Upscale-casual dining establishments compose the fastest growing sector of the restaurant industry. The best ones provide comfortable, attractively designed dining rooms; fresh, flavorful cuisine; cheery service; and family-friendly prices. That's Bonefish Grill in a clam shell.
Alas, there are no clam shells to be found at this new Coral Gables eatery, one of 40-plus Bonefish locales — including branches in West Miami and Kendall. The chain was started eight years ago in St. Petersburg by Chris Parker and Tim Curci (son of former UM football head coach Fran Curci), and should not be confused with the now-extinct Fishbone Grill. Like other national upscale-casual restaurants (though here they call it "polished casual"), Bonefish possesses the positive attributes mentioned above. But like those others, it relies on formulaic menu concepts that border on insipid. Not that clams are obligatory, but excepting the nightly special and a pair of shellfish entrées (lobster tails, and scallops with shrimp), there are just seven fish proffered — and of those, only grouper and mahi-mahi are local (the others being Atlantic salmon, Chilean sea bass, tilapia, tuna, and trout). Pretty sappy selection for a seafood house, although the menu "changes regularly based on availability."
The sleekly designed 216-seat space consists of two roomy dining areas and three community tables set up by an oft-crowded bar. If you peer into an open kitchen in the back, you won't see a freezer; this is the chain's signature insurance that the fish is always fresh (or at least never frozen). This was true of those we sampled, and everything was consistently cooked just right, too. Then again, it is difficult to mess up a grilled Chilean sea bass (I don't order this specimen anymore because it's nearly extinct, but didn't feel comfortable telling my guest not to do so). The thick, sweet, succulent flakes testified as to why it has been fished out.
2121 Ponce de Leon Blvd, Coral Gables; 305-460-1888. Open for dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11:30 p.m., Sunday 5 to 10 p.m.
A nightly special of grilled chinchito likewise boasted moist, white flesh, richened by a diet of scallops, shrimp, and God knows what else (because of its indiscriminating eating habits, it is also known as "pig fish"). There's a choice of four accompanying sauces, but only ahi tuna or mahi-mahi can stand up to the chimichurri or spicy Asian dip; for the others, you'd be better off going with the less obtrusive warm mango salsa or mild lemon butter sauce.
One bone I have to pick with Bonefish is that there are no bones to pick — the fish all come as fillets. Chicken treatments also consist solely of boneless breasts, but that regrettable occurrence is all too common these days — and forgivable in a seafood joint. Even sans bones, chicken Marsala satisfied with its deep mushroom-and-prosciutto-flecked wine sauce. A moderate-size rib eye steak hit the spot, too; the grilled, flavorful cut was rubbed with piquant chili paste and drizzled with chimichurri sauce. Still, I recommend sticking to the fish.
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The waitstaff is as young, friendly, and refreshingly unjaded as a clique of Barack enthusiasts, which makes up for any minor service glitches. A warm greeting meets diners at the door, a warm farewell upon exiting, and a basket of warm bread comes to the table somewhere in between (plus a plate of pesto-imbued olive oil). Predictable starters include steamed mussels, fried calamari, tuna sashimi, ceviche, and a pair of broiled crabcakes that arrived flat as cookies but were composed almost exclusively of precious pearls of pure lump backfin (it takes 30 pounds of crab to produce one pound of backfin). Rémoulade on the side summoned an alluring heat.
We also relished a couple of shrimp appetizers: six crunchily fried jumbo crustaceans crusted with coconut and accompanied by sweet/spicy orange marmalade-based dip; and a tall, pyramid-shape pile of smaller, fried "bang bang" shrimp bound in a buoyantly piquant cream sauce (the kitchen crew is admirably bold with spices). An orange marmaladelike "chutney" glazed bacon-wrapped sea scallops that were also topped with mango salsa. Too sweet.
Bonefish keeps expenses down via bulk buying power and reasonable portions. Appetizers are mostly under $10, nearly every main course less than $20. Dinners come with a small garnish of sautéed squash strips and tomatoes, and a choice of softly textured garlic-mashed potatoes, deliciously cheesy potatoes au gratin, lukewarm "herbed jasmine rice," or a steamed medley of vegetables. A mere $2.80 brings a house or caesar salad, or a generous cup of velvety lump-crab-and-corn chowder. Make no bones about it: Many a Miami restaurant charges much more for essentially the same food products that come from the same delivery trucks.
Wines are eminently affordable, too, some 40 mostly low-end selections conveniently listed in order from light to full-bodied. Desserts are few but fine: crème brûlée; a warm, flourless, cakelike macadamia nut brownie with vanilla ice cream; and a luscious key lime pie with a graham cracker/roasted pecan crust, pale custard, and a dollop of freshly whipped cream on top. At $4.90 to $5.50, these, too, represent a good deal. Attractive prices are the bait to lure you into Bonefish. The catch is a very good meal.