4-STAR DINING REVIEW

Flying high on a new day

Creativity overcomes problematic amenities

The question for me is whether Blackbird is a four-star restaurant with three-star amenities, or a three-star restaurant with four-star cuisine.

For though the food at this 14-year-old restaurant is exemplary (more on that in a moment), there are aspects to the dining experience that are anathema to long-held notions of four-star dining.

The dining room is comfortable, but hardly luxurious. The white-on-white room can be too bright. Two-person tables are too small, and too closely spaced. Noise is often an issue.

Yet there is a growing sense that these fine-dining trappings have become the fringe on our culinary lampshade — nice if you like that sort of thing, but ultimately unimportant. These days, sophisticated diners eagerly forgo service, creature comforts and stemware to visit Schwa; happily pay top dollar to dine in backless-chair discomfort at New York's Momofuku; and the Michelin Guide, for decades known for the importance its inspectors placed on tablecloth thread counts, now includes a disclaimer that its reviews focus exclusively on the food.

And when food is the criterion, Paul Kahan's restaurant belongs at the top of anyone's list.

David Posey, who has been Blackbird's chef de cuisine for a little more than a year, is cooking with a boldness that puts me in mind of the restaurant's early days. He'll start with an amuse, perhaps a 2-inch-tall cube of crisped pork belly topped with pickled celery, a nugget of fatty indulgence modulated by an acidic crunch.

Posey's dishes are all about balancing the bitter and sweet, the fatty and lean, and there's nothing extraordinary about that but for his novel ingredient choices. To charred baby sepia with blueberries, he adds acidity via green tomatoes and bitterness via cynar (a bitingly sharp artichoke liqueur), though he mutes the effect with a little cream cheese. To a confit of suckling pig (a small brick that decomposes at the fork's barest prodding), he brings earthy and briny flavors via fried clams and gentle sweetness from honeyed eggplant.

He'll match spiced, lightly crispy sweetbreads to sweet persimmon, salty nori peanuts and buttery chickweed. Roasted lobster and royal trumpet mushrooms get hints of coffee (actually coffee-infused oil) and are surrounded by fried polenta hush puppies. An elegant presentation of grilled sturgeon (two fillets on opposite sides of a long plate) with brown-butter sauce includes a peppery Thai-poppy jam along with chanterelles, plums and kohlrabi.

Mussel soup arrives as a bowl containing maybe two mussels, and just as you're starting to suspect they're messing with you, along comes a copper pot with a bounty of molluskular brethren, pieces of whitefish and a fabulous broth redolent with garlic, basil and saffron.

I loved the elk loin, poached at low temperature in duck fat, given a hard sear and served with puffy knefla and bergamot-ricotta cream, but sadly, it's off the menu. Ditto for the chicken and prawns, a pedestrian-sounding pairing enlivened with "mish mish" (a mystery spice blend that includes powdered apricot) and placed over red quinoa and preserved lemon.

There was one dish that didn't thrill me; the burnt-cinnamon-dusted leg of lamb had good flavor and fine plate companions (Maitake mushrooms and Vidalia jam), but the meat was a bit too tough, even for leg.

Bryce Caron, once the pastry sous here before leaving to create desserts for Custom House, is back as head pastry chef and doing fine, cliche-free work. One free-form dish includes pieces of toasty, caramelized brioche strewn among gooseberries, a smear of Greek yogurt and apple-rosemary sorbet, a sort of study in sweetness levels. Chocolate cremeux appears as two thick quenelles alongside cashews, chocolate shoestrings and pieces of butternut squash. And a long plank of espresso spongecake married nicely to a sabayon-like blood-orange sauce and honey-sweetened turnip ice cream.

One visit I ordered a sweetened frozen-cucumber dessert precisely because it sounded so unappealing, but sure enough, the dish, abetted by tiny dices of musk melon and lime granita, was lovely. Bittersweet chocolate soup with eggplant stracciatella (chocolate-chip gelato) is another odd-sounding flavor match that works exceedingly well.

Personable, sharply intelligent service makes dining here an absolute joy, even if the staffers' suits are nicer than mine.

Blackbird is open for lunch, which is good news, but even better, the restaurant features a $22, three-course option that is an outstanding value. Even the evening menu, wherein dinner for two before cocktails will run about $200 before tip, is considerably less expensive than the tariff at Chicago's other four-star destinations.

Yep, four stars. I said it.

Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.

Blackbird

619 W. Randolph St., 312-715-0708
CHICAGO

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