September 3, 2012
619 W. Randolph St. Chicago, IL | www.blackbirdrestaurant.com
Boasting a highly talented lineage of chefs – Paul Kahan, Michael Sheerin, and David Posey just to name a few – Blackbird has been a well recognized Chicago eatery for some time. Among the many accolades is Blackbird’s inclusion in the Chicago Michelin Guide. Chef Paul Kahan, Blackbird’s Executive Chef and partner, opened the restaurant with “respect for local ingredients” and an eye toward bringing innovations in modern cuisine to his guests. This past Friday I traveled to Chicago with the hope of a weekend of culinary exploration – a journey that would take me to Blackbird.
Although the primary criterion for any of my dining experience is the food, there are times when other peripheral factors do come forward. The design of Blackbird is modern and fairly minimalist. I had read previous descriptions of a close-quartered, loud, and raucous interior and thus I was prepared for such a scene. While the tables at Blackbird are fairly close together, I did not find the noise level of the restaurant to be uncharacteristically high. Perhaps the only minor criticism regarding the environment would be the capacity to which the bar was allowed to swell during our dinner; There were times when standing patrons at the bar began to encroach on seated guests, but admittedly this was minor.
Turning to the real reason of my visit – the food – I came into Blackbird with great anticipation of sampling the culinary creations of Chef de Cuisine David Posey. Chef Posey comes to Blackbird having attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York and having worked under Chef Grant Achatz at both Trio and Alinea. For Blackbird’s menu Chef Posey offers a standard ala carte selection of dishes alongside a daily tasting menu. The tasting menu comes in both a full and abbreviated form. I opted to sample the broadest possible spectrum of Blackbird’s culinary offerings by ordering the full tasting.
Blackbird’s drink menu includes a wide assortment of wines along with a selection of seasonal cocktails. This eponymous beverage, the Blackbird Orange, was perfectly suited to the warm end-of-summer feel of the final August day. The sweetness of the drink with the bite of bitters and orange juice made for a very refreshing evening cocktail.
To begin the tasting menu Chef Posey presents two courses to awaken the palate. The fattiness of sturgeon belly was well complemented with the slight tang of the aioli. The pistachios and asparagus lend a natural crunch to the opening course. In the second course, the subtle yet palate intriguing sugar beet custard was delicious and savory, paired with a very bright charred zest from the strands of meyer lemon.
The next act of the tasting menu takes a turn toward the subtle and luxurious flavors of fish. Delicate, fatty grilled hamachi is paired beautifully with a chilled turnip cream. The cream and smoked consomme come together to form a delightful savory base for the dish. In the next dish arctic char is deftly smoked, infusing it with great woodsy flavors that pair naturally with the pear. The sweet and smokey char is balanced with the salty n’duja.
In the last fish course we find a roasted halibut paired with a variety of flavors. Earthy farro, sweet kohlrabi, and the spiced vinegar bite of mustard and miso all meld wonderfully with the halibut. I found myself enjoying the dish more and more as I ate, combining all the components into a singular, focused taste.
The next two dishes bring earthier, denser flavors. Masa agnolotti filled with ricotta present a balanced taste of savory and sweet. The taste of masa is prominent and delicious here. Smoked kale elevates the earthen profile of the dish while puffed hominy adds pops of crunch. Intensely honeyed eggplant and subtly sweet honeydew reign in the mineral qualities of duck liver very nicely. The puntarelle leaves contribute bitterness, albeit a bit too much at times.
Heavier proteins were the center of the next stage in the tasting menu. In the first plate, tender slices of pork are matched nicely with sweet figs, and given an herbaceous punch from dill and sesame. Knephla serves an a grain starch to the plate. Similarly well cooked is the presentation of an aged striploin. The aging process enhances and intensifies the beefy flavor of the striploin. The peach adds a sweet layer over the bitterness and vinegar of the escarole and relish.
The menu begins its track to the finale with a delightful pre-dessert and a course of cheese. Fresh, bright, and sweet cantaloupe sorbet marries naturally with flowery nature of chamomile and the zest of lemon – a well constructed palate cleanser. The combination of ingredients in the cheese course are intense. Rich cheese, caramelized figs, and black olives all contribute heavy flavors to the plate. Spring onion and basil round out what ended up being a very savory course. While beautifully plated and complex, the intense flavors of this course were, perhaps, overwhelming. I would have loved to have had these two courses reversed in order.
The first taste of the crispy fried butterscotch exudes rich sweetness in superb fashion. The refreshing, subtly sweet coolness of masa ice cream and the tart cherry jam balance the fried nuggets of butterscotch well. In the final course, very southern flavors of mesquite and bourbon strike the palate with a reserved boldness. The ice cream is surprisingly light and refreshing – a welcomed match to the rich and heavy cocoa flavors from the chocolate pudding.
Processing my thoughts regarding this meal over the past few days gave me time to examine it both as a singular instance and as a part of my ongoing dining experience as a whole. The meal was enjoyable and steady, with a few standout peaks and few minor falls. I appreciated the thoughtfulness and effort in constructing an intelligent progression to the tasting. The seasonality of the tasting – figs, peaches, and corn especially – is prominent.
In examining where Blackbird falls in the spectrum of my personal experience with high modern cuisine, I have mixed emotions. Whilst the food at Blackbird is undoubtedly strong, it felt as though the flavors are seemingly more reserved and subtle than previous Michelin-level meals I’ve experienced in Chicago. There were moments of great bold and outspoken tastes and combinations here – courses 3, 5, 6, and 12 come to mind – and I can’t help but feel that I wanted more of those moments.
Regardless of my feelings about this particular tasting menu at this particular moment in time, it is undeniable through this experience as a whole that Blackbird and Chef Posey are strong competitors in the Chicago food scene.
619 West Randolph Street
Chicago, IL 60661
* 1 Michelin Star