It's 6:30 on a Wednesday, and there's a 75-minute wait for a table. Not only has Bonefish Grill gripped the city's attention, but $5 Bang Bang Shrimp night in particular (featuring a deep discount on tempura-like prawns lacquered in a delicious, mildly spicy sauce) has convinced the hungry to kill an hour-plus in University Village.
Curse the seas for the chaos, but thank the gods for seats that open at the bar's community-table area.
To say that it's just the hype of a new restaurant opening is to not yet have tasted the chain's Chilean Sea Bass ($26.90/large) with any of four offered sauces: lemon-butter, mango salsa, Pan-Asian or chimichurri. I request small samples, quickly favoring the final choice, essentially a looser, parsley-based pesto. (Nab a free recipe on Bonefish's website.)
But unlike the case with so many entrées, it's not the sauce that stars here. As it should be, it's the protein: I can't say I've been served a better-prepared fish in this city. It's gorgeously grill-marked and ideally charred, served at the perfect temperature, soft, moist, flavorful and meatier than many of its ocean peers, while still delicate.
When I later tell a local chef friend about how impressed I was by that dish, he shares that he ate at Bonefish four times within two weeks, each time pleased by the potent poissons. It's not just that they're daily delivered fresh, never frozen; it's that they're well-handled, with a consistency that (sadly) does distinguish some chain shops from many of our indies.
Florida-founded Bonefish — now owned by Tampa-based OSI Restaurant Partners, which also operates Outback Steakhouse and Carrabba's Italian Grill, among other market beasts — now boasts more than 150 locations where the servers (called "anglers") wear white chef's jackets, the AC is cranked to near-icebox temperatures in summer, and even a lowly regarded fish like tilapia gets highbrow treatment.
Example: The Longfin Tilapia Imperial plate ($17.90) stuffs a thin cut with crab, scallops and shrimp under lemon caper butter. Our sides of asparagus and a haricot verts tangle are wonderfully al dente, with a unique house succotash of corn, edamame and turkey sausage. A special of crab-topped pompano in a white wine lemon sauce ($24.90 with a Caesar salad) is another, more simple delight of soft-textured seafood.
Bonefish's desserts ($5.90 to $6.20) are even bully: a great pecan-crusted key lime pie; a stringy, gooey, macaroon-like coconut pie with a sugary rum sauce; and a badass gluten-free macadamia nut brownie with raspberry sauce, vanilla ice cream and whipped cream.
It's all just so damned likeable, even lovable. A brunch menu I didn't sample looks awesome, too.
I reach out to them in hopes of chatting about their fish sourcing. Our server has mentioned aquaculture, to-go bags sport an Ocean Trust logo, and a Wikipedia entry says the chain "actively pursues sustainable practices." But with much Chilean sea bass being suspect, and 90 percent of shrimp eaten in the U.S. coming from abroad with significant environmental impact, I can only wonder how wholly good this Bang Bang Shrimp-and-fish-frenzy really is.
An interview is frustratingly delayed past my deadline, so I don't yet know if it's all mostly green-washing. But I do know that, as a matter of taste alone, it's worth that wait.