By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, February 15, 2004
The revolving door of the restaurant never stops spinning and the bar is so crowded, you'd think Michael Jackson was holding a press conference.
Is this Saturday night in Georgetown? Try Tuesday evening in Fairfax. No wonder the woman who answered the phone when I called Bonefish Grill had paused when I inquired about a midweek reservation. "Let's see what I have," she said, as if Bonefish were Kinkead's in Washington and I had just asked for a table for 10 on Valentine's Day.
Launched in December, this is the third Bonefish Grill to make a splash in Northern Virginia, preceded by Bonefish Grills in Centreville and Fredericksburg. The lure at each is fresh fish in snazzy digs at prices that encourage you not to wait until your next birthday or promotion to return. The menu is mum about the restaurant's lineage, though a little digging reveals that Bonefish Grill is based in Florida and has almost 40 locations around the country. Do I detect a chain? Yep. It turns out that Bonefish Grill is primarily owned by none other than Outback Steakhouse.
The newcomer is at least a step or two above Outback, yet it retains a corporate flavor. So you can expect the background music to suggest Muzak, and your waiters to follow talking points from a script. They will inform you that the fish comes in daily, gets inspected and cut on the premises, and is cooked over an oak-wood fire. Dressed in white chef's jackets, they will go on to say that entrees come with a choice of salad (opt for the chopped version) or soup and a starch of choice (make mine potatoes au gratin). Some of the servers are bright-eyed and smiling when they go through this drill. Others look bored and race through their lines, much like the fast-talking guy in those old Federal Express commercials. Each will tell you his or her name, and some are prone to commenting on everything you order ("Good choice!" "My favorite!").
The cooking at Bonefish Grill made a fine first impression. At a server's suggestion ("I pigged out on the 'bang bang' shrimp during our training"), I got acquainted with the signature appetizer, a hot mound of shrimp fried to a light crackle, piled high on a plate, dusted with chives and drizzled with a zippy cream sauce. True to the waiter's words, it's a great guilty pleasure. The fried calamari is similar to what you'll find at a dozen other places -- pretty good -- served with two vibrant dipping sauces. Crab cakes come two to an order and reveal a slight Caribbean lilt in their seasoning. Nice. But the chicken- and corn-stuffed Cajun egg rolls are no match for the zesty version served at Carlyle in Shirlington, and tuna sashimi is just thin slices of bland fish in desperate need of every one of the garnishes, which include pickled ginger and wasabi. Further, some dishes are so sweet, you'd think Domino Sugar was an investor. "Saucy" shrimp, for instance, reads promisingly on the menu: "sauteed in a lime tomato garlic sauce with kalamata olives and feta cheese." But the pink sauce registers as little but sweet on the palate. So does the marinara sauce on the angel hair pasta, one of several side dishes.
Grilled fish -- take your pick from mahi-mahi, salmon, rainbow trout, grouper, swordfish and more -- can be ordered plain or with one of several sauces and toppings, and each day brings a small list of specials to consider. One of the role models from my visits has been sauteed trout gilded with a Parmesan crust that doesn't distract from the flavor of the fish, with artichokes and a lemony herb sauce. Swordfish is meaty and lightly charred, topped with spinach and feta cheese. Super-size appetites might gravitate toward the shrimp fettuccine, enough pasta for two people, tossed in garlicky cream sauce with chopped tomato, sauteed onions, capers and chilies. Each bite is like a little fireworks show in your mouth.
Given the theme here, fish is the way to go. But you can also find a decent piece of meat, in the form of a sirloin steak that is both fat and juicy. Boneless pork chops beneath melted fontina cheese are, despite a white wine sauce fueled with garlic, a yawn.
The three dessert choices are as predictable as death in "Six Feet Under." There's creme brulee (big and bland), a cakelike brownie (veined with nuts and served warm) and Key lime pie (respectably tangy). The last is best. Honestly, though, there's so much food beforehand, you're unlikely to ask for anything more than the bill.
From a design standpoint, Bonefish Grill goes out of its way to make you forget it's a chain restaurant. Its lighting is subdued, and the handsome fabric on the car-size booths looks like something the gang from "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" might have picked out. The wood floors are shined to a high gloss. In the rear of the vast space is a seascape of cavorting fish sculpted from metal.
Bonefish Grill is a looker. It can take some casting before you find the best dishes, but if you avoid the restaurant's trouble spots, the fishing can be fine.