Not that I would have known about the sea having too many fish. The only aquatic creatures that ever made it to our family dinner table were shaped like wooden pegs. My mom, the world's laziest cook, loved the convenience of throwing rock-hard frozen fish sticks onto a cookie sheet and heating them up until they were steamy and crisp. Gourmet it was not.
Fast-forward to 2006. There probably aren't as many undersea creatures in our commercially overfished oceans. But there are still plenty of fish in KC! Not just at the familiar seafood venues the lowbrow Red Lobster, the pricier Bristol and McCormick & Schmick's but from a less familiar school of names, such as Fish City on Blue Ridge Boulevard or Westport's Boozefish Wine Bar, which is more about booze than fish.
The new shark circling the local restaurant reef is the Northland outpost of the dinner-only Bonefish Grill. The newcomer is part of Florida's Outback Steakhouse Company dining empire, which also includes Carrabba's Italian Grill and Cheeseburger in Paradise. It's already taking a big bite out of the seafood market share. Since opening in early March, the first Bonefish Grill in the Kansas City area (a second venue in Leawood opens in May) has been reeling in diners through its revolving door at such a rapid clip that it's not surprising to find patrons waiting more than an hour for a table on weeknights. What's even more remarkable is the fact that the Bonefish Grill is located in a shopping center, the Tuileries Plaza, that is still under construction.
On the first night I visited the restaurant, I called ahead to get directions from a savvy hostess who warned me that "Tuileries doesn't look like it's opened yet, but if you keep circling around Lucerne Avenue, you'll find us." I did, though my dining companions weren't convinced that I knew where I was going. Carol Jean, Taylor and my friend Jim, who is legally blind, worried that it was a literal case of the blind leading the blind.
Unlike many of its casual-dining-chain rivals, Bonefish Grill actually takes reservations. I was glad I made one as our group walked toward the restaurant's front door early on a Saturday night and saw a sour-faced couple walking out. "Was the food good?" I asked, hopefully. "How would we know?" answered the male. "There's already an hour wait."
Customers were packed into the smaller, saloon side of the Bonefish building dare I say it? like sardines as we squeezed in and wriggled over to the hostess station. Even with reservations, we were told that we had a 20-minute wait. But it really wasn't that long. Carol Jean speculated that a manager noticed that one of our group had a cane and felt guilty that we were caught in the crush. All I know is that after five minutes, we were whisked out of the bar and into the more spacious, comfortable dining room.
"It's a beautiful space," Taylor said. "The lighting is very theatrical, the servers are very attractive, and it has an air of, you know, class."
For a corporate interior design (almost all of the Bonefish properties look alike), it is quite tasteful: shiny hardwood floors, tables cloaked in heavy white vinyl and topped with a swath of white butcher paper, silver-wire bread baskets, cloth napkins. The menu is a single sheet of heavy card stock, printed with an uncomplicated selection of starters, three salads, 10 grilled fish choices, two sautéed versions, a couple of pasta dishes, two steaks and as many grilled chicken options and grilled pork chops. The server was kind enough to bring a Braille menu for Jim, which he waved away. "Feel how thick it is," he said. "It would be like reading Tolstoy." So I read the other menu aloud.
Our server steered us away from the chops ("We don't hear raves," he explained) and gave us a brief speech about the four sauce choices and five sides available with grilled fish dishes. He also put in a big plug for the Bang Bang shrimp. I looked around the room and noticed that practically every table had ordered the appetizer. Even before Bonefish Grill opened, the restaurant's publicist had called me to praise the virtues of Bang Bang shrimp. So bang me, I thought.
This ersatz "Oriental" dish (well, it comes with chopsticks) is a jumble of exceptionally crispy fried shrimp glazed with a creamy sauce that's slightly fiery and has an undertone of Dijon mustard. We all liked it well enough but didn't bang the table over the last bite.
The Bonefish house salad was a pleasant surprise: chopped greens scattered with crunchy pine nuts, kalamata olives and a sliver of heart of palm and splashed with a tart citrus vinaigrette. The corn chowder, generously laden with lump crab, had enough red pepper flakes to pack just the right punch.
Carol Jean's succulent salmon was superb, and Taylor raved over his grilled swordfish and the little amber scoop of spaghetti squash that came with it. "I'd come back just for the squash," he said. I ordered that night's special, a meaty slab of grilled butterfish accompanied by little cups of all four of the featured Bonefish sauces (lemon butter, lime-tomato garlic, warm mango salsa and an Asian teriyaki number) because I couldn't decide on one. The dish is not usually served with all the sauces, but I was a pushy little blowfish that night.
I never saw Jim take the first bite of his pistachio-parmesan-crusted rainbow trout, but the next time I looked his way, his plate was empty and he was asking about dessert.
There were only three dessert choices, but neither Jim nor Taylor would share the warm chocolate-macadamia-nut brownie with ice cream, so, like an indulgent parent, I let them each have one. Carol Jean and I shared the untarty deep-dish Key-lime pie, which was too big for us to finish. "It was that Bang Bang shrimp," whispered Carol Jean, as if we had ruined our appetites eating something vulgar.
A few nights later, I went back with my friend Bob, who rolled his eyes at the idea of a corporate-owned casual seafood joint. "It sounds stupid, and what's that name mean, anyway?"
The name comes from the favorite sport fish caught by the restaurant's co-founders, I explained. Luckily, Bob's cynicism dropped at the restaurant's entrance. "This place is gorgeous," he said, admiring details that I had missed on my first visit: the crisply starched jackets worn by the servers, the soft and unobtrusive jazz music, the cruet of good olive oil on the table. He watched approvingly as our waiter mixed a splash of olive oil with fresh pesto, bits of chopped olives and pepper flakes for a bread dipping sauce.
"I love this place," he said, greedily opening one shiny black mussel shell after another to spear the lusciously garlic-speckled shellfish. "You can't believe how sweet and good this buttery broth is," he said.
I watched the servers, all with beautifully polished manners, patiently attend to some demanding customers (including a family with a trio of restless, tired toddlers). Our waiter had done a magnificent job explaining the restaurant's "progressive wine list," which lists the vintages from the lightest Sauvignon Blanc to the heaviest Frog's Leap zinfandel. "I haven't actually tasted any of these wines," he added. "I'm only 19."
I think I was still eating fish sticks when I was 19. That night, I ventured away from fish and ordered Lily's chicken, a simply grilled bird breast blanketed with soft goat cheese, wilted spinach, artichokes and lemon-basil sauce. Very nice, but I should have stuck with seafood, especially after I took a bite of the terrific butterfish piccata that Bob had ordered. It's a specialty at Bonefish, and it's extraordinarily delicious even more so sided with a pile of the creamy au gratin potatoes. The garlic mashed potatoes are skimpy on the garlic.
But that's the only skimpy thing at Bonefish, where everything else from dinner portions to staff attention is jumbo-sized.