A Bloomin’ Onion would not fly at Bolay. That is because fryers are verboten at the bowl-based, fast-casual chain launched by Outback Steakhouse co-founder Tim Gannon and his son Chris Gannon. Gluten, soda and high-fructose corn syrup are also nowhere to be found. I’m not sure gluten is the demon that many make it out to be (unless you are among the unfortunate few who have celiac disease), but after a couple of visits to Bolay in Pembroke Pines, I hardly missed it. Who needs wheat when diners have peppery Cajun sweet potatoes and cool cilantro rice noodles to layer their bowls?
When Bolay opened its first Broward County location in May 2017, Chris Gannon told the Sun Sentinel, “We’re not a health food restaurant.” That is true, because there are plenty of calories here for the consuming, including cheese — Parmesan, feta and goat — that can be heaped atop the mounds of vegetables, grains and proteins. But this eatery exudes food mindfulness and health consciousness. Germaphobes will no doubt be pleased to find a sink near the entrance, giving patrons a chance to wash up before taking their place in line. It’s a nice touch, and one that sends a signal: clean hands, clean food.
The clean-eating movement continues to gather steam, and bowl cuisine is blowing up. The confluence is on full display at Bolay, where energetic millennials come for lunch and on their way home from the gym. I felt old when I saw all those perky faces around me, but rejuvenated after I ate the first bright bites of marinated ahi tuna, quinoa and golden kale. Instead of taking a nap after a recent meal, I felt like doing yoga.
So score Bolay a success, similar to its tasty South Florida competitor Beehive Kitchen. Both are patterned after Chipotle Mexican Grill, with store layouts that have queues along the left wall and food counters along the front, where diners shuffle along and point to ingredients that fill their bowls. Sometimes, these bowl menus feel like riddles to be solved, with too many options leading to paralysis, but at Bolay the counter staff moved things along nicely, quickly explaining the basics. A small bowl ($7.99) has one base, one veggie and one protein. A large bowl ($9.99) has two. A few proteins go for an extra $2, including tuna, succulent cubes of au jus steak and plump, sauteed, spicy Thai shrimp.
All are worth the extra money. The quality and freshness of ingredients stand out, and most everything tastes good. Smoky cauliflower gets a kick from paprika. Forbidden black rice is stubby, crunchy and almost nutty. Mushrooms have a hint of balsamic vinegar. Broccoli is roasted with a touch of ginger. At a recent charity food event for the Boca Bowl, the Bolay from Boca Raton scored a victory for most flavorful dish (beef and shrimp with black rice and veggies) from a seven-person judging panel that I served on.
But the heaping bowls at the restaurants can get a little busy and have clashes of ingredients. Something was off-putting about the mix of soy-soaked tuna with the aromatic spices of Moroccan basmati rice in a DIY bowl I built. And I found a mix of quinoa, barbecue chicken, carrot ginger sauce and Parmesan cheese in the Power Bol ($11.99), one of the bowls designed by Bolay’s chefs that is simply weird.
The Gannons tapped chef Martin Oswald, who worked under Wolfgang Puck, to head their culinary team, and they continue to tweak items seasonally. All locations have the same menu. The first Bolay opened in 2016 in Wellington. There are now four stores, including ones in Boca Raton and Palm Beach Gardens. West Palm Beach and Jupiter will get Bolays in 2018. More Broward sites, including in Fort Lauderdale, are anticipated in 2019, along with a national expansion scheduled to start in Atlanta and Washington, D.C.
The Pembroke Pines layout is attractive, a bright and airy space with an open kitchen where items are constantly being grilled, sauteed and replenished on the food line. Many of the tables in the main dining area are high-tops, but lower table heights prevail on the comfortable patio. The selection of iced teas is nice, but I tried the “island time” fresh-squeezed juice, a pleasant strawberry and orange mix. The left-hand wall is plastered with Bolay’s logo, emblazoned with the word “So Fresh. So Bold,” and sayings such as, “You are what you eat — so don’t be fast, cheap, easy or fake.” Cashiers and employees constantly chirp, “Bolay all day.”
Uh, not for breakfast, considering the eateries do not open until 11 a.m. But I certainly see how the convenient and tasty bowls can be habit-forming. What I still can’t understand is how tipping is supposed to work at these fast-casual restaurants, where you get your own food and drinks cafeteria-style on trays and pay before eating, and staffers clean up after you leave. The suggested tip boxes on the computer screens at the register have options of 10, 15, 20 and 25 percent. At a full-service restaurant, I routinely give 20 percent. Here, I think a few dollars or 10 percent is more in line.
It remains to be seen whether bowl cuisine will be a fad or stick, but Bolay and Beehive Kitchen, along with other recent arrivals such as Fresh Kitchen in Boca Raton and Localgreens in Delray Beach, have quickly gained devout followings. Perhaps there will soon be rival millennial gangs wearing hats and T-shirts that read, “Team Bolay” and “Team Beehive.”
If I had to choose, I’d take Bolay’s steak and tuna over Beehive’s; Beehive’s sweet-potato glass noodles over Bolay’s cilantro noodles; and Beehive’s shredded pork over Bolay’s cubed pork. I’ll call the vegetables and desserts a draw. Sweet endings at Bolay include gluten-free cookies ($1.50) — I had a snickerdoodle cookie that disintegrated into sawdust upon chewing — and a decent but runny blueberry cobbler with crunchy walnut crust ($2).
For quick, convenient and relatively healthy dining, I’ll certainly take Bolay in Pembroke Pines all day every day over the greasy burger joint across the street and the other fast-food restaurants down the block.
151 N. Hiatus Road, Pembroke Pines (other locations in Boca Raton, Palm Beach Gardens and Wellington)
954-606-9404 or EatBolay.com
Cuisine: American with global flavors. Bowl-based meals with fresh ingredients
Cost: Inexpensive. Small bowls cost $7.99, large bowls $9.99, specialty bowls up to $13.99. Kids bowls $4.99. Desserts $1.50-$2.
Hours: 11 a.m.- 9:30 p.m. daily (until 9 p.m. Sunday)
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Beer and wine
Noise level: Conversational with background music
Wheelchair access: Ground level
Parking: Free lot