If I told you Bonefish Grill's signature dish was called Bang Bang Shrimp, that it's battered, fried, then shellacked in a "creamy, spicy sauce," would you already know what it tasted like? How about if I showed you a picture? Or told you it's not unlike the last dish of honey-glazed walnut shrimp you ate at your local Cantonese seafood joint, except without the honey-glazed walnuts and with what's most likely a hit of Sriracha and Thai sweet chile sauce mixed into the mayo?
The appetizer is to Bonefish Grill what the Bloomin' Onion is to Outback Steakhouse—not the big-ticket item by any means, but one that has a star next to it on the menu and dozens of Internet sites trying to decipher the recipe. It's with these dishes—the proverbial first hit of the crack pipe—that Bonefish and Outback hope to hook you. And what red-blooded American can resist appetizers so fried, so addictive, so loaded with calories? Bonefish also has another thing in common with Outback: They're both wholly owned subsidiaries of Bloomin' Brands, a corporation that also owns Fleming's Prime Steakhouse, Roy's and Carrabba's Italian Grill.
With Bonefish, Bloomin' Brands gets high-end middlebrow right. The Bonefish motto is "Happiness Here," and you can almost hear the pre-service pep-talk: "Remember, everyone, we're not here to sell fish; we're here to sell happiness!" Our dinnertime waitress—a 50-ish woman in a crisply ironed chef coat—doted on us as though she were our auntie, asking us with genuine interest whether we liked what we ate and, at one point, placing her palm warmly on my back while she spoke. But even the host tried to connect. Just from the few seconds it took for him to lead us to our table, we learned he's from Seattle and happy to not be used to the sunshine here. Both reminded me how we can too easily write off chain restaurants as soulless enterprises when they can often be just humans who want to do their best. And because the Bonefish formula has been replicated at least a hundred times before, the operation is already running smoothly on autopilot—and it has barely been open. The Bonefish Grill in Tustin is the first in California, with another set to debut in Northridge in a few weeks.
Bonefish Grill, 3040 El Camino Real, Tustin, (714) 368-7613; www.bonefishgrill.com. Open Sun., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Dinner for two, $50-$75, food only. Full bar.
If you haven't visited Bonefish in other states, you shouldn't expect a fast-casual or another California Fish Grill copycat. Bonefish is a real sit-down restaurant, with LED-votive candles, a revolving door and a tall honeycomb wine-bottle rack that separates the dining room from a bustling bar area. Despite the butcher paper-covered tables, anticipate price points on par with King's Fish House, its closest competitor. The most expensive item is the wood-grilled Chilean sea bass ($30) that cuts with a fork and eats like a gigantic scallop, its pristine white fibers running up and down. To taste what you paid for, opt for the lemon-butter emulsion and no other sauce.
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With Bonefish's Tilapia Imperial, it's the opposite. Half of the dish is an ooey-gooey stuffing made of Gruyère, Parmesan and lemon-caper sauce baked to envelop fistfuls of scallops, shrimp and crab. Yet it all somehow manages to avoid overwhelming the delicate tilapia fillet beneath. This and the acre of pan-fried trout encrusted inch-to-inch with pulverized pecans and Parmesan are dishes designed for people who grew up eating faceless fish sticks and boneless Filet-O-Fishes. This isn't to say they're not great—they are. There's real cooking happening here. That trout is thoughtfully embellished with artichoke hearts, lemon butter and a sprinkling of fresh basil, all offsetting the fried richness. A ceviche with curls of precooked shrimp, nubs of snow-white fish and chunks of avocado marinate in a citric run-off that's tart, but not too tart. And though the lunchtime side of coleslaw was overdressed, the couscous ho-hum, the fries limp even before they got to our table, the mashed potatoes and the tangled mound of shredded squash at dinner were flawless.
Bonefish also offers a crab cake that seems 99 percent crab, with the other 1 percent the thinnest possible covering of cornmeal; the latter holds meat so moist and sweet you need a spoon to eat it, as though it's melting ice cream.
For dessert, our doting server recommended the key lime pie. "It's made right here," she said proudly. And in that wedge of intensely lime-y custard cradled by a crumbly Graham cracker crust, I tasted the soul of the chain, imagining how it all began: as a local Florida restaurant that everyone liked because it always tried to do its best.