Broken promises
When they reach table, Blackstone's meals fail to live up to menu maker's expectations

BY POLLY CAMPBELL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

I have a theory that you can tell how good a restaurant is by how wonderful the staff says it is. The relationship is the opposite, of course.

I'm afraid experiences at Blackstone in Columbia Tusculum did not disprove my theory. Our servers told us how much we'd love the sourdough bread and raved about the salad dressing and gave heartfelt recommendations for entrees. But on two evenings, I had flawed meals that didn't live up to their description, or their substantial prices.

Blackstone
**

Food: Fair.

Service: Fair.

Atmosphere: Good.

Value: Fair.

What: Special-night-out restaurant with chef-conceived menu emphasizing seafood.

Where: 455 Delta Ave., Columbia Tusculum.

When: Starting today and throughout the summer, Blackstone serves dinner only, 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday and 4:30-8:30 p.m. Sunday. Beginning May 11, Mother's Day, Sunday brunch served 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

Recommended dishes: Roasted portabella mushroom, Seafood Sampler, grilled lamb chop with lamb barbecue, Caesar salad, chocolate passion.

Vegetarian choices: Salads, pasta.

Prices: Appetizers $4.75-$7.50; entrees $15.95-$22.95.

Paying for it: American Express, MasterCard, VISA, Discover, Diner's Club

Reservations: Yes.

Sound level: 68 decibels. (Most restaurants range from 60 decibels, a dignified calm, to 90 decibels, a din).

Miscellaneous: Wine list, full bar, high chairs and booster chairs, ask about children's menu, smoking area, banquet rooms for up to 110, outdoor patio in summer, wheelchair-accessible.

Phone: 321-0010.

Early indications were hopeful. Blackstone's atmosphere is civilized without being stuffy, pretty with an extravagant bouquet of silk flowers, and quiet, though there's an exhibition kitchen as you walk in.

Chef Jeff Pearce is a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. He took over the kitchen in the summer of 1995, when Funky's Blackstone Grille became Blackstone.

Mr. Pearce's menu, on paper, sounds wonderful. It describes diverse ingredients and styles of cooking, though grilling predominates. The problem with the food is not in its conception, it's in the execution, and some of these problems are basic.

For instance, the white beans in the salad that is part of the smoked salmon appetizer ($7.50) are not completely cooked. Not to mention that the menu said it was going to be black bean salad. The smoked salmon is fine, but the scallion pancakes would have been better warm. The rice in the gumbo ($4.75) is crunchy in the middle, and the soup is lukewarm. This gumbo is payback for all the thin ones I've complained about; it's dark brown and thick as gravy.

The portabella appetizer ($6.25) is much better -- the mushroom is rich and meaty and the walnuts on top are fat and crunchy. The slight bitterness of grilled endive is a good contrast, though the melted gorgonzola would be overpowering if you ate it all.

Fried calamari ($6.75) in its crunchy coating is simple, but good. The marinara sauce for dunking is lightened with a basil-scented cream sauce. Crab cakes ($7.25) are gummy but tasty, as is the celery-seeded coleslaw next to them. The shrimp and lobster on ribbons of scallions with tomato and garlic ($7.50) was the best beginning, fresh in its vinaigrette and perfectly cooked vegetables.

Other consistently good items are vegetables -- well-cooked, crisp-tender, and the mixed green salad and the salty, pungent Caesar salad.

But Blackstone prides itself on fish, which it seems to have trouble cooking. One night the peppered tuna from the list of specials ($20.95), ordered medium rare, came cooked completely through. It was sent back, and 15 minutes later it was replaced, but this time it was just about raw. Spinach and onions sauteed with goat cheese and a red wine glaze would have been too robust for most fish, but was an interesting match for the steaky tuna.

Another night, the sugar-spiced swordfish with snow peas and Chinese hot mustard ($20.95) was served raw most of the way through. As the waiter said, it's the trendy way to cook it, but few people like a big chunk of raw fish unless they've been shipwrecked. When it returned, it was delicious, moist throughout, with a sweet glaze and pretty bright-green snow peas. The fried rice egg rolls promised on the menu were not with it, though, and nothing substituted for them.

In both these cases, the server whisked the fish back to the kitchen with little prompting, but it's no fun to wait for your dish while everyone else is eating.

The servers were eager to please. They made good wine recommendations, though we had to wait for one bottle that wasn't chilled.

map Other seafood dishes we tried were cooked simply but correctly: the Seafood Sampler ($19.95), which included grilled scallops, salmon, swordfish, shrimp and tuna, and the grilled shrimp salad ($14.95 ), which was greens with shrimp and crispy Chinese noodles on top and a hint of wasabi dressing.

Grilled lamb chops ($21.95) are served, intriguingly, with shredded lamb barbecue -- an upscale version of Kentucky mutton barbecue. The sauce is sweet and intense, the chops crispy. Halfway through, I was surprised by a spoonful of citrus relish, hidden on the plate.

A grilled duck breast ($18.95) was sliced and fanned around a scoop of mashed potatoes, on top of just-right leeks, carrots and peas. It was cooked as rare as a filet mignon, but unlike steak, it was the better-cooked bits that were best. The rare middles had a chewy texture.

Delicate dessert

The best dessert at Blackstone is a classic creme brulee, (even though it's misspelled on the menu) with a crisp, almondy tuile (cookie) on the side ($4.25). The delicate crust has a distinctive burnt-sugar taste.

Chocolate passion ($4.25) is a little bundle of ganache (chocolate and whipped cream) coated in dark chocolate with caramel sauce and chopped pecans.

The chocolate dish was good -- just not as good as they said it would be.

Reviews are done anonymously at Enquirer expense. Ratings take into consideration quality of food, service, presentation and atmosphere, balanced against price.

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