click to enlarge 51_0003_food.jpg
Location: Duncan Manor Plaza, McCandless. 412-369-9050
Hours: Tue.-Sat. 4 p.m.-close
Prices: Soups, salads and appetizers $6-12; entrées $19-33
Fare: American contemporary
Atmosphere: Business-casual clubby
Liquor: Full bar
Smoking: Designated sections

The holiday season can get anyone down. Your brilliant gift idea is backordered till March, mistletoe is poisonous to the cat, and either you're visiting family or you're hosting them. The days are dark and cold, and this madness is supposed to help?

If you've got the blues for Christmas, may we suggest giving them a taste of their own medicine? At Blue, that is, the self-proclaimed coolest dining destination in the North Hills.

And who are we to dispute it? Blue may be located in a strip mall, but it makes up points with an urbane, clublike interior (in shades of the aforementioned blue) and a sophisticated, contemporary menu that runs the gamut from the de rigueur (chicken satay) to the refreshing (gorgonzola hummus). And that's just the appetizers.

Before our appetizers even arrived, we were treated to Blue's bread basket with red-pepper butter, a welcome variation. Angelique enjoyed the bread with the excellent cream of asparagus soup, a velvety concoction which actually tasted green. Floating atop the broad bowl, a crouton spread with olive tapenade was a tasty touch.

Jason's appetizer of couscous-crusted scallops was brilliant: Tiny pearls of crunchy couscous surrounded beautifully cooked, tender and succulent sea scallops. Mango sambal -- a version of the flavorful, brothy condiment of southern India -- provided subtle spice without drowning out the scallops' native briny sweetness. Sadly, the accompanying red onion salad was not nearly so successful, with insufficient cool cucumber to balance the abundance of sharp onion and dried cranberries that contributed little.

Beautifully medium rare duck au poivre was moist and meaty, with just an edge of crisped skin and strong, but not overwhelming, pepper seasoning. Grand Marnier added body to the light jus and slight sweetness to the flavor. The duck sat on a mound of rösti potatoes, a Swiss preparation that resembles a slice of hash-brown cake, tender-firm and slightly creamy in texture, with a cheesy top. Haricots vert -- slender green beans -- were just-cooked and lightly flavored with garlic.

Penne lobster gratinee is best described as a rich man's mac and cheese. Al dente penne and generous chunks of Maine lobster were tossed together in a luxurious three-cheese sauce with herbs and tomatoes, whose astringency cut the creaminess just enough. In Angelique's portion, it seemed sautéed red-pepper strips were substituted for the English peas listed on the menu; she thought the vegetal flavor and toothsome texture of the peas would have been better.

Having eaten this much rich food, why stop? We ordered dessert: lava cake, a chocolate concoction with brownie-like density and fudginess. The flavor was dark and delicious, but we wished for a little more of that sweet molten lava.

So if you get the blues this season, look around: If you're in a strip mall in McCandless, at least your palate will be merry.





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