Perhaps the ultimate compliment one can bestow on an upscale, yet clearly national, chain like Bonefish Grill is that it doesn't feel like a pre-programmed, cookie-cutter operation.
Which is not to say there is anything particularly Texan about the Tampa, Fla.-based Bonefish Grill's almost two-months-old Southlake branch -- its first in the DFW area, and one of 177 across the country. Just because Bonefish has expanded to Texas doesn't mean it's going to curry cheap favor by sticking a bunch of wagon wheels and Lone Stars on the wall, nor lard its fish-centric menu with steaks and barbecue.
Indeed, the only nods to Texas crop up on the drinks side: Shiner and Fireman's #4 on draft, two white wines from Comanche's Brennan Vineyards, and the Tito's Texas martini, featuring Tito's hand-crafted vodka.
But from the moment you enter Bonefish, and are enveloped by its candle-intimate lighting (perfect third-date illumination), and are catered to by some of the area's most unintrusive, highly polished staff, any suspicions about having to endure a calculated, corporate experience quickly dissolve.
In the shadow of Bonefish's trademark steel wall sculpture, where fisherman and fish harmoniously co-exist, I drag some warm artisanal bread through a pool of garlicky pesto while perusing a carefully edited, one-page menu. Of its 37 main items, 26 feature fish -- from shrimp, calamari and scallops, to sea bass, swordfish and tilapia. For those not angling for a finned creature, there is a section devoted to chicken, chops and three cuts of steak.
Atlantic sea scallops ($10.50), each wrapped in a scarf of bacon, are perfectly rendered, dodging any threat of rubberiness, while playing off a sweet-citrusy compote of chutney and mango. Meanwhile, Bang Bang shrimp ($8.90) comes, as advertised, sporting a crispy exterior. But its spicy cream sauce offers little more than slightly monotonous heat.
Though Chilean sea bass ($23.30 for the small) can be the George Gershwin of standard culinary fare, flawless execution can still make it revelatory. Bonefish's version contrasts an exquisitely charred exterior with a flaky-fragile-moist interior. The fish is so tasty on its own that it renders almost superfluous the four different "signature sauces" that one can sample. Of the mango salsa, chimichurri, lemon butter and pan-Asian, stick with the refreshing mango and the deeply smoky pan-Asian.
A lemon caper butter sauce nicely spikes the flavor of a moist wedge of longfin tilapia imperial ($18.30), "imperial" denoting a luxurious blend of other sea creatures -- shrimp, scallops and crab meat, all paddling around in a lemon butter inlet.
For the fish-averse, Bonefish's fontina pork chop ($14.30) comes draped in prosciutto and fontina cheese. The entire affair sits in a moistening pool of Marsala wine.
Coconut lovers won't be disappointed by Jen's Jamaican Coconut Pie ($6.20), which has a gooey, custardy interior and is topped with a combustibly potent rum sauce, a cloud of whipped cream and coconut shavings. And make sure to dig a spoon into the peanut butter ice cream ($3.20), distinguished by an intense peanut butter taste and peanut shards - all of it courtesy of Texas ice cream purveyor Blue Bell.
When I received an unsolicited amuse-bouche of a cup of corn and crab chowder, the assertive blend of corn and lump crab, propelled by a hint of bacon, was certainly pleasing. But it was the mere gesture of offering that palate-cleansing soup that confirmed Bonefish's desire to be considered the kind of noncorporatized, neighborhood eatery where every customer is deserving of some special touch.
So far, it seems to be on the right track.