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SWISH: Blackfinn slam dunks into the riverfront dining scene

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Freakin’ finally.

A lively, exciting place to dine, smack dab on the riverfront. Not to hate on our old-school staples who have been serving shrimp and grits on the downtown water for decades—and not to overlook you, Anne Bonny’s (your shining moment is coming). But it’s about time the Cape Fear River welcomed someone new.

SWIM, SWIM, SWIM: Blackfinn is now open on the north end of the riverwalk, offering a up pub snacks and small plates. Photo by Tom Dorgan

SWIM, SWIM, SWIM: Blackfinn is now open on the north end of the riverwalk, offering a up pub snacks and small plates. Photo by Tom Dorgan

I’ve been anxiously awaiting the arrival of Blackfinn, while also watching it grow from the ground up. The day I saw its epic deck take shape, I knew the north end of the river was in for a treat. For a town that’s well-versed in craft beer, cocktails and gastropub-esque food, the restaurant’s concept isn’t anything out of the ordinary. But the location and work put into the construction of this building certainly do speak for itself.

The word “Ameripub” (plus the post-work happy hour mob) might lead folks to believe  Blackfinn is a glorified version of those bar-and-grill chains we all know and had our 16th birthday parties at. (No? Just me? Whatever, I loved Applebee’s—get over it.) The point is: I’m not saying you’re wrong, but between the scenic marina location, a thoughtful menu focused on seafood, a pretty broad brew selection, and updated Southern classics in bar-grub form (like the “12-Hour BBQ Pulled Pork Mac and Cheese”), Blackfinn has nailed their demographic. And the crowds haven’t stopped coming.

Case in point: I dined with a small group on a Tuesday evening, and we snagged the last available table inside. The outdoor wait: almost 45 minutes. For a humid summer day in Wilmington, that’s not too shabby. I asked our server about the rotating local drafts and he answered thoroughly, but with a hint of hesitation.

“Just so you guys know,” he said, “I’m from Alabama, and I know Wilmington takes their craft beer very seriously. If there’s something you ask me that I don’t know, I’ll find someone who does.”

One of the worst crimes a service industry employee can make is offering up a platter of BS, so I was beyond impressed by his consideration and honesty. Five stars for the new kid!

The cocktail choices aren’t bad, but if anyone’s looking for a life-changing Old Fashioned, this is the wrong place. The “Pub Snacks and Small Plates” are about half-and-half when it comes to creativity. We found the usuals: queso, pimiento cheese, pretzels with beer cheese, etc. All hail the cheese, yo. On the more unique end of the spectrum, Blackfinn offers items like tuna poke (a Hawaiian specialty) and bacon Cracker Jacks—sweet caramel corn tossed with salted peanuts and bacon.

I spotted the fried deviled eggs headed toward nearly every booth, so we kicked things off there. I would love to say these were wildly innovative, but they were exactly what they claimed to be: regular deviled eggs that were fried. The Parmesan and light panko coating gave them a nice crunch, but the eggs themselves were standard.

As for the coleslaw they rested on, well, a pulled-pork sandwich or piled high next to a piece of fried chicken, this finely chopped slaw might have blended in unnoticed. But when all of the deviled eggs disappeared, we were left with a bland bite. Long shreds of purple cabbage and a healthy dose of vinegar would have turned this up a bit.

Next, the Coastal Shrimp and Crab Dip came to the table in a sizzling cast-iron skillet with a pile of house-made tortilla chips. The chips were definitely freshly-fried (and rather shiny from their new coat of oil) and had a light crisp. The dip, a decadent blend of lump crab, shrimp and cheese was pretty damn addictive. I did find a small glob of not-so-thoroughly-mixed cream cheese, but the seafood in the dip was generous and expertly tender.

I may be biased (having had poke straight from Oahu) but the tuna poke was OK. (If you know how to pronounce this dish correctly, that rhymed. You’re welcome.) The diced yellowfin tuna only took up a small portion of the over-sized bowl, which would have made for a nice presentation had there been more colorful elements on the other side. A wasabi cream and Sriracha drizzle was there but lacked in spark. The tuna was tossed with itty bitty squares of avocado, cucumbers, green onions, and a citrus soy. I didn’t spot any sesame seeds (although they were mentioned on the menu), and the marinade felt like it was missing both components of its name. The wonton chips were airy, crisp and fun—although not worth $12.99 on their own. I appreciate Blackfinn’s intention for putting a colorful, refreshing, health-conscious choice on their menu, it just needs a little work.

Let’s talk shrimp and grits. Blackfinn stepped up to the literal and figurative plate with this one. Their version boasts a rich, tomatoe-y “bloody mary” tasso cream sauce with andouille sausage, a boatload of sautéed shrimp, and outrageous bacon-goat cheese grit cakes. The inside of these fluffy triangles were laced with salt and creamy cheese, while the exterior was golden and delicate. Yowza! The meal itself was super luxurious. Luckily, grit cakes can be ordered as a side. Who needs broccoli anyway?

I’m a sucker for crab cakes, and went with the “Jumbo Lump” for my main. Although $15 seems high for a “small plate,” both cakes were bursting with almost no filler, crunchy pops of roasted corn, and huge chunks of jumbo-lump meat. For the highest quality of crab meat (and the fact these weren’t overloaded with mayonnaise and deep-fried), I would gladly order them again. They came with a tomato-basil salsa, which got a little lost, and a creamy remoulade. Some sort of greens on the plate would have been nice, but the house salad with big chunks of Parmesan and buttermilk dressing made for a dashing partner.

Other than getting out a few kinks, Blackfinn is swimming in the right direction overall. They’re turning tables left and right, putting out pretty solid bar food with a sunset backdrop, and bringing new life to a once-dormant part of the riverwalk. Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…

Blackfinn Ameripub
18 Harnett St.
Monday-Sunday, 11 a.m. – 2 a.m.

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