Emily Dickinson wrote that "March is the month of expectation," and so it was with certain expectations that I visited Black N Bleu, sort of a blend of roadside fancy diner and cozy neighborhood tavern along on the Carlisle Pike near Mechanicsburg.
And, OK, granted, the Pike is far from what you'd call a neighborhood, but the feel of Black N Bleu makes you think you're not in a strip mall beside a major roadway.
The place is owned by Harrisburg's well-known Donny Brown, who also owns The Fire House in the capital city and who graced the cover of Harrisburg Magazine in 2007 as its "Restauranteur of the Year," though I'm pretty sure the preferred spelling is restaurateur.
Anyway, Brown has a formula that works: tasty food, great variety, some creativity and friendly, competent staff. That holds true at Black N Bleu.
The name's a little odd in that the restaurant logo includes a blue flame as from a gas stove burner. But under the name are the words (Black Tie, Bleu Collar, Come as you are.
Maybe the message is "cooking with gas and open to all, which I'll concede is not a bad message, even if a tad oblique.
The glass storefront setting includes a bar that faces the parking lot and the Pike (not the greatest of views). But the bar has a few booths and is cozy, especially for those who enjoy eating at or close to bars.
The rest of the place is behind a wall and features a large space with booths and tables and an open kitchen. There's fun rather than serious art throughout, some of it large. Subjects include Elvis, Mickey Mouse, horseracing, that sort of stuff.
The menu also is large. It offers appetizers, sandwiches, pizza, pasta and full entrees. Prices are very reasonable. A couple can get in and out with drinks and plenty to eat for around $50.
Not everything pleased your Phantom. Cocktails, though large and not overly pricey, were watered-down; and $2 for a black coffee, in a place that charges only $4 for a great house salad that's large enough for two to share, seemed excessive.
But there are fun things to eat. Appetizers, mostly in the $8 range and always in portions large enough to share, include "killer bread," a Donny Brown staple from past restaurants. It's a baked baguette topped with garlic, mayo and cheese. It might sound disgusting, but it's actually addictive. It's just $7 and nice to share with the table during cocktails.
On the other hand, lobster egg rolls, $8, filled with veggies and served with a dipping sauce, were very fried, in fact overfried, and totally devoid of any lobster taste at all.
Other appetizers include baked goat cheese, bacon-wrapped chicken tenders, calamari, wings and mussels steamed in Guinness.
The house salad I mentioned comes in a $4 or $6 size and, trust me, the $4 size is enough for two. Our server not only was honest enough to tell us that, but she also brought it out on separate plates with separate salad dressings (the bleu cheese dressing, appropriately, is excellent). The salad is mixed greens with Monterey Jack cheese, corn, black beans, onions, tomatoes and worth ordering.
There are a bunch of other salads, in the $7-12 range, including blackened chicken cheese steak salad, bleu cheese and pear salad, steak and calamari salad, and more.
Sandwiches are $8 except for the crab cake sandwich, which is $13. Sandwiches include burgers, a chicken melt, open-faced prime rib, cheeseburger sliders and a West Coast club of grilled chicken, bacon, cheese, onion and tomato, served on a whole-wheat Kaiser Roll with herbed mayo.
Like I said: lots of variety and some creativity.
Pizza comes in two sizes, $11 and $16, and includes an onion and pancetta pie, a veggie pie, a black-n-bleu/ with bleu cheese and blackened chicken, and a supreme with sausage, ham, ground beef, mushrooms, onions and peppers.
There are plenty of pasta dishes in half or whole orders, and unless you're starving, a half order for around $9 is plenty. They include garlic chicken spaghetti, penne with shrimp, seafood Newburg with pappardelle, crab ravioli and my personal favorite, black bean angel hair.
This, too, is a vintage Donny Brown dish and comes with broccoli and either chicken or shrimp. I've long been a fan. And I think the $9 half-order is the best buy in the place.
For big eaters, there are real entrees. They run from around $15 to $25 for the crab cakes with sweet potato fries and slaw.
There are barbecued ribs, prime rib, blackened salmon with wild rice, a grilled T-bone with bleu cheese mashed potatoes and onion rings and a Fire House staple, salt-baked trout with sautéed couscous and spinach.
Black N Bleu tends to be loud and crowded. I went on a weeknight and had to wait for a table. But it clearly provides a venue and menu that have proven popular in Central PA. It's not gourmet, and it's not perfect. But it's a fun place to grab a bite that won't break the bank.
BLACK N BLEU
6108 Carlisle Pike, Mechanicsburg; good bar food; takes major cards, mall lot parking; kid-friendly; tends to be crowded; reservations suggested; 717-458-8150; blacknbleupa.com