EAT HERE: Blackbird, Chicago
I first ate at Blackbird in the summer of 2012. Walking across West Randolph Street and stuffed from eating at Girl and Goat, I paused in front of Blackbird. I was struck by the mod, almost 60’s airport-style exterior and then realizing it was a restaurant. I think it’s likely I had come across online recommendations for the spot during my extensive “where to eat” research; seeing the place in person sealed the deal regarding if I would actually dine there. It looked too interesting to pass up and I mentally committed to coming back the next day.
My initial meal was had at the bar. I ordered several appetizers, one entree and of course dessert. I was served my first “temperance” cocktail, or non-alcoholic drink; it was herbal and lovely and a delightful surprise as a newly sober patron. As for the food, I don’t remember a whole lot of specifics — this was more than six years ago after all — but I do remember having my mind blown at the flavor combinations. The first appetizer made the biggest impression, something with fish and watermelon and tomato, and the dessert, something with popcorn and corn husk powder and other sorts of non-desserty flavors along with berries and maybe a crema of some sort? I had fantastic dishes and meals before then, but that was the first time I realized how boundary-pushing flavors could be more satisfying than those merely delicious. Also, the presentation was pretty amazing — everything laid out like an abstract painting come to life; asymmetric ingredient placements and scattered components just begging to be mixed. The experience was impactful enough that I deemed Blackbird my favorite restaurant — and not just in Chicago, my favorite restaurant ANYWHERE.
After making such an impression, it should be no surprise that every time that I visit Chicago, I make a point of eating at Blackbird. This loyalty has resulted in at least half a dozen wonderful meals but also some lessons; while everything I’ve ever eaten there has been delicious, I have come to prefer and recommend ordering a la carte over the tasting menu. Also, I find the appetizers to be more adventurous than the entrees. Basically I continue to follow my initial approach to ordering, minus the entree.
Since 2015 I have visited Chicago on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend as an annual tradition. During my first winter visit, I happened upon the For Frankie! dance party fundraiser at SmartBar and now I never miss it. The long holiday weekend and a built-in dance party plan create the perfect excuse to fly into the Windy City and indulge in a meal at my beloved Blackbird. However, rather than eat a full meal, this year I planned to attend for just dessert and maybe, probably an appetizer to start. You see, another detail of my tradition is exploring new restaurants each time. The Publican got the honor of being my “try” restaurant and since it was only a short walk away from Blackbird, it seemed the perfect choice. Also, this year my best friend was joining me on the trip— how could I not introduce her to my favorite restaurant?!
Another detail worth noting is that both The Publican and Blackbird are owned by the Paul Kahan restaurant group, One Off Hospitality, which I mention only because it wound up playing into this year’s experience. When the plates were cleared and the dessert menu brought out for review, I offhandedly remarked that we would be going to a second location for dessert; when he asked “Where?” and I answered “Blackbird,” he then took it upon himself to call ahead to let Blackbird know we were on our way. Upon arrival at Blackbird, we were greeted warmly by the hostess with “You must be our friends from The Publican!” and immediately showed my BFF and me to a pair of place settings waiting for us at the bar. Already hip to our plan to indulge in desserts rather than entrees, there was zero pressure to order anything more than exactly what we wanted. Of course, I came already interested [hellbent] on trying one of the appetizers in addition to my sweet course so I ordered more than just dessert. My bestie agreed to try a bite, more concerned than I about the gluttony we were embarking upon. Yes, I was already stuffed from The Publican but that’s beside the point. There new flavors to be tried! New dishes to be had! Plus vacations are made for indulgence don’t judge.
The bartender made some recommendations and answered my appetizer questions and then took our order. Shortly after, she offered to provide us with a complimentary “temperance” cocktail since she had already been informed by the other restaurant that both my companion and I were alcohol-averse. Of course we agreed. Seconds later we were served with another complimentary surprise, a warm and savory amuse bouche while our drinks were being prepared.
The appetizer we selected was brand new, offered for the first time that very day; described as “marinated mussels,” it was more like a fleshy fish than shellfish but still delicious. It had a milky base and included yuzu, serrano peppers, coriander oil and some sort of celery foam. It was a perfect small dish and light enough not to overwhelm our already full bellies. Also it happened to pair perfectly with our fancy beverage: a freshly prepared ginger-limeade.
Our desserts were intense. I went for a dark chocolate cremeux with black garlic vanilla ice cream, peanuts and lime; my BFF selected a chestnut cheesecake dish, prepared almost like a Klondike bar and paired with a smoky ice cream and smear of caramel creme. As we dove in, the bartender appeared with another complimentary item, a scoop of tea melange-flavored ice cream, made in house along with all of the other culinary delights. It was buttery and complex and amazing in its simplicity. Honestly, given how surprisingly heavy the dessert dishes were, I think my dining approach next year will involve the smallest cheese plate and a scoop of one of the daily ice creams. It was so good that my dining partner had to stop repeatedly because she was having “an emotional response” to the flavors.
As we drank our large French press of coffee and attempted to finish every last bit, we finally admitted defeat, a few bites left behind [but all of the ice cream fully eaten]. The bartender cleared our plates and then reappeared shortly after with yet another complimentary dish, a plate of petite cookie bars: one Nutter Butter-esque and the other, some sort of chocolate coconut deal. Though extremely tiny, they were the straws that broke our backs, and even I, master ingester, had to leave a portion of the second cookie on the plate.
While the food and service at Blackbird never disappoint, the experience of this past meal was so far beyond expectation that I may never visit another restaurant in Chicago ever again. My loyalty felt valued and appreciated, an unfortunate rarity for any industry. The meal was noteworthy — this restaurant is noteworthy — because a humble and small order was treated not as a frugal finish to a bigger meal eaten elsewhere, but instead as a gesture of longtime affection and devotion; a gesture met with a respectful attention I can’t imagine at any other restaurant.
And to be absolutely clear, my adoration and recommendation are not tied to being given some free stuff; the complimentary savory bite and sweet finishes are pretty standard for restaurants of this caliber. Instead, my love for this establishment is the result of equal parts quality, innovation, taste and service; the gratis goodies enjoyed on my last visit were merely the cherry on top.
Even after all these years I am still absolutely enamored with Blackbird. You should really eat there…