Bang Bang Shrimp are drawing in crowds, and rightly so.
The short, ascendant history of Bonefish Grill is a triumph of the art of matching a specific dining experience to an economically potent demographic: In this case, wood-grilled American food for people who have plenty of money to spend on dining out and business workers with expense accounts. It was just back in 2000 that two entrepreneurs founded Bonefish in St. Petersburg, Fla., first hitting it big with a single location, then three. Bloomin' Brands acquired them a year and a half later, and now there are about 150, including the new one on Madison's west side.
It's in the West Towne Mall parking lot, and can feel that way -- although inside, the atmosphere improves. Earth tones dominate, and wooden beams frame the asymmetrical wine rack that bisects the central dining space. There's a full bar on one side and private dining rooms on the other.
The room is comfortable, and service is surprisingly adept for a chain. Bonefish is more along the lines of Ruth's Chris Steak House than Chili's or TGI Friday's. Water glasses were quietly refilled early and often. Staffers seem schooled on ingredients. One waiter understood proper wine service well enough to apologize for not finishing a champagne split by pouring into the host's glass (always tricky: you need to provide the host a taste, then pour to the other guests, then a return to the host with what should be more than a perfunctory drizzle, and do that all with 750 milliliters of liquid). There's a good spread of server coverage, and they are very busy at peak hours. So far it's a hit.
Bang Bang Shrimp is the hot thing and Bonefish's claim to fame, so right away, one for the table. Medium-large shrimp are tossed in a spicy crema and seared, then served over a shredded lettuce mixture that doubles as a mini-salad (or is it intended as a garnish?). One serving is plenty for three to four people to share, and the encrusted spiced crustaceans are addictive. It's not surprising this is the showcase dish.
For lunch and dinner, "Hand-Helds" (sandwiches) form the midriff of the menu. Prepared for another chain burger, my expectations were happily upended by the American Kobe Beef Burger, with toasted brioche bun, a slice of tomato and the secret special sauce. This bad boy is more flavorful than many local burgers, and is presented in a creative, vertically stacked architecture that's fun to eat. Points.
Lily's Chicken Wrap folds a delicately crisped tortilla around wood-smoked chicken strips with tangy sun-dried tomatoes and tart artichoke pesto to good effect -- wraps are hard to get right. The BFG Asian Salad with snow peas, sweet peppers and herbed and grilled chicken tossed with too-mild miso vinaigrette was less remarkable, though the trick of serving it in a glass cylinder and then upending it into the bowl was cute.
Wood-grilled salmon filet with a wedge of goat's cheese and seared artichoke hearts is pricey for the small portion, but a balanced forkful is a striking flavor combination. Unfortunately, the spinach bed was overcooked, and the accompanying side of couscous was bland, two issues I might have overlooked save for the single long blond hair in the couscous. My hair is not blond. (To the manager's credit, he offered to pay for the entire plate of food, and all service interactions around this unpleasantness were admirably professional.)
Fish and chips were much anticipated -- you know how we are in Wisconsin. And lo, golden-brown french fries were precisely cooked, and tempura-battered cod tasted sort of like what you might get at a Midwestern supper club. A tangy tartar sauce and a splash of malt vinegar set the fish off, and we all liked the approximation of authentic Wisconsin eats.
And that is what we are dealing with, a good facsimile -- but it isn't the real thing. That's the feeling I couldn't shake. Crispy Street Tacos in a wonton shell with mango salsa aren't very much like real street tacos. And of course, cold water lobster tails don't taste like they do in Maine.
Despite the attractive room and adept service, prices are too high for what is not a fine dining restaurant, and in Madison these guys have real competition from serious chefs. The constrictions of a chain just don't allow Bonefish to take on locally owned, farm-to-table restaurants. But it is great to see a knowledgeable service team doing the best they can with what they have to work with. That's the spirit.