revisit starts off hopeful, as if a restaurant might redeem itself — sometimes, that does happen. But when it turns out that my initial gut instinct was right, the voluntary déjà vu is excruciating.
Michele Laudig Cafe
5455 East High Street, Suite 115
Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday
Crab cake: $15
Chilean sea bass: $38
New York strip: $41
Such was the case with Ocean Prime, a swanky, expensive steaks-and-seafood spot at CityNorth. It was designed as a contemporary supper club, and is one of seven locations in the country.
Have you been to CityNorth? I didn't think so. It's a mixed-use development flop just off the 101 in north Phoenix, the place where Nordstrom and Bloomingdale's bailed from the retail lineup when the economy was tanking and the place that stirred up controversy over municipal money for parking spaces out here. Basically, CityNorth is a faux urban streetscape plunked right in the middle of the desert.
Ocean Prime is a flashy boîte on the corner of one of these pseudo city blocks, where vacant office space on the upper floors of the buildings is visible at night, and flickering lights in the trees don't do much to create an illusion of movement. You'll be lucky if you pass any pedestrians on the sidewalk.
Inside the restaurant, though, it's fairly lively, with a mostly middle-aged and older crowd. There's a dark, sleek bar and lounge area off to one side, and patio and indoor dining areas on the other. The color scheme in the main room is dominated by stark neon blue lighting and muddy brown vaulted ceilings, and although there aren't any obvious nautical references, Ocean Prime still feels like a tacky cruise ship. (Could it be the white-jacketed waiters?) Magnums of wine are perched behind each round booth, as if they somehow class up the joint.
Given his background working for Christopher Gross and Eddie Matney, and the sophisticated food he cooked at Furio when it opened, I expected a lot from executive chef Jagger Griffin. So is he asleep at the stove? Is he in the kitchen at all? I have to wonder, based on all the disappointing things I ate here.
Consider the "ocean" in Ocean Prime. With more than half of the seafood entrees priced at 30 bucks or more, the fish had better be exquisite. But none of it appealed to me.
Chilean sea bass with glazed carrots and champagne truffle sauce sounded luxurious, but after I took one bite of it, I wished they'd simply sautéed it in butter. The fish itself was fresh and succulent but marred by too much dry seasoning, and the sauce offered no truffle earthiness. A couple slices of canned black truffle functioned as tasteless garnishes.
Likewise, the overcooked blackened snapper had a heavy, dry layer of spices that gave it a sandpapery surface. Wilted spinach and jalapeño corn tartar sauce served with it were lukewarm.
How big should a diver scallop be at a high-end restaurant? I like the fatties that are nearly three inches wide — silky, melt-in-your-mouth, perfectly seared. The ones I had here were tiny by comparison, barely browned in the pan, and a bit overcooked. Whole grain mustard cream sauce had no oomph, and a side of green beans was ruined by disgusting marinated onions that tasted so off I was compelled to spit them out, lest they come back to haunt me.
A crispy fried crab cake with sweet corn cream was a perfectly acceptable seafood appetizer, while the dreadful tuna tartare was anything but. The two-layered cylindrical composition, set on a pool of tangy ginger ponzu sauce, had a thick base of soft avocado topped by a thin layer of ahi chunks. It was a stingy portion of tuna, but I suppose that didn't even matter, given how mushy and unappetizingly brown it was. My hunch was that the tuna had been prepared ahead of time and was sitting around soaking up too much ponzu.
Prime steaks weren't any better. According to the menu, the cuts of beef are broiled at 1,200 degrees, yet the beyond-overdone New York strip came out with no discernible charred crust. It wasn't a tasty piece of meat, either — the thing was gristly and hard to cut. Black truffle butter was no consolation.
As for the rib eye, one side of it had a decent crust, and thankfully it was still medium rare. What made it pathetic was broken Béarnaise sauce on the side, cooled until a thin skin had formed on its surface.
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Other accompaniments were passable — fluffy mashed potatoes, rich creamed spinach, golden mini-latkes teamed with sour cream and applesauce, and fresh, crisp sesame snap peas. I filled up on those, along with bread and butter.
All my hopes were dashed by the time dessert arrived, and a list of clichéd steakhouse sweets — crème brûlée, chocolate cake, key lime tart — did not spark my interest.
Baked Alaska was the only novel thing, so I went with that. Almost as expected, the hulking mass of vanilla, chocolate, and black raspberry ice cream, surrounded by thin, dry pound cake, sat there to melt after I tasted a couple bites of it.
Fool anyone into thinking this is a good restaurant? Shame on you, Ocean Prime.