When we first walked into Land Ocean, the new and lively steak and seafood restaurant in Folsom, we encountered one of the friendliest and most polished receptions we can recall.
OK, so the staff is exceptionally friendly. That's a very big check mark in a very important box. In the hospitality business, making a first impression, and following up with stellar customer service, is the single most important element of a successful restaurant – even more important than the food.
We were not really surprised. The restaurant's owners, Mark and Karoline Platt, already have shown they have the right touch with Sienna, their popular restaurant in El Dorado Hills.
If Land Ocean's friendliness is a home run, then the staff's knowledge is a solid double, with the occasional pop fly. During one visit, our server's face froze with that Sarah Palin-don't-ask-me-what-newspapers-I-read look on her face when we asked what wine she would suggest with steak.
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"I know," she seemed to be thinking, "that's one of those gotcha questions."
We wished she had talked us out of wine altogether, as our zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon choices were served too warm.
Other servers were more poised and experienced, but the overall grasp of food and wine and their ability to field questions were uneven.
Another server on a different night described the au gratin potatoes as "amazing," but they are possibly one of the more disappointing dishes I have had in the past year. They were amazingly goopy, formless and massive. I ordered them a second and third time and was startled by how consistently bad they were.
Which leads us to the food – the second most important element in a restaurant's formula for success. Good food can seem like very good food if it is accompanied by the kind of friendliness Land Ocean exudes.
But so-so food can only be elevated so much – and that, sad to say, is what we thought of our meals at Land Ocean.
Open since May, after revamping a former Ruby Tuesday's, Land Ocean burst onto the scene in Folsom, along busy East Bidwell Street. It was full or close to full every night we were there.
What would explain this?
We mentioned the first impression. The second impression – the room – also is a winner. Smartly lit and well-appointed, it is cozy and comfortable at the table without shutting out the positive energy in the rest of the open dining area and bar. It reminds me of Bandera on Fair Oaks Boulevard, the successful chain restaurant that also benefits from positive first and second impressions to elevate its decent – but far from amazing – food.
Based on the appeal of the staff at Land Ocean, we looked harder than usual for the positives coming out of the kitchen. The steaks are this restaurant's strength, though only if you take a pass on the sauce. The 9-ounce center-cut rib-eye looks much like a bulky filet mignon, only with marginally more flavor (and marginally less tenderness). It's an elegant and tasty choice.
The classic rib-eye is 14 ounces and is only $2 more than the center-cut. We ordered the brandy peppercorn version for an additional $2.
Not only did the sauce overwhelm the flavor of the meat, the server spilled it on my pants because someone in the kitchen sent out the plate practically swimming in liquid.
And there, in the flotilla, were the aforementioned au gratin potatoes. I'm all for creative interpretations of classic dishes, but this side dish is wrong on many levels: too sloppy, not appetizing and out of proportion with the rest of the plate.
We sought variety when we chose the pork chop ($24.95) – the giant pork chop, which is enjoying its moment under the spotlight at several area restaurants. We've had admirable versions of it recently at Mulvaney's, Waterboy and Grange.
But this Kurobata chop didn't stack up. The exceptionally thick meat was cooked correctly, but the bourbon glaze was so syrupy and sweet that it overwhelmed the palate and diminished a potentially satisfying dish.
The two seafood dishes we tried were pretty good but not rave-inspiring. The wild-caught king salmon ($26.95) – a somewhat skimpy portion for a steakhouse – was nicely cooked and had decent flavor for something that had been stored in an icebox. The Asian marinade is so ubiquitous now it is practically a cliché, but it succeeded in bringing out the goodness of this fish dish.
The macadamia-crusted grouper also is something of a cliché by now – the crust, not the fish. This, too, had the classic hallmarks of a fish that had been frozen – a weepiness of juices on the sides of the fish. The tasty coconut rice is what I'll remember most.
On and on it went. While we were continually impressed by the staff in the front of the house, too much of the food was either uninspired or merely satisfactory. The "prime dip" is a sandwich most noteworthy for having a stack of wonderful-looking beef that had almost no flavor. Proper seasoning and a pinch of finishing salt might have saved it.
The Kobe burger sounded like a winner. I could picture a thick slab of ground beef and, in my mind, taste all of the flavor from the famed marbling noteworthy in this Japanese livestock. A burger of this exceptional quality barely needs to be cooked – medium-rare or medium, at most. Our burger was tragically overcooked
I won't say anything more about the ribs except to underscore how they keep with the mediocrity of the rest of the cuisine. The portabella burger is something for the vegetarian but it was apparently soaked in a balsamic concoction until we couldn't taste anything but vinegar. And we couldn't even give a thumbs-up to the housemade potato chips that came with the excellent blue cheese dip. The chips were undercooked and, thus, limp.
Mark Platt's background in this business goes back decades, much of it in chain restaurants, including P.F. Chang's. That can be a good thing, especially when it comes to building a staff. Clearly, that has happened here.
But chains can often feel formulaic, unimaginative and safe to a fault. That's the way Land Ocean's menu feels.
Menus can evolve to make a more personal and profound statement, but that cannot happen here until the kitchen handles the current one with more skill, more flair, more exactitude and more consistency.
2720 East Bidwell St., Folsom
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Full bar? Yes.
Vegetarian friendly? Somewhat.
Overall: 2 stars (fair)
The friendly staff and the attractive room are an impressive draw, but the food must get better before Land Ocean can realize its sizable potential. The closest competition, Sutter Street Steakhouse, has a comparable ambience and a staff nearly as polished, but the cooking is at a higher level.
Food: 2 stars (fair)
Good steaks, good quality seafood and some side dishes that left us bewildered – among them undercooked potato chips and au gratin potatoes that looked more like porridge. Keep it simple when ordering, and you're likely to be content.
Service: 3 stars (good)
We have not visited a restaurant anywhere with friendlier employees. It's very impressive. Knowledge of the menu and wine list is more lopsided, with some servers doing well while others might need to stay after class for a refresher course.
Ambience 3 1/2 stars (very good)
It's simply one of the better-looking restaurants in the area. Most of the seating is in booths, but because of the smart lighting and the elevated floor, diners are not shut out from the pleasant energy of the room.
Value 2 stars (fair)
Part of what you're paying for when you go out is to be treated nicely. You definitely get that here. But a big part of the bill is for the cooking, and it may leave you wondering if it's good enough to warrant these prices. Dinner for two will cost $75 or more.