Much like Dubya's mandate, the popularity of Bonefish Grill has reached the degree that no self-protecting member of Food World can ignore it.
On weekends, the lines of people waiting out front at either the Coral Springs or the Plantation locations are long enough to make the faint-hearted turn tail and head for Denny's. Reservations -- up to three months in advance -- are allowed for only 20 percent of the house. The other 80 percent, according to Fishbone staff, are walk-ins.
So if you're planning on a spontaneous visit, be prepared. But don't be discouraged. The lines move fast and efficiently, and you'll soon find yourself having a tall one at the subtly lit bar before you're called to your table.
In fact, everything is done efficiently here. The Broward County Bonefish Grills, opened for a little more than a year, are kind of like that old classmate -- the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead. Always had her homework done. Always had her hand up. Always pretended to fail the test and then got the best grade.
It's the kind of chain you'd love to hate -- if it weren't so good at what it does. Founded in January 2000 by restaurant industry veterans Tim "Hops" Curci and Chris Parker out of St. Petersburg and owned by Outback Steakhouse, Bonefish has more than 40 locations around the country. Its broad appeal is based on the three pillars of restaurant wisdom: good service, pretty atmosphere, and almost always good food.
Sounds like a plan, doesn't it?
In addition to the snazzy digs, with subdued lighting, handsome fabrics, and wood floors shined to a gloss, the lure here is fresh fish at prices that don't require a sign-off by Alan Greenspan. Hints of corporate flavor embroider the edges. The signature jazz soundtrack could benefit from more imaginative song selection, and the waiters, decked out in chef's whites, follow talking points from a script written somewhere at headquarters. (You'll hear the phrase "Not a problem!" more than you'll care to and have your selections approved with a "Good choice!" or a "My favorite!")
Among the talking points? The fish is flown in daily, gets inspected and cut on the premises, and is cooked over an oak-wood fire. The entrées come with a choice of soup or salad (a standard caesar or a surprisingly thoughtful house, garnished with Kalamata olives, heart of palm, and a few too many pine nuts) and an "awesome" side item (make yours potatoes au gratin). And the specials are always described with their price -- a sure sign of good management training.
We began the meal with conscienceless gorging on the half loaves of warm, fresh bread that comes with an aioli dipping sauce, while choosing a California Cambria chardonnay from a serviceable wine list heavy on American varietals.
Among the nine starters, our table opted for three: the "Bang Bang Shrimp" ($7.90), the bacon-wrapped sea scallops ($9.50), and the mussels Josephine ($7.90). The shrimp, moist, with a crisp aioli-laced batter, arrived warm and lightly tossed with a cream sauce that had a piquant kick. The ambitions of the scallops, topped with a mango salsa chutney, exceeded their grasp, as the delicate flavor of the mollusk couldn't compete with the stronger flavors of the bacon and mango. Compensating for the scallops was the mussels Josephine, a healthy portion of almost two dozen Prince Edward Island mollusks, bathed in a bread-dipping, rich, lemon butter sauce seasoned with basil, garlic, and tomatoes.
For the entrées, fish is the way to go, but you can also find a decent 11-ounce sirloin steak ($14.20) that is fat and juicy. Friends found the boneless pork chops ($14.50) topped with Fontina cheese and a mushroom garlic wine sauce, underwhelming.
The culinary premise in the fish selections pairs a list of nine grilled seafood options -- salmon, trout, mahi mahi, jumbo shrimp and scallops, swordfish, grouper, tuna, sea bass, and lobster tails -- with four set sauces: lemon butter, lime tomato garlic, warm mango salsa, and a spicy sweet pan-Asian. It's a simple premise, and Bonefish has it down to a science.
Other diners swore by the sautéed rainbow trout gilded with a Parmesan crust and topped with spinach and a lemony herb butter sauce ($14.90) and the meaty, lightly charred swordfish ($17.90) dressed with spinach and feta cheese.
Our table preferred culinary roads not taken. We ignored all word-of-mouth recommendations and steamed ahead with orders of the "special" group, topped with a shrimp and mushroom piccata sauce ($19.80), the Ahi tuna with the pan-Asian sauce ($17.90), and the pistachio Parmesan-crusted rainbow trout ($17.20).
The group proved as firm as its reputation. Grouper lends itself well to any form of cooking, but because it is a lean fish, a buttery sauce such as a piccata works especially well. (Capers are also one of the smartest flavors to pair with fish because the pickling of the bud enhances the mildness of the fish.) This preparation did the white-flaked flesh proud, the tender shrimp buddying up nicely under a drizzle of sauce.
The three dessert choices at Bonefish -- crème brûlée, key lime pie, and a chocolate macadamia-nut brownie cake (all $4.70) -- are as predictable as death. If you still want dessert after you've worked your way through a starter and entrée here, then you're either starving, wasted, or eating out of habit -- all sad states of affairs. You must? Well, then, the brownie cake (veined with nuts and served warm) should get you nicely through the next 12 hours until your morning feeding time.
The Bonefish experience, so typical of chain dining, is complete when you slide out of your comfortable booth groaning from overindulgence. Our last visit ended with a stop-by at a neighboring table, where ten ladies from a reading club in Pembroke Pines were celebrating a 65th birthday of one of the members. They too were groaning, but the waiter had no patience.
"You shouldn't be hungry," he said with a smile. "Hungry makes you mean. That's why we serve you so much."
It seems as good an explanation as any. Happy is as Bonefish does.
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