Wednesday, August 31, 2011

#218 - Blackbird

We saw the beginnings of a chef transition back in December at Blackbird and it was right on script for a place of the quality of the restaurant.

David Posey, Mike Sheerin's sous chef for I believe a couple of years (and an Alinea/Trio vet), had just taken the reins.  The impression of a definitive change in the preparation and flavor came in the small details then.

The transition was gradual - at least through one seasonal menu, we only visit Blackbird a couple of times a year - with echoes of an overarching Sheerin molecular style still present but it tasted more back to basics in the best way possible, like it was preparing for an exploration into a broader, more elemental scope down the road.

And while it's been nine months since our last visit, what we ate last night confirmed every assumption I had about the glimpse into the early workings of the changeover last December.  This is confident, less precious food playing in the world of the more familiar, aspiring to take the idea of comfortable flavor combinations, sufficiently tweak them to a higher level and create something that gets into your guts.

It absolutely gets there.  Unlike the last couple of visits to Blackbird, we ate food that forgoes the fireworks and sparkles to craft eats that say, "Eat me, cuz I'm good.  You'll like me," instead of something that, at times, wandered into more of a technical exploration of flavor.

No slight to chef Sheerin here (The Trencherman coming soon?).  My feeling that Blackbird was the best restaurant in Chicago as a total experience came while he was at the helm.  Smart food, always.  Just that the last couple of visits left both of us loving the food but tending to forget it a few days later.  It tended to float on the surface in great ways, but tasting more like a survey of a landscape instead of delving a bit deeper.

It's not better now, just different.  For us it's probably better compared to the last few visits as we in past visits tended to relish in the refinement of the customary like falafel quenelle, stuffed quail balls and the most perfectly prepared proteins. It feels like we'd be getting so much more of that under Mr. Posey.

And after San Francisco/Napa food, Monday's visit tasted like Chicago to me, coming off like something akin to Home in a way.


Amuse of sturgeon, zucchini, squash and pepitas (?)

Nice.  Big pop of flavor, pleasing hint of a great browned fish and that pepita deliciousness.


Salad of endives with crispy potatoes, basil, dijon, pancetta and poached egg 

Wagyu tartare with pickled beets, grilled cucumber, shallot confit and borage

Endive salad was a take on a Lyonnaise salad set in a potato basket deconstructed at the table.  Meh.  Stupid-good pancetta and a perfectly poached egg but overall a bit trite.  No jump, really.

The tartare on the other hand just sung.  Great mingling of flavors with a tartare that tasted like wagyu and wasn't served cold (what a unique concept!).


Roasted leg of lamb with maitake mushrooms, cherries, hearts of palm, vidalia onion jam and burnt cinnamon

Duck fat poached elk strip loin with whole wheat knefla, crispy broccoli, strawberries and bergamot cream

I don't think we've unanimously so loved both of our entrées more on any previous visit.  The elk strip tasted like a sense of place.  Almost Colorado mountain-like, up in the altitude. Foresty with a brisk mountain wind. Beautiful meat, a ton of meat.  Whole wheat knefla (sort of a spaetzle-dumpling spin) that tasted essential.  Crispy broccoli that came off like a perfect condiment.  Bergamot cream that mimicked horseradish cream.  A bite with everything just couldn't have been better.  It's a dish I'll remember for a long time.

Lamb that was similar in execution.  Delicate and delicious, tasting like a combination of familiar flavors that never even sniffed 'safe' and reminded of a specific place in a forthcoming season, like so many October 14's.  Sweatshirt weather with darker clouds, shorter days and smells of burning leaves and dying grass.


Pre-dessert:  Raspberry sorbet with toasted quinoa

Almond financier and curd with plums, curried cous cous and thai basil

Frozen cucumber mousse with musk melon, peanut meringue and lime ice

Clean flavors everywhere but somewhat forgettable.  Once or twice in the past, we've come away most impressed with dessert and the overall finish to the meal.  This one didn't fall flat but came close.  Some of that came in the seeming absence of contrast and interplay.  Nothing really bounced off each other to create something more.


2007 Tensley Syrah Tierra Alta Vineyard Santa Barbara County

Should have slid right into our entrées and it would have with what was underneath but a wall of oak held it back.  A deep dark purple with red edges in the glass.  Bright and jumpy plum, herbs and acid on the nose and briefly on the tongue.  We decanted and it seemed to go from almost there with just some time in the decanter to jump-start things to exhibiting a wee bit too much oak (may have needed much more).  One of those almost bad bottlings that nonetheless was still pretty drinkable.  Intriguing enough that I might hunt another down but didn't ultimately work with the elk, though Mrs. Ney reports it was 87% wonderful with the lamb and mushrooms.  Stupid oak.

We went New World due to the debacle at Ad Hoc, not sating our rare California jones at the time with the odd sangiovese-syrah drank there.  Old World was the play here, a CDP, Côte-Rôtie or even seeing where the 2008 Domaine Tempier is right now.  Fine enough.  Live and learn.

Two cocktails, the Blackberry Betty and the Calypso, before the meal were a mistake.  Cocktails and us no longer love each other.  A glass of Pouilly-Fumé matched with the endive salad - fine and good.  A glass of French pink sparkling with the tartare - nothing wrong with that.

Single-malt Island of Jura "Superstition" scotch to finish.  Smelled and tasted like stinky French cheese, orange peel and toasted oak.  And I tasted scotch for the next 12 hours.  Me and scotch don't talk much and probably never will.

Even with a hiccup in the wine and a few underwhelming food elements, this visit felt like a resurgence in our ever-so-slight waning interest in dropping the dollars at Blackbird.  It was always worth the money but started to not feel like it was SO WORTH THE MONEY!  At least with this visit, the capital version applied in spades.  And it's still the best total experience in Chicago; some of the best informed, gracefully "present" front-of-the-house people in the business.

Quick note:  An all Trader Joe's meal last night.  Modified TK (taking on new tones there) Chicken with Delice de Bourgogne cheese, Tuscan country bread and mâche salad.  Served with a delicious TJ's Champagne, the NV Charles D'Embrun Brüt ($25).

Whole roasted chicken seasoned with thyme, salt and white pepper.  Moist as all get-out.  Proper skin and a nice return to the goodness that is chicken.  Delice de Bourgogne cheese about a week or so past expiration and in a good place.  Firming up, flunky yet fresh served on spongey bread.  Mâche and basil salad to finish.  Hey buddy.  Nice to have you back.

The Champagne was a new one to us but will be consumed by the bucket in the future.  A $25 Champagne that absolutely has a place.  Chiseled edges everywhere.  All minerals with fruit only playing way down deep.  You can tell why it wasn't destined for grower-producer status but the traditional complexity was there.  But another complexity came from how lively, stream-lined, lithe and pretty it was.  A light body but defined and confident from beginning to end with minerals that weren't screaming for definition of what exactly they were, just welcome generic minerals that piped up all the way down.  We couldn't pinpoint specific flavors but we didn't really need to.  Just came off like the definition of refreshment and paired something fierce with the meal, especially the cheese and bread.  Pairing Score:   92      

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