The big review: Ocean Prime ***

Ocean Prime Executive Chef Anthony Dee prepared this signature dish -- pecan crusted trout with whipped potatoes and sauteed haricot verts, in a brown butter sauce. Photo: Marsha Halper.

Can a chain restaurant situated in a shopping mall impress serious foodies and sticklers for fine service? Somehow Ocean Prime manages to do all that in the midst of an economic slump that seems not to have affected the Williams Island crowd.

This Ohio-based Cameron Mitchell newcomer is also a place for a good old-fashioned night out, including a spin on the dance floor. On a recent Saturday night, well-dressed 20-somethings cheerfully endured an hour-plus wait for tables in the dusky bar alongside gray-haired swingers in shiny sweat suits and gold medallions the size of drink coasters. Determined diners staked out bar stools, which were promptly set with place mats and silverware by a friendly, low-key bartender. A bright-eyed pianist provided a soundtrack of standards and waiters are nattily dressed in white jackets to go with the crisply set tables. Best of all, they are formally trained yet so smart and easy-going you may wonder if you’re still in Miami.

A straightforward menu entices with classics like oysters Rockefeller, crab cakes, iceberg wedge with buttermilk dressing, calamari and all the steak house sides. But it also throws in fresher flavors to savor like a surf and turf of scallops and braised short ribs, blackened snapper with jalapeño corn tartar and caviar-truffled deviled eggs. A bread basket with perfectly crusty sourdough-honey wheat loaves and a crock of properly chilled butter is an example of the attention to detail that makes you forget you’re dining at a mall. Salads are uniformly crisp, fresh and gently dressed. Its a tossup between a perfect hearts of romaine with Parmesan garlic dressing or the house salad with perky spinach, see-through slivers of green apples, tiny nubs of sugared pecans and a sweet sherry-tinged vinaigrette.

Veteran chef Anthony Dee seems equally comfortable on land and sea. A pecan-crusted trout with a lightly creamy sauce and velvety mashed potatoes is a fine dish. At lunch, crunchy haricots verts lighten it a bit; the dinner version with white beans is also well-balanced. A signature appetizer with a half-dozen meaty prawns sautéed in a creamy Tabasco sauce packs serious heat; pizza-like slabs of cheesy bread for dunking put it over the top. A tuna tartare mounded on perfectly ripe avocado cubes gets a textural (and caloric) boost from a layer of crunchy fried noodles and a dollop of sour cream in a bright ginger-ponzu sauce.

Fillets of halibut, snapper, mahi, salmon or sea bass can be ordered simply grilled or with upscale add-ons like black truffle butter, crab and perfectly light béarnaise or green peppercorn and cognac sauce. Meats are all prime, and most are wet-aged to funky perfection. One of the few dry-aged cuts is a 16-ounce Kansas City strip with a perfect char, a juicy center and a corner of bone worth gnawing on.

The wine list is dominated by New World youngsters at a healthy markup, but there are plenty of by-the-glass contenders to make a meal. A waiter is happy to pour them large, offer tastes or even open bottles for finicky drinkers.

Desserts like Baked Alaska (no flames) and a textbook crème brûlée satisfy, but for kids at heart, the mound of peanut butter mousse beneath a sheath of chocolate ganache is a must.

Ocean Prime, Aventura Mall, 19501 Biscayne Blvd., Aventura (between Nordstrom and Sears); 305-931-5400;  11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon-Thurs, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri-Sat, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun. Appetizers $6-$15, entrees $23-$48, sides $5-$10, desserts $7-$8

FYI: Reservations recommended; www.opentable or Full bar with generous pours;
corkage $20 for wines not on the list. Free mall parking; $5 valet. AX, DN, MC, VS.

Published: 11/08

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