Prime Fish: The Empire Strikes Again
For nearly two decades, Myles Chefetz has made a fortune by using decadence to attract diners. When the South Beach pioneer and chef-partner Michael Schwartz opened Nemo on Collins Avenue at First Street in 1995, the Asian-influenced seafood restaurant became an instant hit with the party creatures, artists, and models who inhabited the mostly undeveloped South Beach of the 1990s.
A year later, Chefetz opened Big Pink up the street. The retro-style diner with a huge menu remains a popular lunch spot for beachgoers and a late-night stop for the drunken revelers stumbling out of nearby nightclubs.
Yet it was Prime One Twelve, which opened around the corner on Ocean Drive in 2004, that instantly attracted celebrities and gave Chefetz real fame. Against the backdrop of South Beach, it has been the nation's top-grossing steak house for nearly a decade, earning upward of $23 million annually. Bentleys, Ferraris, and Maseratis still line up nightly on the curb. Bill Clinton, Magic Johnson, Richard Branson, and Dwyane Wade have all dined on $35-per-ounce A5 Kobe tenderloin flown in from Japan. Amazingly, there's always an hourlong wait that many after all these years remain content to endure.
In 2008, Chefetz leveraged that over-the-top image into Prime Italian, birthplace of the one-pound, $30 Kobe (but really American Wagyu) meatball. And this past January, he opened Prime Fish in the space that housed Nemo before it closed three years ago.
On a recent Friday night, a lone ivory-white Ferrari 458 sat at the curb of Prime Fish. Inside, waiters snaking among dark mahogany tables wore white button-up, waist-to-floor aprons and wide gray suspenders, nearly identical to those at the other Prime restaurants. Despite displaying a handful of the Prime empire's trademarks, Prime Fish doesn't share all of its counterparts' trappings. The music in the dining room is far more muted than the cacophony inside Prime One Twelve. There's plenty of space between tables and not a celebrity in sight.
And it's efficient. Instead of standing around praying for a table to open up, my guest and I were promptly seated by a hostess.
As we stepped inside the dimly lit foyer, a trio of tall, busty blond women in short, suffocating-looking dresses teetered across the tiny white hexagonal tiles of the restaurant's main room. The walls are splashed a neutral beige that take on a yellow tone under the dining room's light. But it becomes bright white, accented by subway tiles and mahogany molding in another room, where an ice-filled raw bar with massive Alaskan crab legs and an open kitchen are the main attractions.
The tall, dark-eyed hostess seated us and laid down a stack of dinner, cocktail, and wine menus, found at all of Chefetz's restaurants. Then she breathed a sigh of relief, glad to be rid of the hefty load.
This Prime offers a trio of soups, a half-dozen salads, a lengthy raw bar, and $55 dishes of chopped raw fish in a variety of herbs and dressings. There are "fishwich" sliders, a dozen fully composed entrées, and another dozen fish choices that are served sautéed, grilled, broiled, or blackened. Shrimp and lobster can be purchased à la carte and prepared several ways. On top of it all are more than 30 side dishes.
"I have dreams of having a restaurant with a small menu and knowing everything is so spot on," Chefetz says. "[But] I think when I open a Prime restaurant, it's known for having a big menu, and that's what I have to have."
Marred by indecision, my guest and I had to shoo away our waiter at least three times before finally settling on a handful of choices.
A wide, deep bowl of fragrant, pink-orange lobster bisque arrived with enough meat to ensure no spoonful went without a tender knot of the well-cooked crustacean. At $26 a bowl, that's how it should be. A half lobster from the raw bar was superior. A mound of perfectly cooked meat was chopped, chilled, and tucked back into the shell for dramatic effect. It was also large enough to provide leftovers for a next-day lobster roll at home.
Oyster shooters were filled with overly aggressive pours of vodka and spicy cocktail sauce. The lone tiny oyster was lost in the mix. Jumbo shrimp ($9 apiece) were big enough to be passed off as langoustines but were far too chewy.
Chefetz likes to take credit for inventing the gourmet deviled egg. At Prime Fish, four hard-boiled egg white halves are filled with a creamy egg yolk mixture packing a powerful, earthy punch of white truffle. A small bit of lobster meat is tucked into the bottom of each cup, and the velvety tower of egg filling is crowned with a speckle of caviar. There could've been just a bit more caviar to cut the rich egg and lobster, but that might have boosted the $24 price past $30.
The restaurant's "fish on a plate" concept is vastly more successful than its composed dishes, which includes a wok-charred salmon with four-sprout salad and soy lime vinaigrette that was a favorite at Nemo. Prime Fish's deep-red portion of Hawaiian bigeye tuna dusted with dried seaweed flakes was the only highlight of a plate rounded out with a creamy, boring wasabi sauce that lacked almost all of the nasal-clearing root's punch. A baseball-size orb of ginger rice was fried arancini-style but was too dense and tasted solely of the pungent, spicy root.
The meat that fell off a whole Florida pompano was delicate and filling, a quality that's difficult to accomplish with such a light fish. The bronze-skinned fish was brightened with lemon and large enough to easily feed two (and is a relative steal at $32). From collar to tail, there was not a dry bite to be found. The locally caught fish will also please anyone dismayed by the menu's endangered Chilean sea bass and the tuna shipped cross-country from Hawaii.
A swordfish schnitzel, however, was juicy and light with crisp breading that wasn't the least bit greasy. Though the fried egg atop the large fillet ran the risk of making the dish overly rich, it is a Prime signature and one that customers continue to love. Firm capers and tender, garlicky broccolini spears add just enough bitterness and acidity to balance the dish.
Chefetz has become hugely successful by producing dishes such as that one. He's also a master businessman. Last year, the onetime New York City real estate lawyer sold his 4,000-square-foot Ocean Drive penthouse for $15 million. Though it was discounted from the $18.5 million he'd hoped for, it was still a handsome profit considering he bought it for $7.2 million in 2005.
These days, he spends afternoons inside his office above Big Pink and nights bouncing among the three Prime restaurants to taste dozens if not hundreds of dishes and sauces. The care shows in many items at Prime Fish, though justifying the price is still a struggle that for many can be difficult.
When you're hankering for a plate of fish 'n' chips, do you really need branzino for $35? The answer is no, but if you want it anyway, Prime Fish is the place for you.
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