880 Harbor Island Drive, Harbor Island
Three-course dinner for two: $130. Bottle of David Bruce Pinot Noir: $58. Panoramic view of the bay, the bridge, the downtown skyline: Priceless. The food is pretty good, too.
Island Prime shares a building (formerly Reuben's Restaurant, gutted and redone) with the casual, outdoorsy Island Prime C Level (reviewed last week). Deborah Scott (of Kemo Sabe and Indigo Grill) is executive chef for both, as well as co-owner with the Cohn Restaurant Group.
The two dining venues have little in common. Even though they're physically on the same level, IP (as the menu calls it) is referred to as "upstairs." It certainly feels more upscale, a "fine dining" restaurant-steakhouse, though the tables wear no tablecloths, and on weeknights we saw more polo shirts than suits. An older crowd dominates at the early seatings, while around 8:00 the age group shifts to late 20s and early 30s.
The dining room with its huge glass windows is paneled in wood with painted panels in sorbet pastels. Partial walls divide the expanse into more intimate areas, creating two sub-restaurants. Tables near the window are quieter, dimly lighted, and romantic. Those closer to the entrance are mainly booths, substituting comfort for scenery, and action for serenity -- 1950s pop-jazz plays in the nearby bar-lounge, lights are brighter, and a clattering semi-open kitchen sends parades of servers hoofing it toward C Level and bussers returning with used plates and tots' high chairs. But it's never rackety: The faux open-beam ceiling is lined with acoustical bubbles, and the floor is covered with a thick, textured jute carpet, which absorbs noise like a sponge. These design features ensure that, at the window tables, the volume is lively but pleasant -- the ideal sound level for a restaurant. Even though a tour bus was parked outside, and its passengers were eating chicken breast at the table next to ours, we heard our own conversation and barely overheard theirs.
The menu and the long wine list are printed together in a thick, narrow pad. After starters and salads, the entrées are split onto two pages. The first section consists of nine "composed entrées," featuring seafood, meat, and poultry with all the trimmings. The next page, called "turf," is a steakhouse-style listing of 9 unadorned grilled or roasted meats and 12 options for sauces, rubs, compound butters, and mustards. (You get to choose one.) Sides cost extra and are on the following page.
Friends Lynne and Fred joined us the first night. We lucked out and got a window table, well away from the kitchen action and the lounge. We began with an appetizer of Filet Mignon Tartare. The chef draws on her Southern heritage for many of IP's dishes, phoning her mom in Virginia for recipes (e.g., the she-crab soup at C Level and the Iris chopped salad at both venues). The Tartare may not be Mom's, but it speaks with a hospitable drawl: It's closer to a rich, beef-flecked potato salad than to the Russian-French classic of chopped raw meat and powerful condiments. The tender filet pieces are mixed with chopped fingerling potatoes, blue cheese, and truffle vinaigrette. A caper garnish is the only remnant of the European tradition -- there's nothing fierce about this civilized Tartare. A seared ahi stack with Pacific Rim flavors has the same proportion of protein to creaminess. It offers crabmeat, avocado, and sprinkles of black tobiko roe, mingling with a kicky papaya-mango salsa. "It's funny, these two dishes taste very different -- one's the ocean, the other's the land," Fred noted, "but the textures are almost identical."
"Ooh, I want to try these," said Lynne, finding fennel-crusted diver scallops on the menu. The scallops were of fine quality, served atop elephant garlic risotto with pancetta and basil oil. The risotto was cooked to firm-soft, and if I'm not thrilled with elephant garlic, that's just personal taste.
The appetizer that evoked aahs all around the table was the lobster kettle roast (available at both venues). It proved livelier than the bisque that I'd sampled downstairs a week earlier, though both supposedly start with the same broth. (One possible explanation may be that Scott was on vacation the week we ate at C Level.) In the kettle roast, several delicate pieces of lobster claw meat from the "thumb" float in a creamy broth with a gentle lobster flavor. Order this while you can: The chef is thinking of taking it off the menu -- just to get those cumbersome kettles off the crowded stoves.
In the course of our first dinner we discovered more upstairs-downstairs differences: The IP staff is more professional and knowledgeable than the pretty young women who served us at C Level. They have more time to pay attention to details, free from the hectic pace downstairs. Upstairs also gives you soft, warm dinner rolls or zaftig popovers, whereas at C Level, with its sandwich-laden menu, "Ya gets no bread with one meatball."
My partner and I returned a few nights later for a "mopping-up operation." We began with a soufflé of Gruyère, Parmesan, and undetectable truffles, dotted with sweet sherried figs, and a Parmesan crisp on the side. It was comforting and filling. I'd seen a review praising the baby beet salad. We expected whole tiny beets but were instead served thin slices of beets, a breaded round of baked goat cheese, and a heap of spring mix studded with walnuts so thickly glazed that they tasted like brown sugar lumps -- with no nuttiness left. (Is sugar Xanax for nuts?) Meanwhile, several plates of the Iris chopped salad (named for the chef's mom) passed us en route to other tables. We wished we'd ordered it instead.
Island Prime lives up to its steakhouse name, serving USDA Prime Midwestern corn-fed beef, tender, and well marbled. There's also an aristocratic Kurobuto pork chop among the steakhouse-style entrées. Since steak is more common than roast beef at most restaurants, we gravitated to the roast prime rib. We requested and received a rare center cut, which proved fatty, salty, and tasty, and a relative bargain at $21 for 12 ounces (or $29 for 21 ounces). When we returned, I enjoyed a succulent 18-ounce bone-in rib-eye and expect to enjoy it several more times as I work my way through the vast slab of protein that I doggy-bagged home.