BlackFinn's Average American
See all 11,000 square feet of BlackFinn American Grille's four huge dining areas for yourself in our slideshow.
"I didn't steal your car!" came a loud shriek from the next table. "Gupta did!" The table erupted in peals of laughter. Six young women and two young men were huddled around the remnants of appetizer plates strewn with half-eaten chicken tenders and shrimp tails, the women all talking animatedly, all of them locked in competition for the two men's attention. One of them had smeared glitter across her entire face. Another wore a shred of fabric across her upper body that barely covered her breasts.
From our neighboring table, my boyfriend and I watched them in awe. They were loud — although not the loudest table in BlackFinn American Grille that Friday night by any decibel measure — and it was hard not to pay attention to their conversation. And that conversation was far better than our food anyway.
"I am not going out with Areej anymore!" one of the women said. "She always starts fistfights with brown girls at the club." Another woman, presumably Areej, demurred, claiming that she'd only started a couple of fistfights. The men disagreed, loudly, and launched into descriptions of her last few rounds of fisticuffs at the nearby Midtown clubs. "My mother would kill me if she knew I was drinking during Ramadan," one of them laughed. "Especially with you."
We were captivated. Every table around us was holding its own equally animated discussion. We were the quietest people there, perhaps because we'd come for the food — not the atmosphere. A destroyed "crab tower" lay between us, with neon-green strands of seaweed salad, sweet rice cake and lump crab meat strewn across the plate like Mardi Gras debris. The crab tower had been serviceable if bland. But at least it was better than our entrées.
I'd ordered a skillet of "surf or turf" macaroni and cheese (one of BlackFinn's signature items, which I was unable to pass up) with a topping of pulled pork at the suggestion of our eager waiter. It was impossible to eat, however, thanks to an immense amount of salt in both the pork and the pasta. The sodium content in the macaroni and cheese alone could have turned a horse off salt licks for good.
Across the table, my boyfriend picked wanly at his bacon-wrapped meatloaf, which was also far too salty for normal human consumption. A beefy sprig of rosemary jutted out of a softball-size mound of pureed sweet potatoes, while pale-looking collard greens on the side retained neither much green color nor the vegetable's tart, earthy flavor. The entire composition looked like a relic from a sun-bleached cookbook published in 1972.
"This must be what it was like to have grown up with a mother who was a barely competent cook in the 1970s," he stated before pushing the plate away. When our waiter suggested dessert, we grimaced. But I had to try at least one. So I allowed him to bring his favorite: the BlackFinn Hot Chocolate, served in a comically oversize mug and topped with whipped cream.
Inside the mug was a sweet, rich slice of extremely hot chocolate cake filled with molten peanut butter (a phrase I never thought I'd type). Scoops of vanilla ice cream melted into the cake, cooling it off and turning the entire thing into the kind of disgustingly decadent dessert that you crave after being dumped or getting your ass chewed out at work. It was simply wonderful, and in spite of its immense size, we ate every bite.
BlackFinn resonates with me in the same way that Chotchkie's did in Office Space — it's almost a grand parody of bland, middle-American restaurants like TGI Friday's and Applebee's that strive so hard to please everyone that they end up pandering to the lowest common denominator. Except BlackFinn takes itself desperately seriously.
From its very name to the young, tautly nervous waiters who all look as though it's their first time in a white button-up, BlackFinn often seems like the opposite of that old cliché: It's mutton dressed as lamb. But whether it's in spite of or because of this, there's something about BlackFinn that I sort of like.
Those nervous young waiters are so desperate to please that they provide excellent service. The equally eager menu is so broad that even a complete food snob can find something they like (even if that something is just dessert). The cocktails are terrible, but the beer is cold and the wine is kept appropriately cool, too; both are more appropriate to the bar-and-grill setting here anyway. And the place is effortlessly approachable, whether you're in gym clothes or dressed — as our neighbors that evening were — for a night out in Midtown, where BlackFinn dovetails into the existing patchwork of restaurants and bars quite nicely (you can take that statement however you may).
Part of this approachability is BlackFinn's concept of placing four distinct dining areas in its 11,000-square-foot space. There's the Saloon, which is the loudest of the four and more of a wood-paneled sports bar than anything else, where food flows until 2 a.m. every night. A friend and I once spent a very average if pleasant happy hour in here, munching on perfectly nice barbecue chicken and pepperoni flatbreads. Happy hours like this pack the Saloon each day (especially during Wednesdays, when bottles of wine are half price), often spilling out onto the Patio — the second dining area. BlackFinn remains one of the handful of restaurants in town to allow dogs on its patio, which is certainly a selling point for the area.
The third space is the Grille Room, which is relaxed and casual — and also where BlackFinn's corporate roots are most obvious (it's a chain based in Charlotte, North Carolina). It has a vaguely Western design aesthetic outfitted in Embassy Suites-style decor complete with hotel conference-room carpet on the floor. And although I typically hate carpet in restaurants, it's a godsend here. How much louder would the Grille Room be without it?
The last of the four spaces is the Dining Room, in which I had my best meal at BlackFinn to date.
Understand, of course, that "best meal to date" at BlackFinn is highly arbitrary.
The lunch I enjoyed with a friend was in this far calmer setting that's billed as "polished casual" (a sample of BlackFinn's own corporate-ese, which is so hilariously turned that I revel in finding examples of it everywhere; the muggy Patio that faces a parking garage has a "coastal, romantic feel" while the Grille Room offers "timeless comfort"). The Dining Room is decorated with silly bits of Texana, from glossy photos of bluebonnets to a mock oil rig over some of the booths. But it's at least grown-up and quiet in here.
My friend ordered crab-cake sliders; I got a patty-melt burger. Both were perfectly fine lunches. The crab cakes were knitted together nicely and actually tasted of crab, while the buns that held them in place were soft and buttery. My patty melt was cooked as requested — the burger was a pleasant pink inside — and the caramelized onions and garlic-herb cream cheese on top added respectable layers of flavor to the entire sandwich. The rye bread was sliced too thinly to hold up to the patty's juices and fell apart quickly, but I could not complain that the beef wasn't good. Even the fries on both of our plates were well done: relatively thick, seasoned and crispy, but not mealy or too soft inside.
It was a triumph of a meal compared to my previous dinner there and called to mind fonder memories of those flatbreads at happy hour. But is it a triumph compared to other restaurants of its type? Not really. BlackFinn isn't even the best restaurant in this part of Midtown, with excellent Spanish tapas just down the street at Majorca and good, old-fashioned Tex-Mex around the corner at Cyclone Anaya's.
BlackFinn plays it incredibly safe (if incredibly loud). It's not here to dazzle or even to do anything different. It's here to provide you with relatively inexpensive beer and basic burgers, late at night, on the patio with your dog or heading out to the clubs with your friends — for better or worse.
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