Monday, June 21, 2010

Red Fish, Blue Fish, Part I

Several weeks ago I was contacted by Anna Murphy, an Account Associate at MS & L Worldwide. It seems that one of her clients, a national restaurant chain called Bonefish Grill (warning: website contains music and semi-gratuitous use of Flash), was sponsoring a "taste-off" between its cuisine and any other restaurant. Anna had found the blog through an Internet search engine and had written to me wondering if I would be interested in participating. The deal was that I would receive a $25 gift card to Bonefish Grill and a $25 card to use at another local restaurant for comparison.

My first reaction was to scoff at the notion of reviewing a national chain's food. With locations in nearly every state in the country, the cuisine being served at Bonefish Grill doesn't help to define northeast Ohio's gastronomic identity. But as I sat here considering the offer, I realized two very important things. First, I have covered national chains before, just not very often. Second, after confirming with Anna that the second $25 gift card could be used solely at my discretion, I realized that I would be able to highlight a local independent restaurant that DID help to define local cuisine.

As with my experience at Fleming's last year, I made sure Anna was aware of the conditions under which I would accept the offer. First, I would be disclosing both Anna's name and place of employment and the nature of the offer. Second, I promised to be fair in my reviews, whether they be good or bad. And third, I couldn't promise an exact publication date, but would let her know when I did. Having read over my terms, she agreed and arranged to have a package FedEx'd to me with the details. I opened the envelop to find a folder with the two gift cards, a detailed copy of the menu, and an introduction letter. Additionally, they included a stainless steel fish spatula with the name Bonefish Grill imprinted on the rather large kitchen utensil.

I decided to execute part one of the plan and have my meal at Bonefish Grill. The Cleveland area's only Bonefish Grill was located at 6150 Rockside Place, Independence, OH 44131 and can be reached at 216-520-2606. The restaurant shares building space with an Outback Steakhouse and resides just west of the Holiday Inn. In fact, to get to the building, I needed to enter through the Holiday Inn entranceway. There was ample parking around the building.

Here was a shot of the front door:

While reservations aren't required and I certainly didn't think I would need one on a Wednesday night at 6:30, the restaurant was surprisingly full when I arrived. Fortunately there was an empty two top near the rear of the restaurant, so I only waited a few minutes. I noticed two items right away, one the restaurant controls and one the restaurant has no control over. When I had first walked in the door, I saw a man in chef's whites talking to one of the tables in the bar. "Great!" I thought. It's always nice to see the chef get out of the kitchen to talk with guests about their dining experience. That was until I walked into the main dining room and saw many people wearing chef's whites. Apparently the server's dress code involves wearing chef's whites. Which begs the question, do the cooks wear server uniforms?

The second thing that struck me was the number of very small children in the restaurant. There were at least three. Having previewed the menu on-line prior to my arrival, I saw nothing that would make me think that this was a child-friendly environment. In fact it was distinctly adult, from the low lighting, to the notably kid-unfriendly menu, to the lack of any kind of high chairs or booster seats. If you decide to bring your picky tot for a meal at Bonefish Grill, make sure you pack their entire meal. Sadly, the little ones were doing what little ones do at that age, fidget, yell, and cry. As you'll see in a little bit, I did use my camera's flash in several of the photos. Ironically, the only people who might have been affected by this inconvenience were the parents of a very vocal two year old who were seated across from my table. In this particular case, I felt little remorse.

After seating me, my hostess left me with the regular menu to look over. The menu was actually one large page, and it was fairly dark, so I did the best I could and took five separate pictures, one of each section:

My server also left me the current specials menu to look over as well:

To be honest, I really didn't need to do much looking. In doing my research on the restaurant, I had consulted the Seafood Watch website to see which fish would be a possibility for dinner tonight. The first fish listed on the menu was Patagonian Toothfish, or as the marketing people would like you to call it, Chilean Sea Bass. From the moment I saw that name, I wondered how many varieties of seafood would be on the watch list. It turned out that almost all of them were, save the Rainbow Trout and the fish off the specials menu, Arctic Char. For those who haven't had Arctic Char before, it is kind of like a cross between salmon and trout. Fine, I had my entrée, but I had $25 to burn and the entrée was $17.90. I decided to start out with an appetizer, too.

When I went to order the Arctic Char, I was greeted with enthusiastic agreement from my server. I asked if the fish was cooked to order. She responded that normally the kitchen prepared it close to medium-well. When I asked for it medium-rare instead, she got this scrunched up look on her face and said, "Are you really sure?" I'm guessing by this reaction that she's had some bad reactions from customers who THOUGHT they wanted it medium-rare, but didn't really. After assuring her that I definitely wanted it medium-rare, she agreed and walked away.

Soon, she returned with bread and an olive oil pesto dip:

The loaf in the basket had been pre-sliced almost the entire way through. Here was a shot of the crumb of a single slice:

The bread was decent enough, but a more substantive crust would've made the bread better. In trying to tear off a single piece from the loaf, I only ended up mashing and tearing it in the wrong spots. It also tasted like it could've used a bit more salt as the flavor was a little flat.

However, once I paired it with the olive oil dip, all was better:

Many restaurants do olive oil with grated cheese or freshly cracked pepper. Bonefish Grill was the first I've ever seen to spoon a dollop of pesto into the middle of the bowl. My server described the ingredients in the pesto to me and while most of them were routine, the addition of red pepper flakes caught my attention. Sure enough, one dip into the pesto portion of the plate and I was rewarded with the capricious bite of heat.

I made sure to save some of my bread for my appetizer, Mussels Josephine:

Comprised of Prince Edward Island mussels, tomatoes, red onions, garlic, a fine chiffonnade of basil, and sitting in a mostly butter with a little bit of wine sauce, this was a LOT of food for an appetizer. I ate a little more than half, but you could easily split this between three or four people. The mussels were definitely tender and tasted great when dipped in the butter sauce (what wouldn't?), but there was the occasional broken mussel and the fragmented shell pieces to fish out:

While I didn't mind the size of the dice on the tomatoes, the red onions were too big and since they weren't cooked, added too strong of a flavor paired against the sweet mussels. Additionally, while there was some basil flavor, the finely chopped green threads were too far and few between to really be incorporated into each mouthful. Those quibbles aside, I really did enjoy the mussels.

When my entrée finally arrived, I took two photos, one with flash and one without. Each has its merits and faults. I included both so you could see the difference:

Every entrée came with a warm chickpea and andouille "salad" and your choice of an additional side. I chose the potatoes gratin.

First, let's talk about the Arctic Char:

The Arctic Char had been topped with a chorizo and herb-crumb mixture and then served with a citrus beurre blanc. When the plate was first put down in front of me, I was kind of curious where the beurre blanc was. There seemed to be a very fine layer of it coating the top of the fish, but no substantive pool on the plate. It turned out that the cedar plank used to grill the fish was slightly convex and it wasn't until I lifted the plank up off the plate that I discovered that the majority of the sauce had pooled underneath the plank on the plate.

I tried each component of the fish by itself. The fish was beautifully cooked. It was moist, tender and creamy in my mouth. The chorizo and herb-crumb mixture that topped the fillet was interesting in that it added a herbaceous and spicy element to the dish. The citrus beurre blanc definitely lived up to its name; however, I felt it had almost too much lemon flavor and interfered with the other elements. As for the cedar plank itself, I think its purpose lie more in the olfactory stimulation it causes rather than in the flavor. Especially given the fact that the fish was cooked skin-side down and the delicate morsels of flesh easily slid off the skin as I ate it.

Next up was the warm chickpea salad:

I don't know that I would call this a salad, per se. It was definitely hearty and flavorful and the texture and taste of the andouille came through quite well. In this case, the onions in the dish had been cooked and worked well to marry in to the other flavors. Honestly, this dish didn't blow me away, and I don't know that I would order it if I had been given the opportunity, but it wasn't bad either.

Finally, there were the potatoes gratin:

There are many different preparations for this dish, some on the creamier side, some on the cheesier, but drier side. Bonefish Grill's version more closely matched the latter. I thought I was able to pick up on the use of several kinds of cheese, because some bites had a stringy cheese quality to them and other bites had the smell and taste of a sharp cheese, like grated Parmesan or Romano. While the toasted breadcrumbs were only on the outside of the potato ball on my plate, they must have been seasoned breadcrumbs as several bites of just the interior potatoes and cheese kind of left my tastebuds feeling a little flat and under-salted. I've certainly had better versions, but just like with the chickpea salad, it wasn't bad.

When my server came by to check on me, my incessant question asking about ingredients and small comments on the food made her stop and ask me if I was a food critic. Not wanting to blow my cover so close to the end of the meal, I simply replied, "Isn't everybody a food critic?" She laughed and replied, "You got that right!"

My meal tonight with tax came to roughly $29. Utilizing my $25 gift card, my final check came to $4, with a 20%+ tip of $6, meant that the entire affair had cost me ten bucks. I suppose the big question would be, would I have paid full price? Yes, but with a caveat. You would've had to convince me to come through the front door in the first place. As a foodie, I am interested in what makes food unique and knowing that I can order the exact same meal at every other location across the United States, doesn't exactly float my boat. That being said, overall the food ranged from quite good such as the arctic char and the olive oil pesto dip, to mediocre, as evidenced by the chickpea salad and potatoes gratin.

For those who thrive on location uniformity and well-known flavors, I think Bonefish Grill might just be up your alley. For diners looking for something unique that helps to define the Cleveland food scene, while the food can be tasty, there is nothing here that would make me specifically want to travel to Cleveland just to try it out.

Bonefish Grill on Urbanspoon


Anonymous said...

I live near that Bonefish, but have never been. I appreciate this review. I never understand why people take young kids to seafood restaurants either. I have to admit your entree looked like a bit of a hot mess, but it sounds like it tasted better than it looked! Thanks for your honest review.

Tino said...

@Poise: Thanks for the kind words. I do admit, the plating could've been a bit better, but it also matched the expectations I had of the restaurant. What it could've used was a tad more color (even though I probably couldn't have detected it due to the darkness of the dining room).

Bite Buff said...

As a strong supporter of our local independent restaurants, it almost pains me to say that I do enjoy the Bonefish mussels. I've never been blown away by any of my meals there, but they have always been consistently good.

Tino said...

@Bite Buff: And I think the important thing to remember here is that there are many national chains where you can get a tasty meal. I don't think there is anything wrong with that notion. I think the issue we face as consumers is the homogenization of culinary experiences we are willing to put up with.

I agree with you that when push comes to shove, I'd rather spend my dining dollars at a local Akron/Cleveland restaurant or local chain that offers up something unique I can't get anywhere else. But I also respect the fact that many people are comforted with familiar menus, tastes, and experiences. And not everyone who is traveling to a foreign city has either the time or inclination to research local eateries during their visit.

Liz said...

I looked at restaurants before my trip to Orlando, and Bonefish Grill was #1 on Trip Advisor (at the time, at least - not sure if that's still the case). I figured it was a local place until I looked at their website and discovered it was a chain.

I've been meaning to try it sometime, just to see if it is actually *THAT* good, or if it's just relatively good compared to the rest of the chain restaurant mecca that is Orlando.

DianeS said...

Ah, Bonefish Grill.

Not a chain I would return to.

I went to a Bonefish location a while back because a person in the group I was dining with, whose birthday we were celebrating chose the place.

I don't recall what fish I ordered but I do recall that the menu stated it was served with a lemon cream sauce or a garlic cream sauce. I chose it because it was one of the most basic preparations so I was thinking I would be safe.

My first bite of the dish and I was wondering what was in it. The sauce had a strange texture, sort of slimy as margarine is. I took a second bite and really disliked the sauce; it was slimy in texture and left a greasy feel on my lips.

I asked the server if the kitchen used butter or margarine and the server said that she didn't know (strike one). I asked if she would ask the kitchen because there was something about the texture of the sauce that I didn't care for and I wanted to know what it was from. At this point I wasn't interested in eating the dish but I did want to know what the ingredients were.

When the server returned from the kitchen she told me that the sauce had been made with butter, lemon and "culinary cream". I asked what culinary cream was and she said she didn't know.

At that point it had been enough drama so I left it at that but the next day I called the location we had been to and asked for the chef and asked if he could tell me what "culinary cream" was. He said that all he could tell me was that it was a shelf stable cream. He wouldn't even tell me the ingredients of the product or who made it though I specifically asked.

Next, I called the Bonefish corporate office and after getting passed from one person to another several times the most info I got was the same as what the chef at the restaurant had told me, that it was a shelf stable cream "product". The corporate office would not tell me what the ingredients were or who made the product.

After some internet searching my husband determined that “culinary cream” is a Minor’s product that contains: WATER, BUTTER (SWEET CREAM, SALT), LACTOSE, SODIUM CASEINATE (FROM MILK), WHEY PROTEIN CONCENTRATE, XANTHAN GUM, GUAR GUM, POTASSIUM SORBATE (PRESERVATIVE), CITRIC ACID (PRESERVATIVE) (taken from the Minor’s website).

I don’t know which bothered me more, that the menu would list one ingredient (cream) and use another (a manufactured product called culinary cream) or the fact that neither the chef at the restaurant nor anyone in the corporate office would be forthcoming about what the product was.

I can tell you that this is an example of why I do not eat at chains. I like to know what I’m eating and I like to know that if I have a menu or ingredient question it will be answered honestly and forthrightly.

Tino said...

@DianeS: Thanks for the feedback. I did a quick Google search on "culinary cream" which resulted in this result:

Nestle Product Culinary Cream

It would be a shame for a restaurant to offer classic butter and cream based sauces when they aren't using the actual butter and cream that are called for in the traditional recipe.

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