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Thursday, June 13, 2002

Uneven scales

Posted on Thu, Jun 13, 2002 at 4:00 AM

With Fish Bones down the road and the delayed-but-inevitable opening of Moonfish Grille across the street, it might get hard to tell your fish from your bones now that Bonefish Grill has moved into the neighborhood, a modestly upscale fish house with room to improve.

It's an interesting chain of events that led to this new eatery. Bonefish Grill opened in late January 2000 in Tampa, started by two former Hops vice-presidents with an eye toward expansion. Their neighbor in Tampa, the Outback chain (owner of Outback, Carraba's and Roy's), was experimenting with high-end Cajun cooking in the form of Zazarac's, building a massive restaurant on Orlando's food-saturated Sand Lake Road. But Zazarac's disappeared after only a month; within weeks Bonefish became an Outback partner, and now we have a new tenant in Zazarac's old space.

The stone and brick walls and dramatic stained-glass partitions are gone, replaced by pale, textured walls and brighter lighting. No longer can the frenetic kitchen be seen; now we have a quieter, more family-friendly restaurant that seems to attract business folk to its bar and dining room (which explains the martini listings on the menu). The Outback management does know a thing or two about training servers. They were good at Zazarac, and they're good here, too.

My Appetizer Theory still stands: good starter, disappointing entree. I was awestruck by the "saucy rock shrimp" dish ($8.50), perfect shellfish lumps in a bright lime and tomato sauce, marvelously contrasted with creamy feta cheese and dark olives. The lemon and garlic broth surrounding "mussels Josephine" ($9) was similar in taste, combined with sautéed tomatoes, basil, and firm, briny mussels – and I'm not complaining. The serving was big enough for two, or dinner by itself.

Grilled fish with a choice of sauces is the specialty, so I got ahi tuna ($16.50), with the un-advertised but available Oscar sauce (a mix of crab, cream and asparagus). The tuna was OK but not extraordinary, and there was so little sauce it wasn't worth ordering. Garlic mashed potatoes were over-whipped and only slightly garlicky. As for the rainbow trout, breaded in a pistachio-Parmesan crust ($17), the breading was better than the mushy fish.

Oddly enough, Anne Kearney, the force behind Zazarac's kitchen, won this year's James Beard award for the "Best Chef in the Southeast" for her Peristyle restaurant in New Orleans. Maybe she should have stuck around.


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