BlackFinn American Grille serves an appetizer called "Ying-Yang Shrimp." This provocatively titled starter is described on the menu as "crispy shrimp, sweet and spicy Asian sauce." Here I am, blithely assuming the name is an unfortunate typo, and it turns out BlackFinn has accomplished the momentous feat of packing the essence of an entire continent in a single sauce. Damned if that doesn't have "ying-yang" written all over it — and in an "American Grille," no less!
Needless to say, I had to order it.
Alas, what my server brought forth failed to live up to the sobriquet: a dish of small shrimp, decidedly un-"crispy," tossed willy-nilly over a bed of shredded lettuce. The "Asian" sauce was sweet, all right, but nowhere near spicy. It tasted like sugar syrup thickened with cornstarch. For this I paid $11.99. For that I could have had two orders of BlackFinn's soft pretzels seasoned with garlic butter and Parmesan cheese. These are nothing to write home about, but at least you're not ostensibly writing home from Asia. (The pretzels come with a mustard-cheese dipping sauce that has a nice zip to it.)
BlackFinn opened in April at the Saint Louis Galleria, the third location of a small national chain. (The other two locations are in Houston and Jacksonville; four more are slated to open in 2012.) It joins BrickTop's Restaurant at Plaza Frontenac and J. Gilbert's Wood-Fired Steaks & Seafood at West County Center as part of a boomlet of such small, higher-end chains to open in St. Louis over the past year. Unlike those restaurants, both of which benefit from focused (if not exactly groundbreaking) menus, BlackFinn tries to offer something for virtually everyone, from chicken tenders to crab cakes, fish and chips to Chilean sea bass. The result is analogous to what your high school English teacher imparted (likely while you were dozing) about the ancient Greeks' enduring concept of the "tragic flaw."
That's if you're in a charitable mood. "Hubris" is the more applicable Greek term.
BlackFinn's epic aims are matched by the scope of its physical space: a main dining room, two additional dining rooms — the "Grille Room" and the "Saloon," each equipped with its own bar — and an area set aside for private dinners. Hardwood floors and dark-stained wooden fixtures abound throughout, but each room has its own theme: St. Louis in the dining room, canoes and other outdoor activities in the "Grille Room" and a sort of classy sports-bar vibe in the "Saloon." Service is impressively efficient, given the restaurant's size.
What to order?
Where to begin? The menu numbers eighteen starters, thirteen salads and 25 entrées — as well as soups, flatbread pizzas, sandwiches, burgers and desserts. Over my visits I experienced the best luck with the most basic, least upscale dishes. An order of fish and chips brings thick slabs of flaky haddock in a crisp beer-batter jacket. A calamari appetizer batters and deep-fries jalapeño slices as well as squid to give this restaurant staple a welcome kick. The "Balboa" sandwich is a pile of shaved, rose-red prime rib on toasted garlic bread.
Yet even within the range of bar food, BlackFinn shows signs of sagging under the strain. The burgers are overloaded messes, the juicy Angus-beef patty swamped with (in the case of the "Heater") pepper-jack cheese, jalapeños, chipotle mayo, lettuce, tomato and onion. The "Bourbon Street" burger is primed with blackening spice then given a first coat of garlic-herb mayo and a second of peppercorn sauce, along with lettuce, tomatoes and caramelized onions. It's an Angus-beef bordello — only you can't find the beef without a knife and fork. The French fries that accompany the burgers (and the fish and chips and numerous other dishes) have that gnarled veneer, likely imparted via some form of sugar, that makes them so crunchy they abrade your tongue and the roof of your mouth.
The pricier entrées teeter so self-consciously toward elegance that they topple onto their faces. (Remember the burger bordello? Add stiletto heels.) This is a restaurant that's "proud to offer the finest USDA choice cut steak selections." Where can't you obtain a USDA Choice steak? Among said cuts is the "Herb-Rubbed Campfire Steak," a sixteen-ounce rib eye that arrived medium-rare, as ordered, enrobed in a salty green substance that tasted vaguely of pesto. The steak was paired with garlic mashed potatoes and maple-glazed carrots that might have been on the lam from the buffet line at a senior living center.
The shrimp and grits entrée featured plump, grilled shrimp — precisely two of them, amid a passel of the same measly uncrisp critters that populated BlackFinn's aforementioned dubiously dubbed crustacean appetizer. The grits are said to be mixed with goat cheese, but the point is moot because the kitchen batters them then fries them into leaden "cakes." Add a flavorless "tasso cream" in which float a few desultory slices of andouille, and you have what I can only describe as the Southern U.S. ying-yang.