December is the month for bright, shiny things and the Mode Adventure Dining Team is all about bright and shiny. So we drove 61 blocks west on Carlisle Pike to find the gleaming new Black N Bleu bistro tucked into a small space off the side of the road.
It used to be Juliana’s and still could be – same décor – except for the food and the service, which has Donnie Brown written all over it in words like friendly, gracious, hearty and delicious.
“It’s called Black N Bleu because we like to think we have something for everybody,” Donnie said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re out for a filet mignon and lobster tail or if you want wings and a sandwich and you’re in your blue jeans. Either way you should feel comfortable.
“Our theme is black tie, blue collar, come as you are.”
This comfortable formula has suited customers at most of the restaurants Brown has brought in over the years, including Firehouse, Fisaga and Dorado. One of his early efforts was the original Kokomo’s, just down the road. All have been independent neighborhood restaurants with good food at a good price.
For the new place, several dishes crossed the river from his Second Street flagship, The Firehouse: Phoenician Baked Trout, Firehouse pasta, lump-meat Crabcakes, and the fresh-baked Chicken Tenders, which are wrapped in bacon and dusted with brown sugar and chili powder.
We started off in the usual way, with way too many appetizers.
Sara wanted the bacon-wrapped wasabi shrimp, which came with a balsamic glaze. We got two. I ordered the baked goat cheese because I’d just had it at Chez Panisse and wanted to compare; the Black N Bleu version came in a marinara lake. Several people got mushrooms stuffed with crab and pancetta, and we considered the seafood nachos to be mandatory.
Finally, Jenn wandered up to the children’s menu and saw the bacon-wrapped meatloaf. Kid’s portion, right? Should work as an app.
(If Black N Bleu has a culinary theme, it’s probably Bacon-Wrapped Fusion.)
Nobody actually said the words “comfort food” for about 5 minutes after the meatloaf arrived, but it was the only possible description of the roasted ground beef, pork and veal surrounded by bacony goodness on snowy-white mashed potatoes with crisp green beans.
“The meatloaf was wonderful,” Michelle said. “You can’t get better comfort food, and those mashed potatoes – you can taste the sour cream, you can tell they riced them, they weren’t processed or gummy. They were done just right.”
Yeah, they were, by unanimous agreement, and very comforting.
The Seafood Nachos, on the other hand, were practically contentious. They arrived on potato chips. No, really. Ted liked it.
The problem with tortilla chips for nachos, as he saw it, is “they get soggy, they become one great big glob. The potato chips actually held up a lot better.”
Jenn agreed but not Sara. “I don’t think I’m a fan of the seafood nachos, there’s like too much stuff happening,” she said. “Had it been corn chips it might have been different.” She did like the wasabi shrimp, “it had a nice little zing to it,” and joined me and Michelle in liking the goat cheese.
“The baked goat cheese was very creamy, very mild,” Michelle said. “It wasn’t too tangy or pungent. The sauce I actually like a little bit chunkier, the way they do it at The Firehouse. These have been pureed. But you can definitely see these tomatoes have been roasted, they’re earthy and smoky, very good.”
For me, it was too much marinara and too little chevre.
David pronounced the stuffed mushrooms with the Alfredo sauce “excellent.” Lynne joined in, loving the crab on top, but said her favorite appetizer was the Mojito.
We were ready for dinner.
Chef Sara MacNamara came out from the kitchen to talk a little about our entrees. A Johnson & Wales grad, she did a tour at Hilton Head before joining The Firehouse kitchen five years ago.
Our table had ordered some major protein, including the filet mignon, a grilled t-bone, prime rib and osso bucco.
“We cook osso bucco for 10 hours overnight,” Chef MacNamara said. After the veal shank is seasoned and sauteed, it’s braised all night with a mirepoix of celery and carrots. Served with a hearty pasta and marinara sauce, “it’s a filling fall and winter dish,” she said.
It’s also a dynamic presentation, with a cocktail fork stuck in the marrow of the veal bone.
“I’ve never had bone marrow before,” Sara said. “Holy crap, that’s good!” She didn’t care for the pasta, but it was too late to swap out for potatoes.
David’s prime rib was also an overnight dish. “It’s done medium rare, and it’s got very good flavor,” he said. It was finished with a horseradish cream sauce. “People don’t always get that right.” he said.
Michelle’s T-bone came with Cajun beer-battered onion rings and Bleu Cheese Mashed Potatoes. “We had to serve bleu cheese mashed potatoes somewhere,” Chef said, “because we’re Black N Bleu.”
If the regular mashed potatoes were good – and they were – these were great. Michelle wasn’t happy with the T-bone, however. “It’s a little tough. It’s well prepared. I asked for medium-rare to medium and they hit it spot-on. The flavor is good. It’s a little thin, I think.”
Lynne said her Seafood Newburgh was spectacular. It’s a combination of shrimp, scallops, lobster and mussels in a creamy lobster sauce, tossed with pappardelle pasta. “The scallops just melt in my mouth,” she said. The sauce is perfect, I love it.”
The happy surprise of the evening was a non-traditional Chicken Cordon Bleu, which Heather and Jenn both liked a lot.
“It’s not ham and Swiss, like Chicken Cordon Bleu normally is,” Jenn said. It’s chicken with prosciutto and Boursin, which is a creamy blend of cheese and savory herbs.
And it’s a new treatment of a hearty, gracious and familiar offering, just like Black N Bleu.