Prime time

I received a sneak peek invitation for a preview dinner this week at the new Ocean Prime prior to the restaurant’s grand opening Thursday. Once again, I must say, my work does not suck.

Ocean Prime exterior

Ocean Prime resides near Keystone at the Crossing next to that funky split-personality bridge that crosses over into the Clearwater area. It’s in front of the Old Navy strip near Distinctive Diamonds and on the same side of the road as Maggiano’s. Valet parking is available if you need it.

Part of the Cameron Mitchell restaurant empire, the original Ocean Prime opened in Columbus, Ohio in 2006, and a handful of others followed soon after.

The first thing that occurred to me when I walked in was that perhaps I was a tad underdressed in my cotton sundress. Hubby was fine in his button-down shirt and dress slacks; most of the other folks in attendance were in suits and flashier attire. I was feeling a little conspicuous until I saw some young gal walk through in cut-off shorts and a beach top. Seriously. Can we possibly dumb down our already dismal fashion image any further, people?

one of the Ocean Prime dining rooms

Ocean Prime brings the swank with rich cherry furniture, classy textured stone walls and nifty boxed light fixtures. Servers (all men, from what I could tell) wear white jackets and black pants, and swarmed like bees. I know it was a dress rehearsal of sorts, but I’d venture to guess the floor staff might have outnumbered the customers.

We were seated on one of the main traffic aisles, which was fine because it allowed us to check out the food coming and going as we made our choices. Our server was a friendly chap who walked us through the intricacies of the menu with ease and authority. First things first. Drinks. There’s a fairly extensive wine selection here (bottles take up an entire wall in the Prime Room) and full bar service showcasing a dozen or so specialty cocktails. All handcrafted, of course. This seems to be the buzzword du jour when it comes to adult beverages. Oddly, we didn’t see any beer selections on the drink menu, although our server managed to rustle up a Sun King Osiris pronto when hubby asked if they carried any local beers.

the delectable Whiskey Clover

I was all set to ask for a glass of Shiraz when something called the Whiskey Clover caught my attention… Gentleman Jack, Hennessey, honey, fresh orange and lemon juice. Yes, please. Not my usual Maker’s Mark, but still damn tasty. Served in a martini glass, it kinda reminded me of the Seelbach Cocktail at Libertine. I spied a few other cocktails passing us by, including something called a “Berries and Bubbles” with actual bubbles frothing up over the rim of the glass. Not sure I’d want to drink something that looks like a bubble bath, but with Belvedere citrus, marinated blackberries, sour mix and a splash of brut, I could be persuaded without much protest.

Ocean Prime’s wedge salad

We skipped over the appetizers and split a wedge salad to start. This is one of my favorite summertime dishes. You really can’t go wrong with a wedge as long as the ingredients are good, and these were. Everything was snapping fresh and crunchy, and the dressing was nicely tangy. With slices of warm crusty sourdough from the breadbasket, it was a respectable prelude for what followed.

(We didn’t order any, but I should note that Ocean Prime offers some appealing raw bar selections, and the shrimp cocktails and seafood platters we saw flying out of the kitchen waft contrails thanks to a little dry ice in the dish. Great visual appeal.)

blue cheese-crusted KC strip

Hubby doesn’t like seafood, so I knew he’d opt for steak. And what a steak this was — a whopping 16-oz. Kansas City strip crusted with Maytag bleu cheese. This thing was massive, served with a half-head of roasted garlic and a sprig of rosemary as garnish. Hubby had asked for it medium/medium-well; this was more like medium-rare/medium and a little bloody for my personal taste, but he scarfed it down with no complaint. The meat was very tender (wet-aged, I believe the server said?) and I loved the bleu cheese crust on top.

OP crab cakes

Lots of things sounded great among the seafood options, but I finally settled on the jumbo lump crab cakes from the Chef’s Compositions (also available in a starter portion). They were gorgeous, two big broiled (not fried – yay!) mounds of meaty crab with very little filler, and a splash of sweet corn cream underneath. I also received a few stalks of asparagus that were basically unnecessary, and a little ramekin of tartar saucy concoction studded with fresh corn kernels. The corn and crab played nicely together, and it made for a tasty combination.

Parmesan truffle fries

On the side, we shared an order of Parmesan truffle fries that were perfectly crispy and delish. Hubby said he still thinks the pomme frites at Taste are better, but I’m not so sure. These spuds made a pretty impressive showing. The jalapeno au gratin potatoes are on my radar for a follow-up visit.

We couldn’t leave without dessert, a list heavy with time-tested traditional steakhouse crowd-pleasers like blueberry cheesecake, crème brulee and chocolate cake with handspun ice cream. Having never tasted baked Alaska before, I figured this was a good opportunity to give it a whirl.

Baked Alaska

The portion size was intimidating, a ginormous frozen slab of pound cake, ice cream, raspberries and marshmallowy meringue. Wow. The chocolate syrup underneath was just ok, but the fresh raspberry coulis really sang. There was no way we were finishing this puppy, though. After a few bites, we groaned and conceded defeat.

Service was attentive down to the tiniest detail. I know it was a training night, but it was almost too much at times. At one point, I think three different people stopped by our table within five minutes to ask how everything was.

Ocean Prime is a high-end dining destination, and prices are on the steep side, as you’d expect. We enjoyed our meal very much, but I have to wonder just how many upscale steak-and-seafood establishments Indianapolis can feasibly support. OP faces some stiff competition right in the neighborhood from Sullivan’s, Fleming’s and Ruth’s Chris, not to mention Peterson’s just up I-69 and all the downtown heavy hitters. For me, St. Elmo’s is still going to be the sentimental favorite when I’m in the mood for a good steak and shrimp cocktail, but I have a feeling Ocean Prime is definitely poised to make some waves here in Indy.

For more info:

Ocean Prime on Urbanspoon

All hands on deck

When the sun re-emerges after the long dark days of winter and the temperatures start to soar, there’s one place on Indy’s west side that begs for a visit. Rick’s Cafe Boatyard features perhaps the best deck scene in the city with gorgeous views of Eagle Creek Reservoir. However, since Rick’s is on the polar opposite end of town from where I live, I don’t get there very often. Maybe a couple of times a season, usually alongside hubby as he wines and dines with fellow racing cohorts. Last night, I grabbed my girlfriend Laura and we descended for drinks and some dinner.

Rick’s Boatyard Cafe pre-summer deck scene

The weather in central Indiana has been unseasonably beautiful this month, so Rick’s has busted opened the deck for action earlier than usual this year. And the deck is where you want to be here. The old thermometer was hovering right around 80 degrees yesterday, and the place was jammed when we arrived around 6:45 p.m. The crowd here can best be described as Ike and Jonesy’s West. Everywhere I looked, there were cougars on the prowl, and lots of men hoping to become their prey.

We worried about a wait and contemplated indoor seating, but luck was on our side and Laura was able to quickly snag us an outdoor perch next to the railing. We settled into our spot and waited. And waited. And waited… As I mentioned, the place was slammed, and so was our server. She finally arrived to clear the beer bottles left by the former occupants, and seemed to take her time bringing us our drinks and food, although some kind gentlemen a few tables over seemed to think we were getting much speedier service than they were. This was ok; we weren’t in a hurry and were plenty content to just enjoy a leisurely hang in the warm evening air. Just be forewarned, if you’re really hungry or thirsty and don’t like to wait, an indoor table might be a better idea.

Rick’s claim to fame is its seafood. I recall eating some kind of insanely good dish there a few years ago that included deep-fried lobster, but didn’t see whatever it was on the menu this time around. Dang. We ordered an appetizer of crab-stuffed mushrooms and turned out attention to the mains. The mushrooms took awhile to make their appearance (shocker), and the waitress told us that their preparation takes longer than some of the other starters. Not sure why, but ok. Whatever. They finally showed up — a half dozen or so mushroom caps brimming with crab filling with mornay sauce and melted cheese on top. Didn’t blow me away with flavor, but they were fine.

crab-stuffed ‘shroom

Laura was in the mood for shrimp, and the server told her she could add on “huge” jumbo shrimp to any salad for $4. Per shrimp. Um, hello!? For $4 a pop, those shrimp had better be the size of my foot!

Mahi mahi sandwich with chili fried onions

In the end, Laura changed gears and ordered the Islamorada Mahi-Mahi sandwich. I went with a blackened catfish sandwich, and wasn’t overly impressed with either choice. For supposedly having been coated with spices, my fish was really bland and nearly got lost amid two vast slabs of bread. This sandwich needed a more substantial piece of fish or a much smaller bun, and the whole thing could have used a hearty dose of Tabasco or sriracha (Laura’s Bloody Mary also needed a wake-up call, come to think of it).

blackened catfish sandwich

The fries I seem to remember ordering were conspicuously absent from the plate; instead, I got a little ramekin of cole slaw and another of tartar sauce. Laura fared somewhat better. Her Mahi-Mahi was much meatier with more flavor thanks to the addition of some crunchy chili fried onions.

sunset over Eagle Creek Reservoir

All in all, it was great hanging out on the deck and watching the lovely sunset while sipping a few beers, but I won’t be rushing back to Rick’s anytime soon for the food.

For more information, visit www.rickscafeboatyard.

Rick's Café Boatyard on Urbanspoon

Ballymaloe bliss

Last night, I got to check a major culinary goal off my bucket list. I got to eat and stay at Ballymaloe House.

Ballymaloe House inn

For those of you who’ve never heard of it, Ballymaloe is owned and operated by a woman named Darina Allen, who has created something of a culinary empire in Ireland. She runs the Ballymaloe Cookery School, has authored a whole slew of highly regarded cookbooks, and is pretty much the localvore food authority around these parts. Think Martha Stewart without the snooty attitude or jail time. Darina is a huge proponent of the Slow Food movement, and every ingredient she works with is either grown on the Ballymaloe grounds or comes from a local purveyor. Her daughter Rachel is something of a foodie celebrity in her own right as well with a set of cookbooks of her own.

Knowing my culinary aspirations and affinities, several of my in-laws have gifted me with Ballymaloe vouchers for Christmases and birthdays within the past few years, and they’ve been burning a hole in my pocket. I was thrilled when my mother-in-law said she’d mind the toddler overnight so hubby and I could sneak off for a stay at the Ballymaloe House inn. We arrived around 2 p.m. to make as much use of our baby-free time as possible.

Ballymaloe House is simply beautiful, a majestic 15th century ivy-covered stone structure in the middle of wheat and barley fields waving in the sea breezes. Although the place is plenty busy and there are more than a few small children running around, there’s still a zen aura of tranquility about the place.

For such an upscale inn, the staff is totally laid back. When we checked in, I asked if I needed to present my gift vouchers or even ID, but they just waved me off like “Pshaw! Bring it down whenever.” Still completely professional and helpful, but extremely easy-going and friendly about answering our requests and questions.

For being so off the beaten path, Ballymaloe offers a number of on-site recreational activities — walking trails, a bird sanctuary, a pool, tennis courts, a five-hole golf course, and croquet in addition to inviting sitting rooms, a solarium and porches where you can simply take a load off and bask in the glorious sunshine. A nice touch — there are free bikes you can borrow to take a spin around the property, which we did. Hubby was so excited, he even used his to explore the surrounding area. Since I’m more a social biker, I instead spent a wonderful hour or so wading around in the heated pool. This is a perfect time of year to be here; everywhere you look, there are lush blooming flowers and herbs.

Inside, there’s a small bar and a tiny tv room. Because there are no televisions in the guest rooms, you’re forced to get out and make use of the property. This is actually pretty smart. Otherwise, we probably would have just camped out in front of some stupid movie we’ve both already seen a million times and wasted a beautiful day.

The rooms aren’t numbered; instead, each has its own specific name and personality — the Rose Room, the Blue Room, the East Room, the Bamboo Room and so on. We stayed in the River Room, which was absolutely lovely, with period furnishings, a door that opened out onto the green lawn and a bathtub long enough to lie down in. Everything was cozy and spotlessly clean.

With a couple of hours to kill before dinnertime, we decided to take a leisurely drive out to nearby Ballycotton, where we spent a very pleasant hour wandering around the spectacularly scenic cliffs, taking in the sea views of ocean waves breaking on the rocks.

The bike ride, pool time and fresh sea air served to whet our appetites and by the time 7:30 rolled around, we were starving. The standard Sunday night dinner at Ballymaloe is a buffet of cold seafood dishes, cold salads and roast meats. Normally, I’m not an all-you-can-eat fan, but I figured if you were ever going to get a good one, this had to be the place.

This was no Golden Corral, food-standing-around-sweating-all-day-under-heat-lamps kind of buffet. It was one long table laden with homey earthenware bowls and platters, each containing food that was prepared that very minute and brought out from the kitchen still cold or hot as the case might have been. It was like having Sunday dinner at your grandma’s house, provided your grandma is a certified kick-ass culinary rockstar.

The meal started with a bowl of soup for each of us – the choices being onion thyme and cabbage. You can imagine hubby’s reaction when they were recited to us. He ordered the cabbage soup just to be polite, but refused to eat any of it, filling up on bread instead. I actually found the creamy onion soup to be very mild and tasty. Sort of like garlic gets all sweet and mild when it’s roasted, the same thing was going on here.

The seafood section was kinda wasted on us, but still beautiful even just to look at. Oysters, deliciously sweet tiny steamed shrimp, langostines, smoked fish of all sorts, a whole smoked salmon, crab mayonnaise, mussels — you name it, it was here.

sumptuous seafood

The salads really showcased what Ballymaloe is all about – ingredients picked from the on-site gardens at the height of their freshness, served simply to highlight their true flavors. Gorgeous red ripe tomato salad with chopped basil; julienned cucumber, peppers and onions; herb salad with edible flowers; roasted eggplant slices; mushrooms; beets; and an intriguingly pickled shaved carrot salad that my hubby couldn’t get enough of. The only nod to Ireland’s signature item was a nicely done potato salad.

The roast meats were no slouch, either, all carved to order by an attentive young server. This was like a maximum-strength carvery. The selection included roast pork, roast beef, leg of lamb, some kind of tongue, glazed ham and turkey – with enough complementary sauces to make your head swim. The only tongue I want making its way down my throat is my husband’s, so I opted to try the roast pork with applesauce and the roast lamb with mint sauce. I also ended up bogarting hubby’s glazed ham slice. He said the turkey was very moist and yummy as well. All the meats were expertly prepared, extremely tender and full of rich flavor in spite of their simple preparations. I was somewhat put off by the fatty crunchy roast pork crackling, but once I tasted it, I was totally hooked. Turns out Emeril was right all along. Pork fat rules.

the selection of roasts

Dessert was served tableside from a traveling cart of selections, and what selections they were. The choices included a flourless chocolate cake/tart, gooseberry fool (pudding), fresh strawberries and peaches, lemon meringue, housemade strawberry ice cream, whipped cream and shortbread cookies. Mercy. My tummy was reaching its limit by this point, so I figured the lemon meringue would be the lightest option, although I did taste hubby’s chocolate cake and strawberry ice cream. Every bite was heavenly.

the decadent dessert trolley

I washed down my meal with a nice gerwurztraminer – half bottles were a nice option from the extensive wine list. Hubby enjoyed a cup of coffee at the end of his dinner and pronounced it good.

I was impressed with the table next to us, populated with a couple around our age, an older couple (grandparents?) and four small kids, the youngest of which couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4 sporting a head of wild curly blond hair and a South Africa football jersey. I can only hope my son will grow to eat as well as these kids did, cleaning their plates soup and all using grown-up cutlery and everything. I made hubby hang around just so I could see their reactions when the dessert trolley rolled up.

An added thrill, we got to meet Darina Allen herself, who was in the house supervising the buffet line, bringing in fresh herbs and greenery to garnish the table, and personally greeting each group in the dining room and urging everyone to enjoy more of everything. It says a lot that this woman has created such a reputation for herself throughout Ireland and beyond, yet still manages to be so hands-on and down-to-earth. I was delighted to see her in the flesh and actually get to speak with her briefly.

All in all, for us, I’m not sure the buffet was worth the 70 euro per person price tag, but for someone who loves seafood, it would definitely be of more value. Still, it was a lovely dining experience. More than anything else, I suppose you’re paying for the Ballymaloe name and the ingredients, which were of superior quality for sure. Hubby and I agreed we’d love to return for lunch next time.

Breakfast was another high point. Our Sunday special 80-euro-per-person rate covered both bed and breakfast, which was more than fair. We slept in and arrived toward the tail end of the service, but everything looked as if it had just been brought out moments earlier. When we walked in, we were encouraged to help ourselves to the continental items: a table laden with muesli, porridge, fruit, yogurt and fresh juice; then another full of breads, butter and jams. The items included a few offbeat, grown-on-the-premises fruits such as gooseberries, rhubarb and blackberries. As expected, everything was top quality and uber fresh.

When we sat down, an older waitress came over to get our hot drink order and present us with a menu of hot items. Featured, of course, was the quintessential Irish fry plus a fish choice. Hubby went whole hog with the full Irish minus the mushrooms. Still somewhat full from last night, I modestly selected just the scrambled eggs, sausages and bacon (or rashers as they’re called here). In retrospect, not quite the picture of restraint.

the standard Irish fry at Ballymaloe

The coffee was served in a French press, which I always love, and the cream on the table was still cold in its tiny pitcher. The farm-fresh eggs were delicious. I daresay they rivaled those we’ve had in France, and those go down in my memory as the best I’ve ever tasted. Hubby didn’t eat his because they were slightly runny. I thought the waitress was going to cry when he politely told her he didn’t like them that way; she fell all over herself offering to bring him a new plateful. No matter, we were full of yummy, salty fried breakfast meat by that point. The sausage and rashers were delicious, as was the biscuity scone I enjoyed. For someone who wasn’t hungry when we came in, I still managed to clean my plate.

To sum up, Ballymaloe was excellent. If you are anywhere near the southeastern part of Ireland, I highly recommend paying a visit for as long as you can manage it.