By now, you’ve probably heard the hype about the swanky new Blu Halo in the Bannerman Crossings Shopping Center.
After three visits, we can tell you that, yes, they do serve a $200
martini made with a rare gin. Yes, there’s a $98 steak (for two). And yes, this place is superb, a boon to the dining scene in Tallahassee.
Blu Halo is the dream of owner Keith Paniucki, a Tallahassee native who envisioned the $1.5 million project as a game changer, with food, service and surroundings most often found in bigger cities.
It’s certainly easy to fork over a small fortune for dinner here, but you don’t have to empty your wallet. Six of the 11 entrees on the menu are under $25. And there are dishes hearty enough to feed two. Or even more.
So far, we’re impressed. The food is terrific, the decor sophisticated and the service excellent.
Tallahassee designer Catherine D. Baker has created a fetching space with upmarket features, from the fine cutlery to chic furnishings. Walls showcase abstract pieces by local artist Liz Frisbie, with cabinets made by her husband, Ken. The place is open and cheerful, decorated in hues of shimmery blue, black, slate and white — highly contemporary but hardly sterile.
The venue can seat 210 at tables encircling the round bar, the restaurant’s centerpiece. Overhead, there’s a neon ring or halo, though no one’s expecting angelic behavior.
Blu Halo also features a private room with space for 20, and patio seating for 40.
The place is packed on weekends, drawing a cross-generational crowd. It’s clearly a siren to discerning residents in nearby and upscale subdivisions.
The restaurant reflects Paniucki’s lofty goals, realized with the help of his business partners Lisa and Jimmy Graganella and Rick Kearney,
Starting next week, servers will bring a basket of warm bread to your table, but don’t fill up. There are too many dishes you’ll want to try, starting with an appetizer of ahi tuna poke.
McMahan’s rendition of the popular Hawaiian dish is addictive. Raw tuna, cut into small cubes, is tossed in a flavorful ponzu sauce with a splash of lime, fragrant of ginger and sesame oil, garnished with capers and sesame seeds. The glistening fish is layered atop lush guacamole and finished with tiny edible flowers and a tuft of micro fiesta greens, propped up with fried tortilla strips. Scoop it up with house-made, crisp wonton chips. We savored every bite.
Starters of fried oysters, chicken lollipops and pork belly sliders are tempting but we couldn’t resist the crab and corn bisque. The concoction featured charred sweet corn, lump crabmeat, cream and a dose of sherry, unusually well balanced, each flavor distinctive, none outshining the others. The soup was garnished with miniature corn shoots, nice on the eye and tasting like spring. (The shoots are grown at The Best Little Greens in Havana.)
A sherry truffle vinaigrette dressing perked up the spinach salad, already bright with blueberries, sliced strawberries, and anchored with bits of Applewood bacon, red onions, spiced pecans, heirloom grape tomatoes and a scattering of goat cheese. On the side, a sliced hard-boiled egg pickled in beet juice sports a pretty pink ring.
Steak dominates the menu, with choices ranging from a $19, eight-to-10-ounce wet-aged top sirloin, to the $98, 40-ounce, dry-aged, bone-in rib eye for two. We passed up optional toppings like bleu cheese, lump crab meat or lobster tail ($4 to $15).
We figured a place that offers a steak called “Boss” for just shy of $100 might also manage to make a $19 sirloin worthy as well. We were right. Medium-rare, topped with garlic herb butter and a sprig of rosemary is a very good place to start. We added a side of earthy braised mushrooms.
The most expensive choices are dry-aged. (Wet-aged steaks are cured in vacuum-sealed plastic; dry-aged steaks are hung in open air at a temperature just above freezing and aged for 60 days, a process that makes the meat very tender even if a lot has to be trimmed away.)
My husband and I don’t eat much red meat, but on another visit, we had to try the Boss. We put aside our carnivore guilt and dug into this gigantic hunk of a ribeye, with a long bone protruding bladelike from the meat. It was indeed marvelous, charred on the outside, a rosy pink inside, well-marbled, buttery tender with that rich beefy taste that works as well with a martini (Plymouth, on the rocks with olives) as it does a glass of red wine (a medium-bodied Spanish Tempranillo).
The $98 price tag for the Boss is a big splurge for those of us who aren’t on an expense account, but easier to swallow when you consider it comes with two sides (each, $7 to $16) while the “Chief,” a 22-ounce, bone-in rib eye for $49, does not.
For our sides, we picked a Southern-style serving of grilled cream corn, shaved from the cob, rich and sweet and savory all at once, and the vegetable of the day, a fall-fresh mix of chili-roasted butternut squash and pumpkin.
My husband and I took about half the steak home, gave our
overjoyed dog the bone and enjoyed the rest of the ribeye the next evening.
You can skip steak and savor a generous, and terrific, half chicken instead. It’s brined in sweet tea for 24 hours, roasted with rosemary and then sautéed in a port wine and cream demi-glace with baby zucchini, pattypan squash and a mix of button and shiitake mushrooms. Pea shoots add a colorful accent. Nicely done!
The menu is still evolving with McMahan, an avid fisherman, offering more intriguing seafood and fish specials to supplement menu standards like Chilean sea bass and crab cakes.
McMahan, most recently executive chef at Jackacuda’s Seafood & Sushi in Destin, plans to use a Gulf fish tracking system that will enable customers to scan with their cellphone where the fish was caught and by which boat. Talk about knowing where your food comes from.
A seafood tower, offered only on Friday and Saturday, is an over-the-top affair suited for big groups or hungry high rollers. It features two eight-ounce lobster tails, a pound of shrimp, King crab and occasionally oysters. Stone crabs will be added when in season. We ditched that option when we heard the market price — $120. We’re hoping that Blu Halo offers a second, smaller version at a lower cost.
For dessert, the nitro ice cream was a sweet surprise. On our visit, the choice was Key lime, with bits of still-crisp graham crackers, served in a folksy canning jar. Sounds gimmicky but the nitrogen’s chilling temperature leaves the confection velvety and rich.
We’d also recommend the brunch, with benedicts, omelets and shrimp and grits (from local Bumpy Road Farm) with red-eye gravy made with actual and local Red Eye coffee. They also do a fine Bloody Mary (with shrimp!) and watermelon fresca made with champagne.
Service is exemplary, with practically an army of attentive young staff who make you feel welcome without hovering. Paniucki, who also owns the local audio visual company Signal House, sets the tone for vigilance. He lends a hand washing glasses at the bar, busing tables, helping in the kitchen.
Of all the gins in the world, this joint picked Nolet’s Reserve to sit in a place of honor at the center of the bar. The bartender called the gin “fruit forward,” with bouquets of saffron and verbena. Blu Halo has one of only 10 bottles in the state. A martini made with the gin is $200, a shot is $89. It’s from the same folks who do Ketel Vodka.
My husband wanted to try the gin but didn’t want to spring for $89, much less a martini for $200. The bartender, Terry Logue, offered a taste, about a spoonful, for $12. My husband waxed on about astringency and floral scents and mouthfeel, but in the end said he preferred the much-less-expensive Plymouth, a not-too-shabby gin that’s been around for hundreds of years.
The wine list is extensive, categorized by countries, with plenty of choices by the glass. You can rent a wine locker for $300, which will get you a 15 percent discount on your wine purchases. Call ahead and your bottle will be ready at your table. Very VIP.
Blu Halo is only open a few weeks, but it already has the polish and cuisine to be a first-class destination in Tallahassee. Make your reservations now.
When you go…
3431 Bannerman Road, #2
Starters, soups and salads $8-$18, entrees $18-$98, sides $7-$16, dessert $6-$8, brunch $8-$16.
4-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 4-midnight Friday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-2 p.m. brunch Saturday-Sunday. Happy Hour 4-6 p.m. Monday-Friday.
Strongly recommended on weekends
Tallahassee Table Rating
One of the best