Chef Alex Capasso has unfurled his knife roll and signed the lease for a new space in Collingswood, New Jersey. The opening of Blackbird Dining Establishment is his first appearance as both chef and owner and marks his return to the kitchen after an almost two-year hiatus preceded by stints at nearby – and now defunct – Misto and Max’s. In addition to carrying on the French, Mediterranean, Italian and Asian influences of the cuisine at both of those venues, his menu at Blackbird is still showing the roots of his early days on the line at Brasserie Perrier. And his cooking is still nothing to sneeze at. Capasso’s seasonal menu is divided smartly into five simple sections – appetizers, salads, pasta, fish and meat – with a manageable three to five options in each category. Dish descriptions are informative yet succinct and the plates capture the spirit of the restaurant’s casual, eclectic mission without falling into hodgepodge or suffering from over or under-ambition.
The remaining elements of the Blackbird experience have some serious catching up to do before they’ll be in synch with the ambition of the kitchen. Problems start immediately upon entering the door. It’s the classic BYO vestibule crush: nowhere to stand, nowhere to sit and no room to move. In warmer weather, the issue could be alleviated with the addition of benches, though the narrow parking lot out front might not be a friendly environment for them. It will be an issue of greater concern as the temperature begins to drop. Reservations do seem to be honored promptly, as we were led to our seats immediately after successfully circumnavigating the waiting crowd.
The dining room, finished in cocoa and mustard earth tones, is split effectively into three parts, with seating areas to the left and right of the central entranceway and a small three-step-up split level area in the rear behind the hostess stand. Banquettes line the side walls, with tables and chairs packed into the central space to maximize the potential for covers. To the designer’s credit, the combination of two, four and six-top tables are arranged so as to avoid the sensation of crowding once seated. However, the narrow labyrinth of walking space that remains makes for some awkward, hip twisting work for the wait staff, who more than once executed overhead handoffs to get food from one part of the room to another.
The biggest environmental issue at Blackbird though, and a clear shortcoming on the designer’s part, is the noise level. Hardwood floors, untextured and unadorned walls, relatively low ceilings, and bare glass windows make for an absolutely cacophonous space. Radicchio had long held the title, at least in my experience, as the loudest restaurant in the Philadelphia area. It’s lost the belt to Blackbird. There were several points during the evening when I had to cup a hand to my ear in order to hear my dining companions from the other side of the table.
Thankfully, they do serve a side of food with the decibels at Blackbird. It’s the quality of that food which helps to make up for some of the establishment’s other shortcomings. This was day one for Blackbird's new Autumn menu; it presented us with some difficult decision making.
As promising as our starter courses were, it would prove to be a while before we’d see if the main courses would keep up the standard. Maybe it’s just the Saturday night phenomena or perhaps the inevitable side-effect of a good review in the paper. Or maybe the restaurant is still just working out some opening kinks. Whatever the reason, Blackbird’s service staff seemed unable to keep pace with the needs of their customers, while the kitchen struggled mightily with pacing and expediting. Forty-five minutes elapsed between the clearing of our appetizers and the arrival of mains. During that time, no bread was offered. We had to ask for our wine, which had been swept away after an initial pour, to be returned to the table. That luxury of lag time, though, didn’t stop our server from clearing a companion’s first course before others had finished and then lurking over the table waiting for last bites to be consumed. Think I’m being too tough? Or too detailed? I’m actually skipping over a number of other issues for the sake of brevity and fairness. Let’s just say a little service staff training and better communication with the kitchen could go a long way to improving the overall experience.
Once again, food, the one clear saving grace at Blackbird, came to the rescue.
|Butter Poached Maine Lobster, house made fettuccini, tomato compote|
This may have been the course of the night for its combination of simplicity, focus and well executed technique. Ordered as a half-portion, the dish consisted of a tender, toothsome split lobster tail fanned over a nest of handmade fettuccine finished generously with a bright, ever so slightly sweet, low-acid summer tomato compote. I could have made a meal of a full portion of this and left a happy camper.
|Pepper Crusted Saddle of Venison, butternut squash ravioli, Grand Veneur sauce|
I’m a sucker for game as the fall season starts to set in, so choosing Venison as my main course was a no-brainer. Seared and roasted to a perfect medium rare, the sliced saddle was perfectly tender and satisfying without any hint of the metallic edge that often mars venison. In lieu of a typical northern Italian fruit sauce, Chef Capasso opted for classic French influence in the form of a deeply flavorful Sauce Grand Veneur. Though the pepper crust had been applied to the venison with a bit too much zeal, its heating influence was smartly tamed by the sweet, lacey interior of two pillow-sized butternut squash ravioli.
The dessert menu, though hardly as far behind the overall ambitions of the kitchen as the service and pacing components at Blackbird, does have some catching up to do. Executive Pastry Chef Jill VanDuyne has put together an attractive but mostly predictable collection of homey, straightforward confections. I couldn’t pass up the one dish that stood out for its apparent whimsy and lack of convention.
In the end, the quality of food emanating from the kitchen at Blackbird Dining Establishment certainly merits a return visit. I would just give the Friday/Saturday crush a pass and wait awhile for the frenzy to die down from the positive review in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Chef Capasso has done a good job of marshalling his skills, creating a menu that is inspired without being aggressively creative or falling back on the mundane. It should be a good room, with a few renovations in place, in which to grow and evolve as the seasons change.
Blackbird Dining Establishment
619 Collings Avenue
Collingswood, NJ 08107