By LAURA REILEY
Times Food Critic
ST. PETERSBURG — Bonefish Grill's mother ship opened on Fourth Street N in 2000. Last November, this original location closed and the whole kit and caboodle was packed up and moved four blocks south to the site of the defunct Novo. The lights, the art and mirrors on the walls and nearly the entire staff made the move, the new location promising better parking, a discrete takeout area and private dining space.
This seems like a good opportunity to take a look at the OSI Restaurant Partners concept, more than 150 locations strong, which was selected the best value in the seafood category by Consumer Reports in June. The short answer is: It's doing great.
The new location does a rollicking bar business, its lounge area attractive and inviting. The cavernous, open dining room of Novo has been rendered more intimate with the erection of some internal walls. Servers wear crisp chef coats, and because there are no designated bussers or food runners, each server seems to keep close tabs on the pacing and needs of his or her own tables while chipping in to help fellow servers where necessary.
The menu at Bonefish has been fairly steady, but there is some movement in a new direction: affordable, shareable dishes that don't require a lot of utensils. Something to nibble over drinks with friends, including a new American wagyu burger ($10.90), Bang Bang shrimp tacos ($8.90) and tempura-battered fish and chips ($10.90). Smart, as is the decision to offer petite portions of some of the most popular grilled fish dishes.
My long-held beef with Bonefish still holds, however. The seafood seems carefully sourced and effectively prepared, whether it is grilled or fried, but then it's gummed up with sauces that play to our worst instincts. The Bang Bang shrimp ($7.90), one of the signature dishes, has a sweet-spicy Thai chili sauce that is clogged with mayonnaise. Edamame ($3.90), those healthful little soybeans in the pod, are unnecessarily dusted with sugar in addition to salt.
Seared ahi tuna ($8.80 and $14.90) with a crust of sesame seeds doesn't need its big slather of pink mayo sauce or squiggle of Sriracha. It's clearer and cleaner-tasting with the crunchy nuttiness of the crust contrasting with a zing of pickled ginger or a wag through wasabi-spiked soy. Similarly, the plush white flesh of Chilean sea bass ($19.50 small, $23.50 large) is brought down by the sweetness and viscosity of a pan-Asian sauce.
Better: Order the gulf grouper ($16.60 small, $19.90 large) sauce-free with a lemon wedge on the side. The mild flavor of the fish shines more brightly than when paired with a heavy lemon butter sauce (a sauce that appears all over the menu, sometimes with capers, sometimes with basil). And why do bacon-wrapped sea scallops ($9.70) need both a gooey sweet chutney and a mango salsa, or already-sweet coconut shrimp ($7.90) need a gluey, mega-cloying sauce?
Harangue nearing completion, I'd say that Bonefish hides its light under a bushel of sauces. The concept is otherwise resoundingly contemporary. More affordable than many of the other upscale national chains, on a couple of visits it seemed to be a favorite girls-night-out destination, whole posses clinking wine glasses and spoon-fighting for a bite of very respectable creme brulee ($5.50).
Its martini menu (most drinks hovering in the laudably reasonable $7.50 range) has stylish bells and whistles (house-infused pineapple tequila, Danish blue-stuffed olives, plenty of pomegranate juice), and a broad by-the-glass wine program is arranged lightest to most full-bodied, very user friendly.
Clearly the mother ship's clientele has been content with the four-block venue shift, the space itself an improvement over the original. And though new menu directions seem fitting in the current economy, a sauce-ectomy or two might benefit Bonefish Grill in the long run.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.