by Mel Small
Last May, BlackFinn, a mini-chain of sports bars heretofore located in such cities as Cleveland, Dallas and Cincinnati, opened its seventh outlet in beautiful downtown Royal Oak. It has been attracting flocks of locals ever since, demonstrating once again the vitality of the nearburb's restaurant and bar scene, even if the popular new spot is located at the edge of the entertainment district below Barnes and Noble on Main.
BlackFinn began its corporate life in 1994 as an Irish pub — Finn is a slang word for the Irish among Europeans — but the only remnant of those origins is the Guinness sauce and marinade that appear on several dishes and the Bailey's Irish Cream that enhances a mousse. Indeed, manager Rossi Penney refers to BlackFinn as "An American Saloon." That theme is emphasized on the walls in vintage photographs of such celebrated saloons as Clyde's in Washington and P.J. Clarke's in New York.
The sprawling, boisterous lounge and the much more sedate dining room, which seat around 120 people, feature the sort of dark wooden tables and walls that one would expect to find in the classic urban tavern memorialized in John Sloan's McSorely's Ale House. What is missing from Sloan's classic rendering, of course, are the more than 20 flat-screen TVs that BlackFinn boasts. There are so many television sets that manager Penney — like John McCain and his homes — could not provide me with a precise number.
The substantial appetizers, which average around $9, are highlighted by a choice of beef, barbecue bacon, chicken Parmesan or pulled pork sliders, delivered in fluffy potato rolls. The pulled pork sandwich is tangy and tender, if a bit tame, and the welcome coleslaw that comes with could be more generous.
Another fine starter, three chicken and three steak skewers marinated in a Guinness-based sauce and accompanied by a teriyaki and a mild peanut dipping sauce, were also tender and nicely charred. For $16, a party of four or so could share a sampler of such artery-clogging bar staples as sliders, onion rings, chicken tenders, quesadillas and cheese sticks.
Along with chili and a soup of the day, BlackFinn offers New England clam chowder chock-full of potatoes and clam bits; though well-seasoned, the chowder is a bit overly floured. Among the salads, the old-fashioned "Wedge," a chunk of iceberg smothered with tomato bits, onion, ham and a blue-cheese dressing, is the pick over the spinach salad, which though handsomely garnished with onions, mushrooms, hard-boiled eggs, cheddar and Monterey Jack and croutons, is marred by a harsh balsamic vinaigrette dressing that is too acidic.
Indeed, if there is one general criticism with BlackFinn's fare, it involves the sauces, which vary between being too strong and too weak.
Such is the case with the otherwise excellent entrée of grilled steak tips, prepared to order and priced at a reasonable $13.99; the tips are overwhelmed by the bitter "signature" Guinness marinade. Ditto with the two chicken mains, balsamica and BlackFinn ($12.99). The former, pan-seared breasts with mushrooms and roasted red peppers, and the latter, a breast sautéed in white wine, garlic, and butter and topped with provolone cheese, were more satisfying when some of the sauce or cheese was scraped from the bird.
On the other hand, the honey-dill glaze on the Atlantic salmon ($16.99) served with rice pilaf was just about right. The most expensive menu items are the grilled rib-eye and the filet mignon ($23.99), while classic beer-battered fish and chips ($10.99) and pasta primavera ($9.99) may appeal to the budget-conscious.
Among the desserts, there is a bit of the Irish in the luscious dark chocolate mousse laced with Bailey's, served in a tall glass, which is well worth the $6.99 price. Be sure to request several spoons for the table. Warm apple pie with ice cream, ice cream pie, chocolate cake and cute dessert sliders (four little ice-cream sandwiches on chocolate-chip cookies with chocolate sauce) round out the (very) sweet culinary afterthoughts.
The small 25-bottle wine list will appeal to penurious tipplers with relative bargains like a Rodney Strong sauvignon blanc for $23 and a Ravenswood zinfandel for $27. Although a chain with similar menus in seven outlets, BlackFinn genuflects to our state with two selections from Blackstar Farms of Leelanau.
During Piston and Red Wing games, Miller Lite drafts go for $2, while during Happy Hour every day from 4 to 7, drafts are $2, house wine is $3, and au courant martinis like strawberry cheesecake and Sex and the City, which normally cost around $7.50, are $5. BlackFinn's array of 15 colorful martinis indicates the sort of youthful clientele, along with the beer swillers, who show up nightly.
Wednesdays at BlackFinn bring more drink specials from 7 to closing, along with live music starting at 10.
The new watering hole presents enough items of epicurean interest on its menu to qualify it as a plausible destination for those who desire reasonably priced appetizers and entrées in especially handsome surroundings to go along with their drinks and televised sports.
Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to email@example.com.