Wow. That’s about the first word that comes to mind after dining at Blackbird, one of Chicago’s hippest restaurants, located at the eastern edge of the thriving Randolph Street Market District in the West Loop. Blackbird’s French-influenced menu of contemporary American cuisine, created by innovative chef Paul Kahan, is laden with unusual combinations of ingredients that render some downright spectacular results.
Blackbird’s stylish décor favors a minimalist approach. Four paintings in the rear dining area and a large flower arrangement on the bar represent the lone departures from otherwise clean architectural lines. The brilliant white exterior matches the stark white interior walls that seem to take on a pale greenish hue with the recessed lighting and dark hardwood floors of the dining room. A high-backed banquette spans the left side of the small, narrow dining room, which seats only 58 guests. Even so, the tables are set closely together, but somehow it works: the close quarters and the din from neighboring tables are just one of the things that make Blackbird what it is. I’m sure there are some, however, who’d prefer more breathing room between themselves and other patrons.
We arrived about 25 minutes early for our reservation, so we seated ourselves at the bar and ordered cocktails. As we chatted with two neighbors, a waiter swept past us with a matched pair of piping hot plates. We watched as he served what looked like salads in cylindrical "baskets" to two customers at the opposite end of the bar. He placed a plate in front of each guest, and then used a knife and fork to crush each basket. We asked our new friends if they knew what menu item this was, and one of them told us it was the endive salad. Note to self: I’m intrigued, order the endive salad.
The bar at Blackbird.
After awhile we were seated at a table along the banquette that spans the left side of the dining room. We ordered a bottle of sauvignon blanc, and each of us ordered the endive salad ($8), which sounded almost nondescript on the menu. It turns out that the aforementioned "basket" is made of shredded potatoes that are deep fried to hold the cylindrical shape. The salad is served with a poached egg on top, which explains the plume of steam rising from the plates we saw served at the bar. For entrees, I ordered the bobwhite quail breasts, and The Better Half ordered the Alaskan halibut. I would have guessed she’d have selected the wood-grilled California sturgeon, which is one of Blackbird’s signature dishes, but to each his own.
Four paintings are about the only departure from the minimalist architectural lines.
Our bottle of wine and bread was served, and we eagerly anticipated the endive salads. As if on cue, our waiter arrived, a small plume of steam rising from each plate. As we’d witnessed earlier at the bar, he used a knife and fork to crush the baskets of shredded potatoes and mixed everything together. The poached egg mellowed the slightly bitter taste of the endive, and the crushed potato basket served as croutons for the salad. A truly ingenious combination of ingredients, and the presentation was simply spectacular.
The bobwhite quail breasts ($25) were served stuffed with peas and grilled Michigan apricots, and topped with crispy strips of prosciutto. Once again, this dish featured a very unique combination of ingredients, but the concept was executed perfectly. Not only did it taste fantastic, but the different colors and textures made for a terrific presentation. I was so smitten with my quail that I never got around to sampling The Better Half’s halibut, although I can report a resounding thumbs-up from across the table.
We thought the service was just right: our waiter was friendly, conversational, attentive, and unobtrusive, never overbearing or stuffy.
As one might expect, dining at Blackbird is not a frugal venture. Our two salads, entrees, a modestly priced bottle of wine, tax and tip ran $150. I guess the best endorsement I can offer is that it was worth every penny. If you’re in Chicago and you can fit a fine dining experience into your budget, Blackbird should be near the top of your list. We’ll be back, that’s for sure.
My 1- 10 ratings:
Food - 10; Service – 8.5; Atmosphere – 8.5
619 W. Randolph St.
Chicago, IL 60606
Reservations: You’ll need one
Web site: www.blackbirdrestaurant.com
Paul Kahan was voted one of America's "Best New Chefs of 1999" and Blackbird was chosen as the Favorite Restaurant of Chicago in Food & Wine
magazine's July 1999 issue. And Blackbird
was selected by Gourmet Magazine
as one of Chicago’s Top 5 restaurants in October, 2000.