For years there has been talk around town that Talk of the Town, which also operates the Charley’s Steak Houses, was shopping for a spot to put another FishBones. The original near the intersection of International Drive and Sand Lake Road has enjoyed much success, and the company’s MoonFish on Restaurant Row was too close to brand as FishBones.
So north they went to the Lake Mary district that is home to a cluster of other relocations, including Dexter’s, Harvey’s Bistro, Amura and, though it has now closed, Blackfin. All of these restaurants have something in common: the Lake Mary version bears little resemblance to the original. But for FishBones the dissimilarities are more marked. The décor is more upscale, the menu more extensive and even aspects of the service are different than the Sand Lake Road restaurant.
In fact, the only thing that is really the same is the name, and that still confounds people who confuse it with Bonefish.
Well, there is one other commonality: both restaurants serve excellent food. Whether it’s fish or meat you prefer, each is prepared expertly.
The Lake Mary FishBones impresses first with its size and splashy décor. It is easy to believe the rumors that put the price tag for the new restaurant somewhere around $6.5 million. There are multiple dining rooms as well as a sushi bar, indoor lounge and outdoor bar with tables that feature personal gas fireplaces. There are numerous display aquariums with exotic marine life plus a live fish tank for your dinner selections. Among the upscale decorations and touches of classiness are numerous glass works by Tampa artist Duncan McClellan. Directly behind the host stand is an immense wood-fired grill, which is something of a trademark in various Talk of the Town restaurants.
The sushi selections are listed as bait, an unfortunate pandering to those who think of raw fish only in derogative terms. My guests and I started with the sampler ($22.50) of California roll, yum yum roll and tuna toro nachos. The California roll distinguished itself with the inclusion of real crabmeat instead of the more usual surimi. The yum yum roll had flash-fried salmon, scallions and cool cream cheese. The nachos were the best of the platter, chips of nori topped with chopped tuna and a dollop of flying fish roe.
From the kitchen, fried calamari ($7.95) took on new dimensions with a variety of peppers tossed with the tender squid. Crispy almond fried lobster tail ($19.95) yielded precious little meat for the price, but what I was able to extract from the brittle shells was sweet and delicious.
I sampled a number of the fresh fish selections and each was as enjoyable as the next. Yellow edge black grouper ($25.95) had an enjoyable smoky note from the wood grill. Wild king salmon ($26.95), cooked on a plank, was moist and sweet. Hong Kong sea bass ($32.95) featured a fist-sized ball of white flesh graced with the salty tang of soy sauce.
Meat selections are given the same careful attention as the seafood. (The original menu listed seafood under the heading Fish and meat under Bones, hence the name.) One of my guests ordered the 24-ounce prime rib ($23.95), a startlingly huge hunk of meat that despite its size was tender and smooth-textured.
A new York strip ($21.95) had a beautifully charred crust and a warm, red, juicy interior. A side of bearnaise ($1.25), however, was poorly executed, as was the hollandaise that was first delivered by mistake.
Dinners include a house salad that is tossed tableside. Make that spun tableside. A metal bowl sits in a pan of ice and the server spins the bowl on the ice while pouring in the dressing. A gimmick, but an acceptable salad. By the way, at the Sand Lake FishBones the salad is delivered already plated.
Desserts were obscenely huge, which is not necessarily a good thing. Chocolate cake ($7.95) was dry and not particularly chocolatey, and cheesecake was fairly flavorless. We all enjoyed the sampler of sorbets ($5.95), even if they tasted more like ice cream.
Most of the servers showed training and professionalism, although one waiter pulled the old upgrade to a premium vodka when no preference is given trick. I’m beginning to think Grey Goose is behind this. There are a number of good wine selections to pair with either seafood or meat, but few bargains among them, an exception being a Wirra Wirra chardonnay for $6.95.
Following my two visits to Lake Mary I returned to the Sand Lake FishBones, which I had not visited since 1994. I was startled by the campiness of the décor, which features rod and reels in the rafters and laminated tabletops with maritime charts.
The menu did not feature sushi and several of the appetizer selections were unique, including alligator tail, which is undoubtedly there to appeal to the tourist trade. The calmari was markedly different, but the piece of black grouper I had was about as fine a piece of fish as I can recall.
Still, I think we should let the tourists and conventioneers have that FishBones. The drive to Lake Mary is worth it for the more welcoming atmosphere and larger menu. It may have taken 12 years for Talk of the Town to open a second FishBones, but along the way they learned a little more about what goes into a fine seafood restaurant.