It took us three casts to catch a seat at the Bonefish Grill.
The first time, we cavalierly waited until Saturday afternoon to call for a reservation that evening; none were to be had until after 9 p.m. Then we cavalierly drove out on a Tuesday night thinking we'd be safe. Nope. An hour, maybe an hour and 20 minutes, wait. So we decided on our third try not to be cavalier and call a couple of days ahead. The only reservation we could get was for 4:45 p.m.
And you know what? The place was packed, the spinning front door emptying a non-stop stream of folks into the bar. They never quit coming, even through an hour-long downpour that started about 5:30 p.m. You'd think Bonefish was the only restaurant in town.
Was it worth the effort? Sure. We had to see what all the fuss was about.
Our waitress, looking competent in a white chef's coat, asked us if we wanted the menu presented, and we said yes indeed. We paid special attention to her descriptions of the fish, of course: salmon, grouper, mahi mahi, Chilean sea bass …
Chilean sea bass? Wait a minute. Isn't Chilean sea bass on the no-no list? The fish — also known as the Patagonian toothfish, though never on menus for obvious reasons — has long been on Seafood Watch's avoid list. Seafood Watch (of the Monterey Bay Aquarium) says those who would choose (or serve) a sustainable food should nix Chilean seabass for several reasons: It's badly overfished, most served in the U.S. has been caught illegally, and the method of capture — with bottom longlines — drowns thousands of seabirds, including the endangered albatross.
Still, Chilean sea bass is on most every menu in town where fish is served, so why should Bonefish Grill be any different? Indeed, the waitress said, it's the most-ordered fish on the menu.
Perhaps it should be different because Bonefish makes such a big deal on its website about its dedication to “responsible” fishing. It touts its “partnership” with the Ocean Trust and the OSI Seafood Advisory Council, both of which “help us employ best practices.”
That sounds like they've got some scientific support, until you do a little research and discover that OSI is the parent company of Bonefish Grill (Outback Steakhouse was its first business, hence the initials) and the Ocean Trust is apparently a one-man non-profit outfit created by the company.
(On the positive side, the Ocean Trust has awarded grants to projects to restore Ridley's Sea Turtle, mangrove reserves and flounder stock. A gesture perhaps, but who'd turn it down?)
The publicity company for OSI declined comment, except to say a new menu is in the making.
None of this is particularly startling, of course. Bonefish Grill is a money-making proposition — with $2 million in sales last year, it was the 26th highest-ranked restaurant in Little Rock — not a conservation outfit.
In the name of research (and we confess that we enjoyed having a reason to sacrifice our virtue), we ordered the grouper (another no-no), the Atlantic farm-raised salmon (also a no-no) and mahi mahi (OK). One of us had crab cakes as well, and as long as they weren't made from imported King Crab, one can order them without compromising one's commitment to eating sustainably. All were delicious if not unique, thanks in part to a nice mango salsa, delicious jasmine rice and haricots verts (French green beans), the salmon (served on a plank) especially so. There was a tiny bit of a wait, but the company was good and so were the drinks (a well-made Cosmopolitan and a glass of dry Riesling, both generous). We could have done without the gentlemen resting their elbows, inches from our heads, on our booth back as they waited in a crowded area by the door to be seated but the waitress kindly asked them to back off, which they did.
If you decide to have dessert on top of a very richly buttered fish — as we did — be forewarned. The waitress tried to give us a heads up, but we paid no attention. Bonefish's brulees (both chocolate and vanilla) are served in dinghy-sized ramekins, about five inches long and three inches wide. No kidding. With a dollop of whipped cream starboard. The macadamia nut brownie was about a pound of flourless brownie with vanilla ice cream on top, sex on a saucer. The key lime pie, though generous, was not quite as overboard.