Tuesday, March 13, 2012

blackbird (2) - chicago, il

619 west randolph
chicago, il 60661

 after a relatively easy drive from st. louis to the windy city, carrie and i checked into the hotel felix (free parking for hybrids!) and made our way to the streets with rick bayless's xoco as our destination. not two blocks into our stroll, the phone call i was dreading came. two weeks prior, we had finally scored a reservation to chef michael carlson's restaurant schwa, an establishment widely considered as one of america's toughest tables to book. not only are reservations at schwa difficult to attain, but the crew is known to cancel reservations at the last minute with excuses like issues with heating/cooling/plumbing or the firing of staff often being used. luckily, schwa was able to give us a reservation for the following evening, opening up this night for another meal! knowing ahead of time what i was possibly getting us into in regards to schwa, i had already booked a backup reservation at blackbird, and jumped at the chance to have two outstanding meals in as many nights.

blackbird is executive chef paul kahan's flagship restaurant in a family that also includes avec, the publican, big star, and the violet hour. the current chef de cuisine is david posey, a culinary institute of america graduate who prior to blackbird spent much time with genius chef grant achatz at both trio and alinea. the restaurant's modern american cuisine has been met with much praise over its almost fifteen year existence, most recently garnering a michelin star in the red guide along with a four star review from the chicago tribune. this would mark carrie a i's second visit to blackbird, having previously visited the restaurant for lunch during one of our first serious chicago food trips back in 2010.
arriving at the restaurant via taxi right on time for our 6:30 reservation, we entered the award wining thomas schlesser designed restaurant and were promptly led to our table at the banquet running the length of the dining room. while seating is somewhat tight and the atmosphere more boisterous than your normal "fine dining" establishment, blackbird's interior is one of my all time favorites as the sleek and minimal design of the space really appeals to me. i will take this opportunity to note that the dress of the other patrons varied significantly, with men in both suits and t-shirts. my choice of nice jeans and casual blazer was perfect, and is what i would recommend for those not wanting to feel either over or under dressed.

diners at blackbird have the choice of ordering al a carte or partaking in a reasonably priced ($110) tasting menu featuring nine proper courses along with an amuse bouche and sorbet. wine pairings with the tasting are also available for an extra $55. per are usual, we went for the tasting and tacked on the pairings for good measure.
for bread, a hearty whole grain bread was served with a smooth butter seasoned with sage and tarraggon. this was the same offering as our last visit to blackbird, and was certainly enjoyable.
for cocktails, i ordered the blackbird orange, made with tempranillo, new orleans spiced rum, rare tea cellars sicilian blood orange, and a clementine. carrie selected the luna sea, which was plum wine, campo de encanto, sparkling wine, pickled ginger, and plum nectar. for the first time ever, after tasting each others drinks, carrie and i actually decided to switch as we both vastly preferred the others selection.
the amuse for the night was a celery root custard with sea beans and cucumber vinegar. the custard was almost like a panna cotta in terms of texture and was nice with the firm sea beans. a glass of champagne was served alongside this offering with the disclaimer that it was meant to also go with the first proper course of the meal.
arriving moments after the custard dishes were cleared away was a a confit of baby octopus with fennel, chestnut, lime, and chili. this was easily the most tender octopus i can ever remember having, and while its flavor was great on its own, the sweet flavor of the fennel along with the tart lime and heat from the chili threads really made every bite a different experience. saying that this course started things off on the right foot would be an understatement!
although course number two was certainly the meals least appealing visually, chef posey's take on butternut squash soup did not disappoint in the slightest. here we have a foam of smoked char filled with roe and topped table side with a butternut squash soup made with peaches and stout. with instructions to blend it all together before eating, carrie and i both loved the sweetness provided by both the squash and peaches contrasting with the smoky char. as if this wasn't enough, the salty orbs of roe popping here and there really made this a complex soup. a lovely vouvray was served with this course.
for our third course, we were served slow poached shetland salmon with smoked panisse, soy-maple braised onions, fresh raisins, and paprika. paired with a pinot blanc from alsace, this was another hit. the expertly prepared fillet was perfectly tender and flavorful, and was really enhanced by the plates other ingredients, most notably the delicious soy-maple onions.
with a good ten minute break coming in between courses, the salmon was followed up by chorizo crusted sauteed barramundial a carte as their entree, and after tasting it i am confident that nobody went home regretting their decision. the chorizo crust gave the fish a nice bit of heat and crunch on the outside, while the interior was firm, meaty and full flavored. the pears and little neck's were really just a bonus to me. wine for this course was a full bodied chardonnay.
moving away from seafood, the placement of the next course was somewhat atypical, but certainly not unwelcome. served with a sweet sautere, course number five was a torchon of sonoma valley foie gras with sunflower seeds, parsley root, and spicy pickled lime. rich, fatty, and unctuous as expected, the foie was fabulous eaten alone, but even better when paired with the meaty sunflower seeds. while the spicy pickled lime was interesting for sure, i did not particularly care for it in this dish as it muted the flavor of the foie instead of complimenting it.
for the first of two heavy meat courses, a dry aged prime striploin was brought to the table. plated with rosefinn potatoes, spring onion, miners lettuce, and smoked bone marrow, the beef was enjoyable but overall this course was probably the weakest savory of the evening. a bold chateauneuf du pape was poured here.
for our seventh course and final savory offering of the meal, we were treated to a part of the pig that i do not believe either of us have ever sampled. pictured above is braised pork collar with sunchokes, burnt leeks, kumquats, and horseradish caramel. paired with a cote du rhone, the collar reminded me of beef short rib somewhat in terms of texture and fat content, while the flavor was decidedly pork. at this point, the only nuance to this dish i can accurate recall is the citrus from the kumquats, which was definitely interesting mixed with the heavy meat.
the sorbet was grapefruit with yogurt mousse and kasha. the sorbet itself was astringent as expected, but tempered nicely by the mild yogurt. the kasha added a nice bit of texture to the fray while reminding me of my breakfast cereal.
our first proper dessert came in the form of chestnut mousse with persimmons, caramel meringue, and perigold truffles. having reviewed the al a carte dinner menu prior to our meal, this was one dessert than certainly caught my eye. while i found the flavor and texture of the persimmons to be kind of "blah", the smooth chestnut mousse, caramel meringue, and earthy shaved perigold truffles worked together to provide a unique dessert.
closing with a somewhat more traditional dessert, our final course was soft valrhona chocolate with pistachio pain perdu, buttercream, and candied beets. this was a great dessert with the beets adding an interesting dimension to the mix. on a disappointing note, it was never mentioned that the wine paring did not include dessert wines, and we were never really given the chance to rectify this or even order coffee until it was too late.
 with a pair of olive oil madelines arriving at the table along with the check, carrie and i settled the bill and opted to make the twenty minute walk back to our hotel as the weather was beautiful. conversing casually about the meal, we determined that what we were served at blackbird was a pretty serious bargain considering the number of courses, portion sizes, and food quality. one would be hard pressed to find a better tasting menu for $110 or less in any city in america. when phil vettel of the chicago tribune prognosticated that blackbird would be promoted from one to two michelin stars in the 2012 guide (it wasn't), i thought back to my lunch in 2010 and raised my eyebrows. having now experienced chef david posey's tasting menu in full, i really feel that even though michlin claims it is just what is on the plate that counts, if the room and service were a bit more traditional for a "fine dining" establishment that such a thing most likely would have occurred. i have no doubt that carrie and i will return to blackbird, and i recommend it to both fine dining veterans and those who want to experience a world class meal without all the pomp and circumstance of places like everest, tru, trotters, ect.

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