Monday, March 11, 2013

Dining Out in Chicago: Blackbird

I walked into Blackbird at 5:30 on a Saturday evening in early March. After several hours exploring the Art Institute with my sister, I had worked up quite the appetite and was ready to sit down and decompress. I was pleased with the scene that greeted us upon our arrival. The restaurant was relatively quiet, with only a handful of tables occupied. Soft light spilled in through the floor to ceiling glass facade as Beach House played in the background.

The space was small and minimally decorated, but it worked. The walls were bare, with the exception of a giant abstract black and white painting covering most of the right wall. As daylight faded, the restaurant was illuminated and remained brightly lit throughout the evening. However, tables were tiny and too closely spaced. We were sandwiched so tightly between our neighbors, that at times it felt like we were dining with a party of 8, instead of a party of 2. As the restaurant filled up, noise became an issue. Having to listen to the conversation of our obnoxious neighbors for an hour and a half was far from ideal, but we still enjoyed a fabulous night, thanks in small part to the excellent service, but mostly as a result of the outstanding food.

Blackbird's modern facade

From the moment we walked in the door to the moment we walked out, the service at Blackbird was impressive. Our server was just the right amount of helpful and friendly, and the host volunteered to hail us a cab as we left, a service we had been denied the night before at a restaurant down the street. The service was the cherry on top of a fantastic experience, but what really made the evening was, of course, the food.

Our meal consisted of:
Endive salad crispy potatoes, basil, dijon, pancetta, poached egg
Strip loin & short rib mustard greens, horseradish caramel, granny smith apple-onion puree
Duck breast broccoli, potato granola, sesame, raisin cream
Goat cheese cheesecake  cajeta ice cream, burnt grapefruit, avocado
Bittersweet chocolate torte burnt honey ice cream, tangerine marmalade, toasted sesame, cumin

The meal started off a little shaky, with a forgetable cocktail (the London Calling) and some sort of sweet custard amuse bouche. But starting with the appetizer course, the meal took a turn for the incredible.

Blackbird's take on the Lyonnaise- endives, crispy potatoes, pancetta, poached egg

My sister and I shared the salad of endives, which came encased in a bird's nest made of perfectly crisp, salty fried potato strings. The waitress "deconstructed" the dish for us tableside, cutting through the nest at just the right angle to break the poached egg and allow the components to fall prettily onto the plate. The egg yolk mixed with the dijon to coat the endives and other greens with a delicious dressing. The chunks of pancetta were soft, fatty and salty, and the perfect meat component for the salad. The dish was a blend of flavors and textures, and clever to boot, which I loved.

For my entree, I ordered the dry-aged strip loin and short rib combination topped with mustard greens served on a puree of apples and onions. Both meats were cooked perfectly. The steak was a wonderfully red medium rare, while the short rib was incredibly moist and fell apart at the touch of my fork. I loved the mustard greens, although some were a little crispy for my taste. I prefer the flavor of the vegetable over the flaky fried taste of crispy greens. The best part of the plate may have been the granny smith apple-onion puree. It was a really interesting element with a wonderful flavor that complemented the short rib perfectly.

Strip loin & (hidden) short rib with mustard greens and apple-onion puree

My sisted selected the duck breast for her entree, which was served with a large broccolini, a crunchy topping called potato granola, and raisin cream. The duck was perfectly cooked, although the skin wasn't uber crispy the way I like it. The accompaniments were delicious and enhanced the dish, minus the broccolini. It was weird that it was a single broccolini, and I didn't think it added anything. Also, it wasn't visually appealing.

Although still delicious, dessert was the low point of the evening. The desserts were creative and beautifully plated; however, neither left a lasting impression as being over-the-top delicious. I ordered the goat cheese "cheesecake," simply out of curiosity, and found it intriguing, but not something I would order again. It was composed of a spoonful of cheesecake filling made from goat cheese and a small scoop of goat's milk ice cream atop a pastry crumble and some type of charred meringue. Also on the plate were dolops of a sweet avocado cream, segments of burnt grapefruit, and cubes of some sort of candied fruit. The crumbles of crust were the best part of the dish. Again, interesting, but not super tasty.

My sister's bittersweet chocolate torte was also innovative, but didn't wow me, flavor-wise. A sphere of bittersweet chocolate filling was served alongside burnt honey ice cream topped with a dark chocolate shell. Underneath was a layer of orange marmalade. Cumin was thrown in the dessert somewhere, which gave the dish an element of spice.

On my next visit, I'll probably substitute an after dinner beverage for dessert. They had some really delicious sounding options, including something called a Kentucky Pie. Mmmm.

All in all, a wonderful dining experience. It's not often that I end a meal at a nice restaurant thinking about when I'll be able to come back (simply because I always want to try new places), but that's all I could think about at the end of my night at Blackbird. I'd take that as a very good sign, if I were you.

The rundown:

Price: $$$$ ($61+ a person, including one drink, tax and tip)
Reservations: Yes
What to Wear: trendy, somewhere between casual and upscale
Vibe: modern & upscale, yet not totally uptight
Good for: splurge, cool date night (not super romantic), fun night out with friends, dinner with parents/family, pre-theater dinner, prix fixe lunch

Final verdict: Blackbird is a well-oiled machine that makes upscale cool look effortless


  1. What if my boyfriend isn't cool enough for a cool date night?

    1. Well then you should probably get a new boyfriend. Until then, you can borrow mine.