Food & Drink » Restaurant Reviews

Blackbird still flying high

After 14 years, and with a new chef, Paul Kahan's restaurant soars

by

comment

A head chef change at Blackbird is news—it's happened only once before in the restaurant's 14-year history. But when David Posey took over Mike Sheerin's post as chef de cuisine last fall, no foodie alarms sounded, no media blitz ensued. Posey, a protege of Grant Achatz, has been cooking at Blackbird since 2007, first as a line cook, then for the year prior to his promotion as Sheerin's sous chef. The nearly imperceptible transition showcases the strength of the restaurant, whose success is predicated not on individual egos but a team of talented chefs and service professionals working together to execute the once-vanguard vision of co-owners Paul Kahan, Donnie Madia, and Eduard Seitan.

Today the principles seems obvious if not ubiquitous, but when Blackbird opened in 1997, few restaurants were preparing seasonal farm-to-table menus. To put things in perspective, some of the other big restaurant openings that year were Meritage and Narcisse, both long gone. But all these years later, dinner at Blackbird still seems fresh, and is more or less a master class in balancing luxury and comfort.

Though the menu changes often, it has some consistent features—like interesting produce paired with meats beyond pig, cow, chicken. Among the current lineup are dishes like a composed plate of milk-poached salsify perched under lobes of roasted lamb saddle, sheets of pickled sunchokes draped over crispy suckling pig, and nutty fried broccoli and pickled mulberries served with duck-fat-poached elk loin.

And then some dishes don't change at all. The saffron-scented seafood soup has been on the menu since day one and is just right, especially when it's brimming with juicy Blue Hill Bay mussels. Another classic, the endive salad with pancetta and poached egg served in a crispy potato nest, is still crushed tableside—in a crowded dining room, the effect approaches parody when several nests are being smashed to bits at once.

Another constant is the four-star service, which is at the same time attentive and invisible. Hallmarks of high-end dining punctuate the meal, beginning with an amuse bouche (lamb tartare on grilled white asparagus with capers and raisins) and a good two hours later ending with petits fours (green tea chocolates) and a bill that while significant seems a good value. Informed wine consultations and a proper bread service add to the overall experience, but cocktails are inconsistent: the Conquistador, made with house-infused cherry brandy, was balanced and bright but on another night there was an iceberg floating in my glass of what became a sad, neutered manhattan.

If there's a whiff of change to note, it seems like there are more eastern European touches—pumpernickel, sauerkraut, malt, and the fresh cheese quark—where there were once primarily nods to Spain, Italy, and France. Veal sweetbreads, for instance, that previously might have been sauced with a gribiche are now accented with black caraway seeds, rutabaga, and Granny Smith apples.

With Posey's work at Alinea, it seems inevitable that new technology would find its way into the kitchen, and sure enough, futuristic touches like a pile of sauerkraut powder give an exciting edge to the otherwise safe choice of a seared scallop. Still, on occasion dishes seem to stretch too far from the formula. A plate of sepia noodles tossed in a green onion, pepita, and avocado sauce was a half nod to both a Mexican green mole and a simple pesto pasta, but the presentation—a green-gray tangle of pleasantly chewy "noodles"—seemed sloppy and ill conceived in comparison to most others.

Patrick Fahy's dessert menu stands on its own. The sweet composed plates mirror the savory menu in scope and complexity but afford a special kind of surprise when what sounds a bit dubious on the menu—almond tapioca with basil, espresso, passion fruit, and apricot-pit sherbet—turns out to be one of the best bites of the night.

Fahy's a 2011 James Beard award nominee for outstanding pastry chef, Kahan for outstanding chef—both deservedly so. Kahan may have branched out with Avec, Big Star, and the Publican, with a butcher shop on the way, but his original's going strong.   

[Editor's note: Bryce Caron, formerly of Custom House, replaced Patrick Fahy as pastry chef in 2011, then was let go in 2012.]

Add a comment