But not Himmel. The dust had barely settled over the little lot on Larchmere Boulevard when he began rebuilding, this time from the ground up. As a result, when his restaurant, Boulevard Blue, ultimately premiered this spring, not only did he have himself brand-new digs, but his man-vs.-nature saga had garnered his project the kind of buzz that money alone could never buy. Four months or so post-debut, the joint is still jumpin', jammed with well-dressed trendinistas drawn here by the urbane vibe, the live music, and Executive Chef Scott Wuennemann's sexy menu of contemporary American fare.
Of course, it's that surging energy level that immediately poses a dilemma for devotees of dining. For instance, if your idea of a pleasant evening at table includes the soft murmur of voices, an opportunity to contemplate the nuances of culinary artistry, and plenty of personal space in which to unwind, the frenetic pace at Boulevard Blue is likely to leave you rattled. On the other hand, if lots of noise, loads of bustle, and even the occasional derrière hovering over your lobster ravioli, as black-garbed servers and fellow guests shimmy between the crowded tabletops, sounds like fun . . . well then, welcome to BB, brothers and sisters, and let the good times roll.
Still, the high-octane ambiance comes with a price tag -- in this case, a few tables that are too small and several others that are too much in the midst of the traffic flow -- and initially makes it hard to imagine that Himmel and Chef Wuennemann (former sous chef for M, Cameron Mitchell's upscale Columbus restaurant) actually take their food seriously. Sure, Wuennemann's menu is a seductive read, filled with trendy ingredients and such mouth-watering imagery as "saffron cream sauce," "lavender honey vinaigrette," and "ginger-peach chutney." And yes, on a Saturday night, the sight of an intensely focused Wuennemann, fussing over every plate that left his semi-open kitchen, duly impressed us. But would that sizzle translate into substance when it came down to actual eats?
Gratifyingly enough, the answer is a qualified yes. When the kitchen gets it entirely right, as in one night's pan-seared grouper special, Wuennemann's dishes prove harmonious yet stirring. Each architecturally arranged element -- in this case the pearly white filet, emerald-green broccoli rabe, finely diced Yukon Gold potatoes, cremini-mushroom-and-red-pepper "relish," and a subtle cream sauce, punched up by truffle butter -- contributed pure, bright notes of perfectly balanced flavor.
Seafood and fish are the menu's main focus, and many of the dishes, including a starter of rare sushi-grade tuna and an entrée of grilled tuna, with hoisin-lime sauce, grilled Chinese long beans, and wasabi-spiked mashed potatoes, display a contemporary Asian flair. That Pacific Rim riff is echoed in the use of oversized white-porcelain plates, platters, and bowls, and the spare, almost painterly fashion in which the food is plated -- all the more dramatic when set on the bare black tabletops.
Despite the eye appeal, though, and the creative use of some fabulously fresh ingredients, one gets the impression that Wuennemann sometimes struggles to achieve the balances that he has in mind. Take that grilled tuna entrée, for example. The substantial block of medium-rare fish was faultlessly meaty and moist, and the toss of smartly stir-fried sugar-snap peas, red pepper, and shiitake mushrooms beneath it couldn't have been more intense. Yet instead of complementing the abundant natural flavors already present, the accompanying hoisin-lime sauce was almost overwhelmingly sweet and salty; and while the notion of wasabi-infused mashed potatoes seemed clever enough in theory, in reality the dry heat of the wasabi just introduced another distraction into what was already a busy plate.
But then, at the other extreme, there came that thick grilled pork chop: a lovely piece of meat, so succulent and tender that a prod of the fork brought forth fountains of sparkling juices. We took a bite and waited (and waited, and waited) for the deep, smoky flavors to kick in; alas, they never did. Just as disappointing, what had sounded like a nifty embellishment -- tamarind barbecue sauce -- proved bland and undistinguished, and hardly able to jazz up the underseasoned pork. In fact, it was only after a vigorous tableside salt-and-peppering that the chop seemed to have any flavor at all. And while accompanying sides of double-baked cheesy grits and bacon-piqued green beans had liveliness to spare, who expects a pork chop to be shown up by beans and grits?
Happily, Wuennemann's apps and salads are equally vivacious in concept, and generally more tightly composed. A New American version of French onion soup -- now assembled from sweet Spanish onions, melted manchego, and a spear of grilled focaccia -- was nearly as dense as porridge, but so buttery rich that it slipped down our throats like cream. A generous serving of tempura-breaded portobello mushrooms, green beans, and (delightfully surprising) bok choy balanced sophistication with county-fair-worthy crunch. And the good old cheese platter, here with wedges of subtly nutty manchego, aged Gouda, and firm, tangy Humboldt Fog, suddenly seemed brand-new with the addition of fiery, fruity ginger-peach chutney and blue-cheese-stuffed olives.
While the iceberg lettuce in our wedge salad could have been colder, the crisp bacon, sweet grape tomatoes, and subtle buttermilk dressing were suitable compensation. And for delicately balanced flavors and textures, it would be hard to beat the blue spinach salad, a colorful toss of green baby-spinach leaves, satiny Spanish Cabrales blue cheese, and summery blueberries, bound together with a nuanced stroke of lavender honey vinaigrette.
The bar stocks a small but diversified collection of mostly New World wines (including a relatively large number of Pacific Rim-friendly Rieslings and Viogniers); about three dozen beers, ranging from Bud to Guinness, Tsing Tao, and Old Leghumper Porter; and a handful of specialty cocktails, as well as white-peach and traditional sangria.
In addition to food and drink, Boulevard Blue also offers a distinctive menu of live jazz and blues each Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night, beginning around 9:30 p.m. Unfortunately, the sight lines from the bar aren't particularly good, and the press of the crowd there isn't always conducive to kicking back and digging the music. A better way to appreciate the entertainment is from a table in the dining area, and the kitchen accommodates late-night guests by serving a limited menu (mostly apps and desserts) until midnight on Thursdays and 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Other amenities include a small sidewalk dining area for fresh-air fans and $3 valet parking.
Cramped quarters notwithstanding, Boulevard Blue's staffers, from the hospitable Himmel on down the line, are a friendly, laid-back crew; and service, with few exceptions, was attentive and quick. And although dishes came out of the kitchen at a well-regulated pace, we never felt we were being rushed, even when we lingered -- over good, strong coffee and an archetypal crème brûlée, with a sheer burnt-sugar crust, a flourish of Chantilly cream, and a scattering of fresh, ripe berries -- to hear just one more smoldering number from the Eric Gould Trio onstage.
And who knows? Maybe next time, we'll get to sit where we can see them, too.