I'm on a beach in Maine cracking lobster claws. I'm smelling the sweet air in a Saint Martin spice market. I'm filleting a king salmon I caught outside Anchorage, on its way inland to spawn, loading it into a smoker. I'm in Japan, Korea, Mexico, Indonesia...
Plenty of foods evoke memories, but few transport me as viscerally as seafood, probably because it's so often associated with restorative vacations and adventures seaside. Everyone loves the water. With his latest restaurant, Bonny and Read, the Rabbit Hole and Supernova's Joseph Campana wants to capitalize on that sentiment. He's constructed a cool, fresh-focused fish house that's a landlocked love letter to beach, brine and delicate fruits de mer.
He projects marine-life videos onto the eatery's east wall for an oversized fishbowl effect. Campana commissioned local artists Phil Lear and Christian Medovich to paint playful scenes of pirate life, which blend mayhem with merriment and a touch of steampunk, largely themed around history's famed female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Walls are a reef-water-evoking turquoise with rusty burnt orange accents that match the artworks' color palette. Dark blue upholstery on seating matches open waters, while overhead chandeliers place guests belowdecks in the captain's quarters.
At the bar, frozen drinks and fruit-juice-forward martinis are the stuff of all-inclusive resorts, gussied-up with top-shelf hooch, like Breckenridge spiced rum with Luxardo cherries in a bitters-heavy Revenge Martini. A cloyingly sweet-tart-sweet Swedish Fish Martini, garnished with the gummy candies, intentionally mimics their flavor. An oyster shooter in a tall flute of spicy vodka bloody mary juice climaxes with the seawater finish of the gooey mollusk meat.
To concoct a fitting fresh list, Campana tapped former Phantom Canyon co-worker and Rabbit Hole menu consultant Josh Kelly, New York born, Johnson & Wales taught, and most recently a chef at Whole Foods. Kelly says he was rigorously trained on sustainability standards and brought those practices to Bonny and Read, which also sources from Denver's Seattle Fish Co. He's upfront about which fish he's sunk his allowance into for the overnighted, never-frozen goodies, and which items he's settled on a tasteful but more affordable option.
For instance shrimp hail from the Gulf and Scottish salmon is open-ocean ranched. Swordfish and snapper aren't skimped on and Maine lobsters arrive alive. But when it comes to calamari, though he could easily buy fresh, he's chosen a consistent frozen product to balance the budget. That's the same reason he's buying pre-made french fries for the time being, with limited storage a concern, plus labor costs and everything else behind the scenes that ultimately informs what's on the plate. Campana knows where to hold and where to fold to ensure efficiency, and Kelly says he wanted to open smoothly, monitor the menu for winners and losers, then most likely trim down and fuss over house-cut spuds and the like then, when the machine's well in motion.
So, yes, the calamari's a bit chewy and unremarkable until dipped into a spicy scotch bonnet sauce he sweetens with pineapple and carrot purée. And you can't help but desire the disuniform imperfection of house fries on the side of a lemony lunchtime lobster roll spotlighting such stunningly soft meat inside toasted bread cut half through and pinched into a purse. The superlative bits make the sore thumbs stand out, like tall grass blades missed by a mower or a muscular dude standing next to a scrawny one.
We wanted more crabbiness in the blue crab dip, which tastes more like a mere cheese dip, better shared with a group because of its richness. Side butter crackers pleasantly channel the biscuit nature of hardtack. Bacon essence overwhelms the lobster in the lobster-corn chowder, still damn delicious. A traditional, cilantro-sharp shrimp and scallop citrus ceviche tastes perfectly clean and bright.
We continue to ignore the menu's turf options to stay seafood-centric with Kelly's salmon and swordfish entrées at dinner ($22 and $23), both fantastic. Presentations pop with microgreens, colorful veggies and citrus garnishes. A white miso rub gifts the thick-cut salmon umami while sambal lends a little heat. The Caribbean swordfish exudes floral island essence from cinnamon- and clove-spiked Jamaican all spice, green onions and thyme reduced to a dark mud with soy and molasses as a non-spicy jerk dish with pigeon peas, rice, and sappy plantains. I can only dream of ordering the $75 seafood tower for two, loaded with king crab legs, lobster, shrimp and oysters.
A concession's again made at dessert with a purchased key lime pie, almost cheesecake-like. But Kelly's proud of his pineapple upside down cake, a touch dry until bites soak in a granular rum sauce with Luxardo cherry reduction to nice effect. He's also high on his Funny Bone, a Drake's Cakes throwback of layered chocolate cake and thickset ganache with a highlighting peanut butter cream center.
Call it culinary piracy to steal inspiration from here and there, but every chef does it, plus it's how we collectively write our cultural narrative while creating trends that set sail and return changed by the voyage. Bonny and Read sent me traveling as I tasted, and that's about as high a compliment anyone can pay while stowed aboard.