Flavor: Fresh surf, with a touch of turf for the landlubbers
Ambiance: “Polished casual”
Service: Very good, well-trained and knowledgeable
I’ve finally given in. After the umpteenth recommendation for the Bonefish Grill from reputable sources – each and every one prefaced with some variation of “I usually don’t frequent chain restaurants, but … – I decided to lay aside my own reservations. After all, it wasn’t long ago that I decided it would be a “hoot” to review another chain whose claim to fame is the scantily dressed wait staff. (The only thing that kept that from happening, as a matter of fact, was the utter lack of people who found the idea amusing enough to accompany me.)
So, why not select a chain that’s lauded for the food rather than the buxomness of the waitresses? What’s more, I had a mystery to solve: What on Earth is this Bonefish phenomenon called Bang Bang Shrimp that people are practically rabid for?
The treatment one receives immediately after entering the Bonefish is evidence of the amount of attention that goes into training the staff. Bonefish posts by the door a veritable mini-fleet of hostesses on busy nights to ensure that the business of getting to your table is a reasonably brisk and pleasant experience.
Once in the dining room, it becomes readily apparent that the Bonefish is quite a jumping joint – on our visit, we managed to snag what seemed to be the last of the available tables in the more than 200-seat restaurant. As we approached our seats, an army of servers buzzed about us in their crisp white chef coats.
Bonefish prides itself on serving seafood “straight from the ocean to your table.” Presumably, the fish makes a quick stop along the way to rest for a moment on the wood grill, the delicious campfire perfume of which subtly drifts through the dining room from time to time.
The decor is sleek. The mahogany-finish chairs, white tablecloths, amber-tinted glass pendulum lamps and gleaming hardwood floors all give the place a rather upscale look. Should you commit the error of mistaking any of this for refined snobbery, however, the soundtrack helpfully steps in to fill the ears with Madonna’s “Borderline,” Eddie Money’s “Take Me Home Tonight,” or some Destiny’s Child number. “You are required to loosen up and have fun!” the B-52s seem to trumpet. “Now try the Bang! Bang! (on the door baby!) Shrimp!”
The Bonefish defines this approach – think Outback in an Armani – as “polished casual.” Casual? Indeed. Polished? Even more so. Those floor planks are so polished that my strappy little Bronx high heels flew in two different directions while I was en route to the bathroom, leaving me splayed on the middle of the dining room floor in some sort of awkward Catwoman crouch. I felt like it was a graceful fall, but we were already halfway through a wonderfully priced ($25) bottle of Nora Albarino, and it had given me a bloated sense of self-confidence. Nevertheless, I overheard a duo in equally cute footwear instructing each other to shuffle their feet as they scooted their way across that slick (but fabulous-looking) flooring.
Our savvy waitress was most gracious in the handling of The Fall – she uttered not one titter when I compared my crash-landing to that of a super hero. And her helpfulness extended well beyond ego-stroking. When we inquired of a sweetness that laced the tasty but fairly overbearing sauce that clung tenaciously to an appetizer of tender, fresh and juicy mussels, she replied without hesitation: anisette.
She was quite handy with the wine pouring – so much so that we felt it necessary to nudge our bottle to the far end of the table, out of her reach. When pressed about the further identity of the grouper, which was labeled on the menu simply as the “Gulf” variety, she disappeared post-haste into the kitchen to confer with the chef. He replied with a veteran’s succinct gruffness: “Grouper’s like dogs. There’s all kinds.” Now back to the dining room, cadet!
She did, of course, recommend the ever-popular Bang Bang Shrimp, and we dutifully took the bait. It’s true: They’re addictive enough to be renamed Crack Crack Shrimp. But the dish, if my taste buds serve me correctly, contains little more than fried shrimp tossed in mayonnaise and Sriracha – the very same concoction used to make a spicy-tuna roll both spicy and slightly less healthy.
Therein seems to lay the winning formula: As with the spicy tuna roll that won over legions of sushi-phobes with its comforting cloak of chili-spiked lube, much of the seafood at Bonefish lures the masses with warm, cozy blankets of butter and cheese. For example, we tried a perfectly delicious, smoke-kissed grilled swordfish steak with a sauce that was recommended. It was a decadently thick spinach and blue-cheese topping that could have obscured any manner of creature beneath it, and we found it a bit aggressive. I’ve a rib eye in the freezer that would love to try it on for size, however.
It’s not that lighter preparations are nonexistent. On the contrary, the entree I selected, snapper en papillote, was designed with a seafood purist in mind. Sealed in its foil pouch, the fish retained a good bit of moisture as well as its natural oils, and had been dressed in little but the wine, tomatoes and shallots with which it was steamed. However, the “Awesome Side Item” that came with it – a rather leaden, cheesy serving of potatoes au gratin – wasn’t quite as phenomenal as it had been billed. My dining companion’s “awesome side” of a tender/crisp vegetable medley did, in fact, deserve the moniker. A subtly seasoned and dressed house salad was great with its perfectly toasted pine nuts, hearts of palm, and fresh greens. I asked for the addition of Danish blue cheese, and it was quite good.
Even with all the myriad disguises – a wig of warm mango salsa here, a belt of bacon there – the Bonefish is aware that some seafood-weary diners may inevitably, well, chicken out. For those landlubbers, there’s a handful of turf fare to satisfy, like pork chops, chicken Marsala or “center cut” filet mignon. For the most part, with successful chains like this one popping up, it’s clear that the general public’s tastes are beginning to shift a bit from burgers and fries to healthier, more sophisticated fare. And even if the public isn’t quite prepared to stop treating said fare like it came from a cow, it’s a step in the right direction.