Bonefish Grill is "polished casual," and a pretty safe bet

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I had never eaten at aBonefish Grill, and I as I lurked the menu online on the way to the restaurant, I was unimpressed with what I saw: grilled meats and seafood that seemed pretty typical of any American seafood/steakhouse. These days our food-centric culture tends to steer diners toward craving -- if not expecting -- the new, the exotic and the inventive. Even from pricey chain restaurants.

It appeared as though Bonefish Grill was playing it safe. See also: -Pama Pear Mojito--Bonefish Grill - Joe's Crab Shack has new steampots -- at a sobering price - Landry's gets in the swim with steak, cake, mermaids and a giant shrimp

I'd been invited to a blogger-appreciation dinner at the Bonefish Grill at 10438 Town Center Drive in Westminster by franchise store-owner Ben Martinez, and while I might not have had high hopes for the menu, I immediately had a high level of respect for his investment in the store. Martinez's employees -- servers, bartenders, cook and bussers -- seemed to really dig having him as a boss, saying so even when he wasn't around.

Where was this place back when I was waiting tables? I've had owners and bosses that either showed up once or twice a year to extreme, affected fanfare a la Rex Manning day, and others whose company I'd defer to cutting myself with a broken beer bottle.

Bonefish Grill got its start in January 2000 in St. Petersburg, Florida; founders Tim Curci and Chris Parker soon sold the chain to Tampa-based OSI Restaurant Partners. By 2011, Bonefish Grill had 151 corporate-owned locations and seven franchise-owned stores, one of which is Martinez's. All Bonefish Grill locations follow fish-procurement procedures that are ostensibly safe -- the company pays attention to government regulations, the recommendations of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and supports aquaculture and the Ocean Trust conservation foundation. But helping keep everyone in fish now and for years to come is the best kind of safety move.

Martinez took me on a tour of the restaurant, offering charming and informed vignettes about the location, the specially-made décor items and the bar. I was thrilled to discover that, like me, he is a huge food-history buff. This is the only Bonefish Grill location -- and the only business -- that he currently owns, and he clearly has an emotional as well as financial investment in his business. As the evening went on, this showed up in ways both big and small.

And he kept describing Bonefish Grill as "polished casual," which was a descriptor I hadn't heard before.

It's fun as hell to talk to other food bloggers, but Martinez and his staff brought out such a feast that we didn't have much time to yak. The meal started with Bonefish Grill's seasonal fresh apple martini. When I heard the words "apple martini," I immediately had a massive flashback to my clubbing days, slurping down bright green, maraschino cherry-studded cocktails while fishing through my purse for glow sticks.

This apple martini was grown up and respectable, with red delicious apples soaked in vodka, honey and cinnamon. It tasted like a baked apple crisp.

Seven appetizers is a lot of food to sample, and I did myself proud. Bonefish Grill's signature Bang Bang Shrimp and chicken were both spicy, crispy and saucy, and left a nice lingering heat on my palate, which got cooled off with the ahi tuna sashimi: cool, dense, bright pink tuna lightly seared on the outside and crusted with black and white sesame seeds. It didn't need the wasabi and pickled ginger sides, which is a hallmark of excellent raw fish.

I wasn't as impressed with the surf & turf roll as everyone else at the table was; the tempura battered mock-sushi roll had a center of beef, crab and asparagus, but this combo didn't have a lot of flavor. I was far more interested in the Wagyu beef & ginger dumplings, which led to a lively debate among my fellow diners about the legitimacy, price and proper uses of Wagyu beef.

My take on Wagyu is that if it's prepared well-done, smothered with sauce, used as filling for things like dumplings or ground up into hamburgers or meatloaf, it becomes basically useless with a disproportionately high price tag. The dumplings weren't terrible -- as a matter of fact, the crispy shallot topping, spicy sauce and sliced Thai peppers made these dumplings delicious. But Bonefish Grill would be better off just using regular beef, because the textural and flavor profile that makes Wagyu beef special is lost in the preparation.

The Singapore calamari was damn-near perfect, though. The rings and tentacle pieces were lightly battered and deep-fried to crisp with no rubbery bits, and again, no sauce was needed.

Bonefish's signature jumbo lump crab cakes were pretty good for a restaurant this far inland, and there was a noticeable lack of fillers in favor of actual crab meat. But the red remoulade was a tad overpowering, while the cakes were mildly seasoned, so it took me several bites to get the sauce-to-crab cake ration right.

I was already stuffed by the time the entrees were delivered. That's partly because I was naughty and commandeered every last bite of everyone else's leftover ahi tuna sashimi -- it was that good.

Too bad, because most of the five entrees I tried deserved more room, including the wood-grilled swordfish over pumpkin ravioli. Bonefish Grill uses oak wood to grill its meats and fish, and this was obvious from the deep, smoky, aroma in the air -- the whole place smelled like a ritzy campfire. The oak smoke flavor did magical wonders for the Atlantic swordfish, and the topping of feta cheese and crisp-fried sage leaves played well together. The fish was served over sweet pumpkin ravioli bathed in brown butter sauce and topped with fried shallots, and the entire dish brought smoky, salty, savory, sweet and just enough fattiness from the butter sauce to make it my favorite entrée of the night.

But there were other contenders: Fontina pork chop, Longfin Tilapia Imperial, grilled Alaskan salmon, crab-crusted orange roughy, grilled Chilean sea bass, sirloin steak, pecan Parmesan-crusted rainbow trout and white tuna with jalapeno bacon cream. The pork chop also benefited from the oak wood grilling, and I'm a fan of the Danish Fontina cheese melted on the top -- Italian Fontina is more complex, flavorful and expensive, but the Danish version is easygoing, tangy, melts well, and doesn't detract from the meat.

Tilapia is so common nowadays I was surprised to see it on this menu at all, but Bonefish had jazzed it up with shrimp, scallops, crab and a fetching lemon-caper sauce, which is far more fancy than my home-prep for tilapia. The salmon was a good cut, but the pan-Asian sauce was too sweet and clashed with the spinach, and the orange roughy was still crumbly-textured, despite the effort used to sear it into a solid filet. That probably couldn't be helped -- orange roughy is not a particularly dense fish to begin with, but it is naturally light and buttery, and the light white wine-lemon sauce was a good choice that accentuated the fish and didn't overpower its natural sweetness.

The Chilean sea bass was deliciously oaky and flaky, and the fresh mango salsa and lightly grilled, fresh asparagus made it a good late-summery combination. But the grilled sirloin steak definitely showcased the oak smoke best. I was glad to see it and the pork chop on the menu, because inevitably when you're dining with friends there's always one guy who goes to the seafood place and wants meat instead.

Anytime you bread trout with anything, especially oily nuts like pecans, you run the risk of turning a nice piece of fish into a micro oilfield, but the cooks here topped the pecan-Parmesan crusted rainbow trout with quartered artichoke hearts, fresh basil and lemon butter sauce, so even if the pecans had made this fish their oily bitch, it was completely unnoticeable.

The ahi tuna entrée was just as fine as the appetizers I'd gorged myself on earlier. The thick cuts of barely-seared tuna were enveloped in a spicy-hot jalapeno cream sauce, served over scoops of steamed jasmine rice, then sprinkled with chopped bacon. I couldn't believe I was thinking it, but the dish didn't even need the bacon.

After all that, desserts. By now, I was stuffed beyond the capacity for making sane, sober judgments, but I was 100 percent in love with Jen's Jamaican coconut pie, a magnificent creation of coconut custard, dark rum sauce and whipped cream. Bonefish tried to get creative with the traditional bananas Foster by using cinnamon-sugar fried flour tortillas; I would have preferred the good 'ol vanilla ice cream, bananas and flaming rum sauce. But Martinez had the cooks snuff the flambé because "it's a safety thing."

I couldn't fault Martinez for that. In fact, the entire meal was safe, solid and logical, with a menu that should work for people who want consistency, no surprises and a polished, casual atmosphere to spend their money in.

All in all, Bonefish Grill is a pretty safe bet.

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