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Blu City Tavern
*** 1/2
Out of a possible five

Still Blu, but vibe is laid-back

Major changes to restaurants are made out of necessity, often the last gasp of a dying business.

But in the case of Blu City Tavern, formerly the Blu Tomato, which was a great upscale Italian eatery, the changes really made sense.

A hostess said the owners just felt limited by being strictly an Italian restaurant and that the new laid-back tavern setting would allow them to open up the menu and, hopefully, draw a more diverse group of customers.

But not everything has changed.

The tavern still offers the great stuffed veal meatloaf that was a signature dish at the Blu Tomato, the wood oven is still churning out pizzas, and the famous chop chop salad from parent store Catablu remains on the menu.

The most noticeable change, however, was not favorable. The Blu Tomato had a sharp, upscale setting that didn’t need to change a bit, but the owners decided a heavy dose of black paint was needed.

The black walls significantly darkened the restaurant and had me harking back to some bad rave clubs I visited in the early ’90s.

The back rooms and a small area dividing the bar from the wood oven room still have the lighter walls, so I would opt to sit there if I could.

The same hostess who explained changes said I must try the Irish nachos. She had good taste.

Thick slices of potato were fried until crisp but were still tender inside. The “chips” were topped with seasoned ground beef, chopped green onions and dill pickles, cheese and a slightly spicy, mayonnaise-based Tavern sauce. It was a huge starter, but one I did not want to stop eating. I really liked the zip the pickles provided.

There is also a Man vs. Nachos Challenge in which any person who can devour 6 pounds of them in an hour gets them free. If you fail, you pay $33.99.

The Tavern salad and radicchio and romaine salad – another holdover from the past – were flawless, as was the menu staple steak tip and bean chili. The white cheddar, potato and broccoli soup du jour badly needed salt and the bitter broccoli would have been better had it been chopped instead of added in whole florets.

Salt was an issue for the final starter I tried – the warm beer cheese and bratwurst dip. The bright yellow dip had plenty of sausage and was not too salty on its own, but the crunchy Bavarian pretzel chips were also heavily salted on one side, which made the combination off-putting. A freshly baked pretzel or pretzel bread would have been a much better accompaniment.

The herb-crusted tilapia and 12-ounce grilled New York strip were the best entrees. The tilapia was flaky and mild, and the parmesan and breadcrumb crust added just the right texture and flavor. The lemon-caper wine sauce was vibrant and brought the dish, which also came with flashed spinach and mashed potatoes, to life. The fatty, perfectly cooked steak got all the seasoning it needed from the salty bacon-dotted cheddar butter on top. It was flanked by a huge pile of fresh-cut fries, which were also perfectly prepared.

The components of the chopped salmon burger were wonderful but became muddled when assembled. Although the burger had a nice sear to give it texture and the fish was moist and flavorful, it was buried under a huge helping of sweet dill slaw, which sort of masked its beauty. It also made the grain mustard and tomato slice, which also topped the burger, undetectable. The slaw was tasty, however, with a lot of fresh dill, carrot slivers, in addition to the bicolored cabbage, and a slightly creamy, sweet dressing that also had a bit of a vinegar bite.

The Tavern Chicken Popover Pie was disappointing. This deconstructed pot pie consisted of oven-roasted chicken, carrot, mushrooms, peas, onion and potatoes in a creamy sauce served over a fresh baked popover.

The chicken chunks were great and the vegetables still had some bite, but there was very little sauce, which is what usually makes a pot pie so great when it is soaked up by the crust. The “crust” was not up to snuff either. The popover was dense and dry, not flaky and light, and the entire dish just fell flat.

The pastry in the warm apple tart would have worked great as the base for the chicken popover as it was crisp, light and flaky. Drenched in a house-made caramel sauce, dotted with small slices of cooked apple and with a scoop of cinnamon ice cream right in the middle, it was a sizable portion that was definitely meant for sharing. The banana cream pie with chocolate-dipped crust was also a tasty dessert with its still-firm bananas and creamy custard in a flaky crust lined with dark chocolate. It was garnished with caramel and toasted almond slivers.

Restaurant: Blu City Tavern

Address: 2787 Maplecrest Road

Phone: 486-9647

Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Cuisine: American

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Full bar

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Irish nachos ($8.95), warm beer cheese bratwurst dip ($6.95), chili ($3.95 cup; $6 bowl), popover pie ($13.95), New York strip ($22.50), tilapia ($16.75), salmon burger ($11.95), dessert ($7)

Rating breakdown: Food: ** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. E-mail him at rduvall@jg.net, call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net, and you can hear Ryan from 3 to 4 p.m. every Thursday on 92.3 FM, The Fort.