I've always been a tad skeptical of "concept" restaurants. They usually seem more display than quality. Think of The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy and the gang finally see the big green-headed Wiz. It's all pomp, but back there at the switches is a little guy just trying to impress. I only mention Oz, because walking into Reef is a kind of otherworldly experience. Sadly, at the food level, Reef is more spectacle than substance, and that's a true shame, because--just like the Wizard in the movie--it seems to promise so much more than it delivers.
When it first opened, The Editor and I made several forays and were intrigued and impressed. The atmosphere alone tantalized us like a tropical breeze. If the castaways from Gilligan's Island were all bar-hopping aesthetes, they might have constructed something similar to this bamboo and palm-frond bar and grill. Lots of thatched wood and bamboo, slow-turning ceiling fans, carnival booth-sized stuffed fish, and primitive/tribal wall art create an atmosphere that suggests warm ocean waves are lapping at the beach just on the other side of the wall (rather than Main Street traffic). The music stage was set up this particular evening with a bunch of percussion instruments that seemed ready for a Tito Puente cover band. The patio is a kind of downtown Fantasy Island with Tiki torches, a beach hut-like bar and fine views of downtown and the foothills.
Reef's bar menu is an extravagant list of fine inebriants. Mojitos--a mix of rum, sugar and lime juice--are all the rage, and Reef makes about a 1/2 dozen varities. Then there are numerous tropical concoctions and 21 beers on draft. This place is serious about drinks. But what about food?
Reef's menu boasts some wildly interesting selections--a kind of Caribbean, Central and South American conglomerate of edibles. Mexican lime and ginger glazed salmon, Jamaican Jerk chicken fajitas, banana wrapped pork pibil, crab and roasted corn chile rellenos ... you get the idea; this is not a regular meat and potatoes place. Each meal is preceded by a bowl of escabeche, a variety of marinated vegetables and a fine way to cleanse the palate. The variety of appetizers includes Navajo Indian fry bread, chile poblano queso fundito, an assortment of Brazilian "skewers," and red snapper ceviche. The Editor and I ordered some blue corn crusted calamari. The deep-fried beauties (which were smaller than I remember) came with two dipping sauces: a mango/cumin vinaigrette and a jalapeno-lime aoli. Both were tasty, but the latter seemed a little "off" for aoli. The Editor's Mexican chop chop salad came with tequila chicken, roasted corn, vegetables, queso fresco and a balsamic-chipotle vinaigrette on the side. The best part was the dressing. The corn wasn't so much roasted as tough, and chewy, and the chicken was pretty bland. My char-grilled salmon fillet was "fishier" than it should have been, and the seemingly extravagant lime-chile butter it was basted in had absolutely zero zest. It wasn't necessarily bad, just kind of boring--which summed up our whole dining experience. It was a huge letdown after earlier, and better, dining experiences.
Ultimately, Reef must decide if it's still a great restaurant or if it will cater primarily to the heavy-walleted, perfume and cologne-saturated nightlife crowd that turns downtown Boise into a garish, intoxicated meat market. We hope for the best, but our latest excursion to the Reef suggests this tropical island may begin to feel more and more deserted.
--Chuck McHenry is still searching for Mrs. Howell's diamonds.