3/4 It is hard to pass up Bonefish Grill, my favorite chain, for Red Lobster, especially since they share the same parking lot (across Route 1 from the Woodbridge Mall where an uncharacteristic shooting just occurred and the township's first Olive Garden opened late last year to little fanfare) in Iselin, New Jersey. But this was a Darden mission since I traded in Chase debit card points for a $100 gift card to be used at any restaurant in the company’s stable. And there was no way I was touching Olive Garden, not after Marilyn Hagerty had her way with it.
And really, Red Lobster’s reported Bar Harbor transformation needed assessing, though frankly, I don’t remember what the old Red Lobster looked like since I haven’t paid a visit since the early ‘00s. It looks like there are now gray wooden slats, wainscoting, and framed semaphore flags under glass. I would not say that I felt like I was in Maine, though Maine could very well feel like this; I’ve never been there.
A Friday at primetime, 7:30pm, is asking for trouble. James estimated 30 minutes, I gauged one hour based on the distance we had to park from the entrance. I won. We were quoted exactly 60 minutes, which can be tough to stick out in a smooshed, standing-room-only NYC bar, but no problem on a backed bar stool sipping suburban-priced drinks.
Except that latter part didn’t prove true. I assumed a ten-dollar-bill would buy two beers yet when our bartender asked the other the price of Sam Adams, the most exotic brew on tap (this is where the elegance of Bonefish becomes more apparent—they serve a few cursory craft beers and even though the cocktail list is vodka-heavy and they abuse the term martini, at one point they did attempt promoting brown spirits and even participated in Tales of Cocktail the one year I went. Their newest creation—yes, I’m an email subscriber—contains fresh pineapple and rosemary and uses the word muddle in the description, so they’re try) he was told, “6.25!” Um, I’m still not convinced that was correct or if it was $6.25 total, not each, considering my stiff Manhattan that followed (I gave up on beer if that was what they were charging) was only $5.95.
The signature Malibu Hurricane is also inexpensive. Unlike the regular menu and online menu with prices localized per zip code (yes, Times Square charges like 20% more than any branch in the system), the drinks menu lists no prices so you can’t question them authoritatively. I also began doubting the bartender’s judgment when he told the older couple next to us who gave up and decided to eat at the bar that no one liked the mac ‘n’ cheese because it had bacon in it. What the…what kind of American, a chain-patronizing American, doesn’t like bacon?! Maybe he meant because it was Lent?
Eating raw seafood isn’t just not done at Red Lobster, it might be taking unnecessary risks. But c’mon, they were being all fancy, with a fresh fish menu that name-checks the “grill master," and well, if they’re going to offer raw seafood, I’m going to try it. Who knows the origin of the $12.99 for a dozen oysters (actually, we kind of do; AmeriPure is the name of the comany and Process® that treats Gulf Coast oysters in some manner to give them a "superior shelf-life and yield factor") but it’s not like you can fake an oyster like calling langostino lobster or mash and extrude pollock into surimi and call it crab/krab. No, the provenance-free oysters didn’t have a particularly briny or distinctive flavor, but at least they weren’t drowning in cheese (though, charbroiled oysters, smothered in parmesan, butter, and garlic, a New Orleans delicacy, is not something to mock).
The melted cheese (three mysterious types) with the artichoke dip, ostensibly containing lobster, was more like it. Tricolor chips mandatory. A gooey, warm dip must be on the menu (as well as clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl) though I’m curious if their clientele is as resistant to change as they might think. I mean, a lobster roll would be very on-trend and very Maine, but I don’t see that being done at any chain seafood restaurants including the slightly more progressive competitor across the parking lot. I’m guessing consumers would view it as cost-prohibitive for a sandwich when everything else in that category is under $10.
You get a salad (house or Caesar) and Cheddar Bay biscuits, the latter kind of being the whole point of going to Red Lobster. I should’ve taken them up on their supposed unlimited nature. Frankly, I would be fine with a basket of transfatty biscuits (I wouldn’t be surprised if they were made with that popcorn butter that’s not really a dairy product and is served alongside just about everything) and a couple of non-Sam Adams-priced beers at the bar.
I picked the Lobsterfest option featured on the front of the special menu, Harborside Lobster & Shrimp, mostly because I didn’t want pasta or mac ‘n’ cheese (sorry, bacon) but couldn’t forego the starch altogether (there is a bed of mashed potatoes beneath the shrimp skewers—the default was rice). Despite being seafood-focused, the overarching flavors were salty and buttery with the primary texture being creamy. There is nothing surprising about any of this, and you don’t have to think hard about it because it’s inoffensive and you're not supposed to dwell–just dip your langostino tail in the butter (then dunk your Cheddar Bay Biscuit for good measure). I can’t criticize freshness since this is not sashimi nor Le Bernadin, and just about any shrimp served in the region (except when nicer restaurants tout those tiny, sweet Maine shrimp during their short season) has been frozen.
And a trio with a real Maine lobster tail.
Unable to leave well enough alone, I was wooed by a Chevy’s billboard on the drive back to the Goethels Bridge that was advertising a 10pm-to-close happy hour. $3 drinks and half-priced appetizers! I have often wondered where people drink in the suburbs, and now I know that at least some people, young, tanned, gelled, velour track-suited people, fill the bar at Chevy’s drinking Mexican Bulldogs, i.e. giant frozen drinks, often neon blue, with a Corona held upside down in the beverage by a plastic contraption. I had a headache the next morning (though my stomach was just fine, raw oysters be damned–must be that AmeriPure Process®) and live in fear of becoming a chain restaurant drunk.
Red Lobster * 635 Rt. 1, Iselin, NJ