In a city like Chicago, restaurants close down, open up, change concepts or otherwise reinvent themselves more often than the Windy City weather changes its mind. Yet among those constantly changing restaurants whose moods morph from French to ramen to Italian, there are a few strong-standing staples that hardly change at all.
Blackbird is one of those longstanding restaurants. The 66-seat spot in the West Loop has been exciting diners for an astonishing 18 years. That’s practically infinity in restaurant years! While Blackbird has been around for awhile, they haven’t exactly gone stale serving the same food all this time.
Blackbird reinvents itself through changes in the kitchen, most recently bringing in midwestern native Ryan Pfeiffer as the Chef de Cuisine in December 2015 to join Executive Chef Paul Kahan. (Former Chef de Cuisine Perry Hendrix moved next door to Blackbird’s sister restaurant, Avec.)
Chef Pfeiffer’s first change to Blackbird was introducing an evolving 10-course tasting menu with dishes completely unique from the a la carte menu. The $115/person tasting (with optional $60 wine pairing) changes monthly to reflect seasonal ingredients (the price varies slightly, too).
I’ve been intrigued by Blackbird ever since a late-night dinner at its sister restaurant Avec that hasn’t left my mind in 5 years. But as you can imagine, reservations at the Michelin-rated, James Beard Award-winning restaurant aren’t exactly easy to come by, so after patiently waiting for reservations made months in advance, it was finally time to try it out.
The 10-Course Spring Tasting Menu at Blackbird
The cuisine is described as “elegant and imaginative Midwestern cuisine” and the spring tasting menu at Blackbird was bright and fresh with familiar flavors enhanced with exciting surprises.
Like many tasting menus, the menu was a list of vague descriptions that were nothing like we originally pictured once the dishes arrived in front of us. That’s one of the many things I love about tasting menus: the way the chefs’ creativity always keeps me guessing. The courses are named here as they are on the menu at Blackbird, vagueness and all, to portray some of that same creativity.
1. white asparagus. tomatillo. white chocolate.
The tasting menuat Blackbird skipped an amouse bouche, to my disappointment, and went straight for a light dish described on the menu as “white asparagus. tomatillo. white chocolate.” It tasted of spring, with savoriness from the white chocolate, and was paired with a sparkling celery juice that in itself was refreshingly bright. I quickly forgot about the lack of amouse bouche.
2. nasturtiums. spring onion. caramelized cream.
The spring onions were disguised as a crispy tater tot surrounded by spring greens, nasturtium flowers and a semi-sweet cream.
3. ramp brownie. foie gras ice cream…
The ramp brownie was an instant favorite. I loved the density of the ramp square and the rich coolness of the foie gras ice cream. I could have eaten 10 more of these!
… and smoked strawberry. almond. green garlic.
Strawberries are not my thing, but these lacked the harsh texture that most strawberries have (in my opinion) and the tartness was balanced with savory flavors of almond and earthy flavors of garlic. They were served with the ramp brownies, providing an interesting contrast to the first half of the dish.
4. tamagoyaki. artichoke. spring onion. dried duck.
I’ve never experienced tamagoyaki outside of a sushi restaurant, nor have I ever tasted the slightly custardy omelette served with so many complex flavors. The flakes of dried duck were surprisingly strong and everything worked well together to create one of the most exciting and creative dishes of the night.
5. green garbanzo. asparagus. sesame.
This vegetable porridge had an Asian aura to me, possibly because of the heavy sesame flavor or maybe I had Japanese food on my mind after the tamagoyaki dish. Either way, I loved the combination of textures and the cute flowers.
6. potato. seaweed. lamb.
Then we began venturing into heavier dishes with a bite of lamb tartare wrapped in a crunchy shell. Blackbird describes it on their instagram as “the amazing texture of a cannoli with the savory deliciousness of the lamb.” I never would have made the cannoli connection, but it’s a perfect description.
7. ahi. smoked pork. fava. meyer lemon.
Refreshing with bright bites of ahi tuna mixed with crunchy bacon and sparks of lemon, this was a perfect example of a spring dish. Also, I love that so many dishes included edible flowers.
8. lamb chop. snap pea. upland cress. tonnato.
The main dish of the tasting menu was the lamb chop, cooked perfectly, served with a rich tonnato sauce in spring greens. Amazing.
9. coconut. rhubarb. lime.
The ninth course was tart, refreshing and instantly signaled that dessert was on its way.
10. mate. mint. green almond. fernet. ricotta.
The final dish of the spring tasting menu at Blackbird was the definition of spring. The light dessert combined refreshing flavors like green almond and mate tea with mint and ricotta. It was a beautiful — and delicious — end to a wonderful meal.
Go to Blackbird for :: a creative and well-executed meal. Notes :: Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 – 2pm; dinner Sunday-Thursday 5pm – 10pm and Friday-Saturday 5pm – 11 pm. Reservations are available online and recommended in advance. Also check out Blackbird’s instagram for beautiful food porn.