Wednesday, January 6, 2010

First Class Flight: Paul Kahan’s Blackbird

It’s difficult to believe that maverick chef Paul Kahan’s cherished Blackbird is now a full nine-years-old. I clearly recall the months after its opening, the buzz about its flavorful, inspired cuisine and the refined, minimalist dining salon. The restaurant became a destination for foodies from across the country, receiving accolades from scores of food and travel magazines and organizations.

To get a jump on the restaurant’s tenth birthday, I checked in on the West Loop institution to see if its food had changed as little as the sophisticated décor which catches my eye each time I pass by.

To start our evening, my friends and I visited neighboring Avec, the über popular wine bar cum restaurant that vaguely resembles a sauna and is co-owned by Kahan. Enjoying a variety of rosés and devouring a stellar bruschetta of arugula, cheese and pesto, we then walked thirty feet to the west, finding ourselves in the soft white, hallowed dining room of Blackbird.

Once upon a time, appetizers were designed to tease the palette, to clear the path for subsequent courses featuring entrées which were considered the meal’s coup de grâce. Appetizers today could easily stand on their own, particularly those offered at Blackbird. The charcuterie plate ($13), featuring game bird terrine, a smoked guanciale sausage so tasty it could make a meat-loving diner cry, and pear mostarda, provoked feeding frenzy-like behavior. We also savored the crispy veal sweetbreads which were delectable, if rich ($13). Kahan’s menus are seasonal, and therefore appetizers change constantly, though a mussel soup with white fish, saffron and garlic is a standard, as well as unconventional, but flavorful salads and suckling pig.

When I spoke with Kahan a few days after my meal, he exclaimed that he “loves pork”, and his fondness for the meat is reflected in the menu. While vegetarians might receive short shrift, meat-lovers can find a promise of fulfillment in the extensive starter and entrée menus (there’s even a dessert item garnished with a crispy piece of bacon.) Albeit cholesterol-laden, the classic pork belly, prepared with sweet corn beignets, chanterelles, celery root and maple Dijon vinaigrette, possess as much satisfying, well-rounded flavor as a $30 dish should.

While the fried leg of rabbit I had came on the heels of the aforementioned tasty appetizers, I found myself up to the task of polishing off the dish, particularly slices of slow-roasted loin which were tender and succulent. Accompanied by a corn panisse, tangy fresh huckleberries, and baby cabbage, the dish is a knockout.

For those with a hankering for redder meats, viable options exist, notably a well-executed venison dish. Featuring locally-sourced loin, spot-on venison slices were seared to tender perfection, nearly melting in my mouth. Thoughtfully partnered with pickled plums, mushrooms and caramelized shallots, the dish paired wonderfully with a 2003 Beckman Santa Ynez Valley Estate Syrah ($48). Meat lovers can also savor veal tenderloin with veal sausage and lamb t-bones with crispy sweetbreads ($36 each).

Kahan also offers crispy Idaho rainbow trout ($29) and California sturgeon ($32), as well as Girmaud Farms guinea hen with garlic, lemon and cipolini ($29). We had one dish, however, that failed to impress. The Alaskan halibut, prepared with tomatoes, banana peppers, beans and pinenut agridoux, was on the bland side. But after talking to Kahan, I learned the dish is targeted for adjustment, and given his tendency to mix up the menu as seasonal offerings come and go, the dish is likely to have already been transformed by the time you’re reading this.

Given Kahan’s professed fondness for pork, vegetarians might wonder if there’s anything for them. While selections are limited, vegetable and potato turnovers with saffron-tomato yogurt, kohlrabi, cherry tomatoes, arugula and sweet corn and basil, are hardly run of the mill, along with a few seafood dishes and meat-less appetizers.

Desserts by Tara Lane, while not quite as exciting as entrées, deliver equal amounts of flavor, being well worth the $10 charged for each. The decadent, cream-laden pot de crème, the thickest, richest version I’ve ever drained into my maw, nearly got the best of me. In the end, I couldn’t finish the generously-sized, creamy concoction, but awoke the next morning wishing I had the remaining half.

Other standouts include an apple cake and fritters with saba and candied pine nut ice cream and an inspired milk chocolate semifreddo with sweet waffles, the aforementioned slice of bacon, and an über-tasty ball of hazelnut butter which must be savored to be believed.

For those not hip to the current goings-on in the world of cheese, American artisanal cheeses have been receiving honors at competitions. Kahan carries some tasty selections, including perhaps the creamiest, purest-tasting goat’s milk cheese I’ve ever savored—a semi-soft from Pairie Fruit Farm in downstate Champaign. Other artisanal selections include a cow’s milk, a raw goat’s milk from Vermont, and an organic raw goat’s milk from Wisconsin. One selection runs $6, while a tasty sample of five can be had for $14.

Recognized for its fine selection of wines, Blackbird boasts a sizable offering of French wines, with a smaller but significant collection from the West Coast. Ranging in price from around $30 to nearly $500, the restaurant also carries reasonably priced bottles such as an ’02 Westerly Vineyards Santa Ynez Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($41) or a jammy Renwood Amador County Zinfandel ($34). True to its French underpinnings, the restaurant offers an extensive selection of armagnacs and cognacs, ranging in price from $8 to $25 for a snifter of Martell XO Supreme.

Rounding out the apertif/digestif menu are ports, a few grappas, brandies, calvados, sherry, Madeira, and dessert wines, including a splurge-worthy ’83 Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes that runs $425 for a 375 milliliter bottle. (For a somewhat more budget-conscious celebration, there’s the ’97 Chateau Guiraud 1er Cru Sauternes for $115.)

Approaching its tenth year, Blackbird continues to dazzle with expertly-matched and inspired sauces, ingredients, entrées, spices and flavors. His menu and cooking style rooted in classic French cooking, Kahan provides sometimes whimsical and nearly always inspired takes on classic dishes, while creating some new ones.

One of the Midwest’s leaders when it comes to sourcing ingredients locally, Kahan has created a nightmare for his bookkeeper who subsequently has to track accounts for over 200 purveyors, most local. The result is ultra-fresh ingredients, unique and artisanal cheeses, meats and produce, most sourced within a hundred miles or so of the city.

Finding fault with Kahan’s proferrings and the entire Blackbird experience offers a bit of a challenge. While some complain that the restaurant is somewhat parsimonious with the portions it doles out, I subscribe to the philosophy that satisfaction and satiation stem from high quality ingredients and winning flavors—not from quantity. And for these reasons, I find Blackbird to be everything a fine restaurant ought to be.


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