Yes, It's a Chain, But Bonefish Grill Offers Seafood & Class

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Bonefish Grill
1247 Niagara Falls Blvd., Amherst, NY 14226
Web: Bonefish Grill
Phone: 716.833.6106
Rating:    [learn more]
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"While the 'small' Sea Bass portion lived up to its name, the piece of fish was outstanding: thick, moist, and perfectly cooked, it was good enough to eat without the sauce."

Chain restaurants aren't bad by nature, and over the past 10 years, certain upscale chains such as The Cheesecake Factory have demonstrated that patrons can benefit when smart people popularize winning formulas of decor, food quality, and pricing. Amherst's location of Bonefish Grill is one of a handful of the impressive ones, the sort of seafood restaurant that actually helps elevate the Western New York dining scene by offering a semi-classy dining room with properly trained servers, date-worthy ambience, and critically, very good food. A limited menu and a focus on moderately-priced choices places Bonefish a rung below other cities' McCormick and Schmick's, but above options such as Red Lobster - this is a place for adults to have nice business lunches or semi-fancy dinners in the company of other like-minded patrons.

Located centrally on the Niagara Falls Boulevard side of the Boulevard Mall, Bonefish Grill makes an odd first impression as you prepare to walk in its dark revolving glass doors: the push bars are oversized, metallic looking fish that look like they could have come out of a novelty store save for their silver coloration. But once you're inside, the place is almost all modern class: dark woods, servers dressed in white chefs' jackets, and intentionally dim, romantic lighting. Couples occupied some of the restaurant's booths, but most of the tables were filled with people wearing business attire - some in very large groups - and no one looked to be younger than college aged. Moderately sized and relatively quiet despite the fact that tables seemed to have been packed into the space to just about maximum capacity, the place's only comfort flaw, this was the opposite of the raucous T.G.I. Friday's on the same side of the mall; it's not a place for kids, and not a place for a cheap meal. As only two of many examples, a small but full and freshly cooked loaf of Italian bread is served with a dish of pesto - no butter - along with every meal; the silverware is all metal, and the napkins are made from cloth rather than paper.

But the approachable upscale focus is part of the appeal, and the reason the single-page menu can concentrate on items that aren't meant to be eaten with fingers. Appetizers range from $6 to $11, with most in the $8 range, and fish dishes start at $13 but hover at the $17 mark, with two at $24.50 or more. Seafood is the heavy theme across the entrees, with only five choices that aren't fishy: two chicken, two steak, and one pork chop. There are more wine, martini, and beverage choices on the back of the menu than food choices on the front; our server noted that lemonade is no longer on the local menu, having been replaced by loganberry. This was the only obvious nod to local tastes; fans of fish fry will only find a single Fish & Chips item on the menu, and then, as an appetizer. A short five-item specials menu added one appetizer, three entrees, and a dessert as choices, literally all of which sounded good.

We opted to stick with the regular menu for all of our choices, and were glad that we did, as we either liked or loved all of the appetizers - more precisely, one of us liked all three, the other loved them. Typical was the Ahi Tuna Sashimi (half portion, $9), a long, rectangular plate with a completely fresh, rich red chunk of sushi-grade ahi that had been perfectly seared, encrusted in a combination of white and black sesame seeds, sliced into six large pieces, and topped with a very light and inoffensive cream sauce. While we were both wowed by the flavor and texture of the legitimately excellent fish, we split on whether the sesame crust was a little over the top in density. Neither of us felt that the cream sauce was in any way necessary; it merely distracted from the rich, fresh tuna.

Similarly, the fish was once again the strongest part of Bonefish's Coconut Crusted Shrimp ($8), a circular plate with six coconut-battered, deep-fried shrimp, plus a bowl of orange marmalade dipping sauce in the center. Though we were even more impressed by the intense coconut coatings and sizes of the shrimp on plates at restaurants such as The Eagle House, Bonefish's shrimp were big enough, more reasonable in quality for the lower price, and enjoyable. Something in the dipping sauce - a preservative or spice, perhaps - was less than thrilling for one of us, but again, our opinions differed a little.

Though the menu described the Crab Cakes ($11) more or less accurately as "two jumbo lump cakes with red remoulade," we were both surprised by their consistency and composition. Generally speaking, crab cakes don't come apart when lifted off of their serving plate, but these did, crumbling into pieces that revealed significant - almost complete - crab content versus bread crumbs or eggs. Apart from a light outer layer of breading, these were mounds of crab in the shape of cakes, rather than precisely what we were expecting, but we enjoyed them nonetheless.

Our entrees were both strong in every way save quantity for their prices. Bonefish's Grilled Fish section of the menu is its star attraction, with eight dishes - grouper, sea bass, salmon, tilapia, tuna, rainbow trout, lobster tails, and a combined scallop and shrimp plate - that can all be customized with one of four "signature sauces." The Mango Salsa and Lemon Butter options are self-explanatory, while a Chimichurri adds a Latin combination of herbs and pepper, and a Pan Asian has a teriyaki glaze with a splash of the same cream sauce used in the sashimi. Each dish comes with one choice of rice or vegetables - potatoes, green beans, or broccoli amongst them - and a chef's second vegetables, which was a corn and bean succotash on our visit. Simple side salads and a single soup are options, so we didn't bother with them.

Noting a "popular guest choice" menu reference next to the Chilean Sea Bass ($20, small/$24.50 large), we went with the small portion, customizing it with the Lemon Butter sauce. To say that the Sea Bass was a dramatic contrast with what's served under the same name at restaurants such as Wasabi would be an understatement: while the "small" portion generally lived up to its billing, the piece of fish was outstanding: thick, moist, and perfectly cooked, it would have been good enough to eat without the sauce, which also delivered on both of its promised ingredients. We chose and enjoyed a side of potatoes au gratin, which managed to properly balance its cheese, onions, and potatoes into a moist but not overly wet pile; the succotash was a little plain, but a nice contrast with the starch.

We took our server's recommendation when customizing our other entree, the Sea Scallops & Shrimp ($17), going with the Pan Asian sauce over the Chimichurri. Unlike the Sea Bass, this plate was only available in one size, and though the quantity of seafood on the plate wasn't surprising - five scallops, five shrimp - it wasn't thrilling, either. That said, each of the pieces was delicious, with slight char that obviously came from Bonefish's wood-burning grill, and a teriyaki sauce that managed to be every bit what we were hoping for in flavor without the near-gelatinous viscosity of many glazes. Once again, the sashimi sauce added nothing to the teriyaki, which we found ourselves using to spice up the succotash and the fine steamed broccoli we'd selected. As a plate, this was very good overall.

Out of a sense of obligation more than hunger, we picked one dessert to sample from the three on offer: the Key Lime Pie ($5.70) was served only a little colder than room temperature, with a soft, custard-like key lime body and a crust made from graham crackers and ground, roasted pecans - the pecans were also sprinkled over the top of the pie and its included, large dollop of whipped cream. Our feelings on the pie were mixed: though it could have been served colder, we liked the balanced rather than overbearing flavor and density of the key lime filling, which felt pretty close to right with every bite; the whipped cream surprised us by looking like ice cream and achieving stronger thickness and modestly lower sweetness levels than we'd expected, both distinguishing the topping from the pie. But we once again split on the crust, which was a little too nutty for one of us, and entirely pleasing to the other. We agreed that we'd both enjoyed the dessert, but knew that it could have been better.

All in all, we came away more than satisfied by the Bonefish Grill experience: if we awarded quarter-stars, it might have merited a 3.25-star overall rating, though we agreed that all of the dishes had been in the "very good, not amazing" category except for the lemon buttered Sea Bass, which was a standout. More than anything else, we were impressed by Bonefish's strong focus on fresh fish with relatively healthy preparations, user-selectable sauces and vegetables; between the dishes and the ambience, this chain seafood restaurant offers a substantial upgrade to the Red Lobster experience, albeit at a more premium price point. That said, they're different types of places for different customers; pick Bonefish Grill if you're looking for a place to have a nice date or a semi-fancy meal, and consider other options if you're focused on larger portion sizes, more aggressive pricing, or wearing casual attire.

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Comments (3)

Greg :

The bang bang shrimp are outstanding. Cooked perfectly, and a little spicy, nice breading. I heard they are now on the dinner menu, but were only available as an appetizer before.

Kelly :

I have never had the bang bang shrimp before, but I know that you can order any appetizer as an entree and they will just charge you for adding sides.

Bob L :

Have visited Bonefish a couple of times in Florida.
Had the Wild Alaskan Cedar Plank Salmon with a Chorizo Topping and thought it so good I reproduced a few times at home.
Never had a bad meal there and always busy when I visited.

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