There is something to be said for visiting a five-star restaurant when the city is in the clutches of an ice storm: The other scheduled patrons have cancelled their reservations to hide under quilted bed covers nursing a hot toddy; and so the chef and his staff, having braved the ghastly weather themselves to show up valiantly for work, will be very happy indeed to see you there, and they will do everything short of performing headstands to express their gratitude, serving you outstanding meals with exemplary service.
Such was my visit, on a blustery winter day this December, to Ocean Prime, the elegant 2006 Cameron Mitchell creation on Cedar Springs Road across from the Crescent Court Hotel on the northern end of downtown Dallas. The staff was so happy to see us, and our praise after an outstanding meal was such, that while we were drinking our coffees Executive Chef Eugenio Reyes himself came out personally to take a bow and chat with us for a few minutes. He is a gifted artist.
It was clear upon arrival that my dining partner and I had the place to ourselves. There was one other table, this one with five guests, far across the room. My host kindly picked a table far from the door and any errant blasts of icy wind that might have eluded the doorman. Our server was Shelby Griffing, a five-year veteran of Ocean Prime and a knowledgeable guide to dining there.
When Shelby suggested that the chef was excited about a dish of lollipop lamb chops (the popular American name for lamb rib chops with the bone frenched), my ears perked up. On such a day, do you really want to order off the menu? After all, the chef is all alone in the kitchen and is dying to show off his favorite dish. Why disappoint him — or yourself? Under such conditions, go with the will of the restaurant. One ought to listen carefully and, unless you are allergic to the special, you are wise to select it. The chef, under these circumstances, is going to make an extra effort to shine. Indeed, many years of high-end restaurant dining have taught me that the best meals are to be had on those occasions when one can “bond,” so to speak, with the kitchen staff. Never take good cooking for granted. Always listen. My father once remarked to me decades ago that he could always assess a man’s character best by watching the way he treated waiters. So it is.
To be frank, I am not particularly fond of lamb, in spite of my years in North Africa, because it takes special skill to cook it properly and it is such a staple in so much of the world that its preparation is often indifferent. Too often, also, “lamb” really means “mutton.” Mutton is often stringy, tough, and unpalatable, the sort of meat that makes Australians in the outback grouchy. I usually go to Ocean Prime to eat fish, since there are so few really good fish restaurants in Dallas. I am partial to Ocean Prime’s blackened Redfish, which they serve with cornspoon bread and a jalapeño corn tartar. I have ordered it a half-dozen times.
But there was something about Shelby’s description of the lollipop lamb chops that made them irresistible, and both my lunch partner and I ordered them. To whet my palate, I chose as an appetizer a trio of simply outstanding Vietnamese gambas, or giant shrimp, served in the traditional tomato sauce with a bit of Tabasco.
And then came those lollipop lamb chops, five little ones served piping hot. We were not disappointed. To begin with, the ingredients were absolutely the best, before Eugenio Reyes performed his magic in the kitchen. These were the finest, most tender lamb chops wild and wooly Oregon has ever produced (as good as, if not better than, those from Colorado, which is the usual venue for the finest American lamb). It is so often true, in cuisine as in other endeavors in life, that the best ingredients are more than half the battle. But the way Chef Reyes prepared these chops was extraordinary and, in my experience, unique.
Instead of the traditional lamb recipe, or a variation of it, in which they are crusted with rosemary and salt, these were served in a very delicate and slightly sweet raisin-based clear reduction. Absolutely out of this world! The lamb chops were served with tiny potatoes the size of marbles. I have never had lamb with a hint of sugar or raisins before, except perhaps once or twice in Morocco. It was a treat, and one I shall remember.
I asked Chef Reyes afterwards why these lollipop chops are not on the regular menu, and he responded quite reasonably that it is simply not possible to get the desired quality of chops on a daily basis (though they are generally available) and that, too, respecting the gastronomic leanings of his Texas patrons, lamb is not something people in Dallas want to order every day, no matter how good it is. I think this is wise.
We finished our luncheon with a magnificent and very generous homemade crème brûlée with berries, rich vanilla custard enclosed in an armor of caramelized sugar. I then had an espresso with lemon peel.
Executive Chef Eugenio Reyes is a man of great culinary talent. Before he assumed the helm at Ocean Prime, he was sous-chef here but with regular travel also to other Cameron Mitchell eateries across the nation to train staff. He began his career in Columbus, Ohio, at Mitchell’s Ocean Club restaurant. After leaving his native Mexico years ago, Reyes began life in American kitchens at the very bottom of the ladder, as a dishwasher, dreaming of the day when he could become a cook himself. Over a two-decade career, he has learned more and more.
I generally avoid chains, but Cameron Mitchell’s ten locations are not really part of a chain in the sense that each restaurant has been tailored to its host city. Mitchell is planning to open his eleventh restaurant, this one in hard-to-please Beverly Hills, California, in early 2014.
Cameron Mitchell’s public relations team has stated that “Ocean Prime is the culmination of a creative exercise we started in 2006 to define the best in culinary, beverage, service and atmosphere” in Dallas, and I think it’s fair to say that they have succeeded.
Ocean Prime is at 2101 Cedar Springs Road in Dallas (75201) at the corner of Pearl and across from the Crescent Court Hotel. Even on days when the weather is bad, it is always wise to make a reservation: (214) 965-0440.