Restaurant Reviews

Ginned Up

By the turn of the 20th century, the Irish saloon began to take on a mainstream role in American cities. As the great potato famine in Ireland in 1845 forced many to migrate to the States, the traditions and lifestyle of the group came with [them].

—BlackFinn Restaurant & Saloon promo blurb

Gin was invented by a doctor. This is what our BlackFinn Restaurant & Saloon server tells us as he struggles with a bottle of Jade Mountain Syrah. Jade Mountain is from Napa. Gin is from the Netherlands. He was trying to sell us on a particular vodka martini, the details of which couldn't be determined on account of the noise from the bar and the basketball timeout horns bellowing from the big-screen projection television. He wrestled with the neck foil: cutting, peeling, pulling. It refused to yield. He turned his back to us, bending over, and worked the neck with a cutter in relative privacy.

With the foil finally peeled away and the cork popped, he turned to our table, lifting each stem by clutching the bowl with his open palm and pressing his fingertips into the glass. He swung away from our table to pour the wine, lest the wine spot the white tablecloth. He doesn't offer a taste. He serves the men first. This is a true saloon.

Gin entered the discussion because we prefer its lively juniper berry bite to vodka's blank potato personality, or whatever it is they make it from these days. Gin was formulated to cure pain, our server tells us. "I guess it kind of does it, huh?" he asks. "You can't really think straight."

He urges an order of calamari. It's fried and tossed with garlic butter and hot Italian cherry peppers. It can be dipped either in marinara or "smoky" chipotle tartar sauce. "We don't put any tentacles in the calamari," he boasts. This seems to be a huge selling point. We don't take it as such. "You like tentacles? Really?"

The very phrase BlackFinn comes from early Prohibition time, when underground Irish-American saloons, or speakeasies, began to pop up. In fear of police, code words kept pub-crawlers in the know. "Black" was used to describe the "black market" stout and "Finn" described their bootlegged Irish whiskey.

BlackFinn Restaurant & Saloon promo blurb

BlackFinn took hold in New York in 1994 and is said to have taken its cues from some of the most famous Irish-American saloons of New York, Boston and Chicago. It has since spread to Chicago and Charlotte, Richmond and Norfolk, Virginia. What would a potato famine-era Irishman used to hard Chicago Irish-saloon socializing think of BlackFinn in Addison? What would he think of the white tablecloths and the mahogany finishes, the DJs spinning INXS and Lenny Kravitz while the Oklahoma Sooners pound the Nebraska Cornhuskers on television, of the men in tattered jeans and loose shirttails flirting with women in tattered jeans and ice pick-heeled boots while squeezing Bud Light necks? What would he think of the garlic mashed potatoes and steak tips in Guinness gravy, with snap peas? He'd think he'd gotten drunk on whiskey laced with antifreeze, if they'd had antifreeze back then.

Not because the steak tips aren't good. They are. They arrive in a pile over a snarl of grilled onions next to snap peas and mashed potatoes in a pressed heap. The potatoes are fine, the snap peas crisp and relatively blemish-free, and the steak tips are juicy and very tender, overcooked though they are.

But here's the antifreeze in the BlackFinn Irish whiskey saloon motif: There is no Irish food—not a lick of it, not even pantomime Irish grub. No colcannon (mashed potatoes and kale, or as the English dub it, bubble and squeak), no boxty (Irish potato pancakes), blood sausage, cod, soda bread, bacon and cabbage or Irish stew, even though chin dribbles from the latter could easily be wiped with loose shirttails.

What BlackFinn does have is plenty of fashionable sustenance for "the young professional crowd that knows how to have fun!" Which means nachos, cheese sticks, quesadillas, Jamaican jerk chicken, club wraps, chicken balsamica (er, what?), Asian chicken salad, portobello fingers and pasta primavera. Plus Rhode Island-style jumbo lump crab cakes—desperately awful things that are fuzzy, mushy, loaded with filler, kind of sour and a little fishy.

More than a potato-famine-era Irish pub, BlackFinn is the Cheesecake Factory run by a flotilla of St. Patrick's Day parade leprechauns. Which means you won't be able to hear much.

Center to Irish culture was the concept of the Irish pub: Every town in Ireland had a pub, or public house, and it was the place to perpetuate the Irish tradition of storytelling, tight-knit family groups and community celebrations...Booths are equipped with personal flat screens to watch your favorite shows, or join the crowd at the bar for game viewing on one of 35 plasma-screen TVs.

—BlackFinn Restaurant & Saloon promo blurb

Like most potato-famine-era urban Irish pub replicas, BlackFinn has filet mignon of tuna. And as in most Irish pubs, it's prepared with a sesame seed crust, pineapple salsa, Asian slaw and a topping of fried rice noodles. It arrives hard, brittle and dry. Ordered medium rare, this overseared hunk of mignon breaks off into sharp chunks, as if they were chipped from the tuna loin with a pickax.

But here's one menu entrant that didn't give pause: spin-art dip. It sounds like an installation at a museum, and the mechanics of the thing are nearly as interesting. It's a collection of blue, blond and red tortilla chips, pita chips, carrots and celery stalks huddled around a ramekin of spinach-garlic-artichoke cheese dip. The dip is smooth, rich and gooey, though the rainbow chip coalition shattered when dipped into the thick of it. Better to use the carrots. Very Irish.

We ordered the BlackFinn burger, a patty of Black Angus beef under a "pile of pulled BBQ pork, peppered bacon, melted cheddar and caramelized onions." They brought us the Black Angus saloon burger instead. We sent it back. After a long wait, the BlackFinn arrived cold and overcooked.

Yet the portobello mushroom sandwich, a marinated and lightly grilled cap with roasted peppers, mozzarella cheese and Roma tomatoes served on a warm focaccia roll and drizzled with balsamic (balsamica?) was fine. BlackFinn has sliders too. Not corned beef and cabbage, but chicken Parmesan sliders, chicken BLT, BBQ bacon and pulled pork sliders. We opted for classic sliders: Four tiny squared-off cold and dry beef burgers topped with hardened melted American cheese and grilled onions. They surround a ramekin of jus for dipping.

Chocolate cake is layer upon layer of Guinness-dark chocolate drowning in chocolate sauce. There are cake layers and a chocolate mousse layer on a chocolate cookie crust base with craggy chocolate edges—not bad really.

Which brings us back to gin. Gin was developed back in the 17th century by the physician Franciscus Sylvius, a professor of medicine at the University of Leiden, Holland. He distilled the juniper berry with spirits to produce not a painkiller but an inexpensive diuretic. Hence, it was created not to numb you, but to make you pee—the perfect saloon lubricant. 4440 Belt Line Road, Addison, 469-374-7667. Open 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily. $$-$$$

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz

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