Monday, October 8, 2007

Blackbird Dining Establishment

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.

Crispy Veal Sweet Breads, olive fregola sarda, natural veal jus
Four tender, well-seasoned medallions of sweetbreads, pan sautéed and set atop a bed of fregola sarda spiked with briny little slivers of olives. Veal jus, rich and silky, made for a fine finishing touch while a spray of raw baby beet greens brought a bitter, earthy accent to play. A little extra outer crispiness to offset the marrowy richness of the sweetbreads would have been welcome but this appetizer course was nonetheless quite satisfying.
Arborio Rice & Coriander Crusted Gulf Shrimp, avocado salad, cilantro oil
This seemed a bit misplaced in the Salads section of the menu, as three meaty, grilled shrimp clearly took center stage. Interplay between the coriander dusting on the shrimp and the cilantro oil on the plate gave a spicy little kick, balanced by the creamy, cooling textures provided by a bed of avocado salad which in turn had enough acid balance to keep it from weighing down the plate.

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.

American Eclectic: whoopie pie, root beer float, cracker jacks
In a culinary world peppered with molecular gastronomy and clever wordplay on menus, I half expected something edgy, or at least tongue in cheek, when I ordered American Eclectic. Nope. It’s a trio of little confections which delivers exactly what it promises: a reminiscence of bygone days spent indulging in treats at the local soda fountain. The star performance of the group was clearly provided by the chocolaty goodness and precious appearance of the whoopie; the other elements brought eye appeal to the plate but were otherwise less than memorable.
Lemon Ying Yang Tart: lemon curd, whipped cream, passion fruit sorbet, raspberry sorbet, pistachio brittle
If not for Ms. VanDuyne’s name at the bottom of the pastry menu, I would have assumed based on a dish like this that the desserts at Blackbird were ordered in from a stock bakery service. Her lemon tart was perfectly tasty but presented little if anything that showed the creativity that an in-house pastry chef should bring to play. One exception: the pistachio brittle, more firm and snappy than hard and shattery, was good enough to be packaged to go.

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
Blackbird Dining Establishment in Collingswood


Anonymous said...

Mr. McDuff,
I happened to be dining at Blackbird the same night you were, and asked the hostess on my way out who the guy was taking all the pictures...they gave me your blog address and I have to say I am in complete disagreement with many of the issues you posted. We were in the same section of the dining room as you, and we had nothing short of a wonderful experience. Yes, there was some volume, but that is what one would expect when visiting a busy restaurant on a Saturday night. That is the sound of people enjoying themselves and their company. You complained that people were waiting in the vestibule, but then stated that you did not have to wait for your table and were seated immediately. You complained about the dessert menu but stated that you enjoyed the desserts you chose. Didn't you find it pleasantly surprising that a small restaurant in a small South Jersey town has its own pastry chef? As far as your wine being "whisked away," I believe our wine was nestled right next to yours -- in the ice bucket adjacent to the tables keeping nicely chilled as it should have been. If you wanted your wine left on the table at room temperature or you wanted more bread maybe you should have asked for it. We had the same server and she was more than accommodating. I did agree with your comments on the food -- it was excellent and well worth any wait, which can be expected when you are enjoying food of this quality and you've made your reservation in the middle of a Saturday night. I applaud the restaurant for being so creative with converting a building that was not built to be a restaurant, and maximizing their space so well. We are thrilled that Blackbird is right here in Collingswood, is off the beaten trail, is not stuffy and pretentious, has free parking, and offers such excellence in cuisine AND service. If you want fast and quiet, try McDonald's drive-through. It is negative, nit-picky "reviews" like yours that drive business away from wonderful establishments like this and then everyone wonders why they end up closing. Kudos to Chef Capasso and his staff -- keep up the good work.

David McDuff said...

Dear Anonymous,
One of the wonderful things about public expression of opinion in a forum like this is that eveyone is welcome to agree, disagree or take their own slant on things. My intention when writing restaurant reports like this one is not to be "negative" or "nit-picky." Rather, it is to present a considered and educated response to an overall dining experience. My hope is that it will be seen not just by casual readers and clients of the restaurant but also by the staff of the restaurant itself. The real concerns I've pointed out are issues that can easily be addressed by a restaurant that cares about its complete end product. The food being turned out by Chef Capasso's kitchen, as I tried to illustrate, clearly shows such a commitment. And an impassioned response from an already loyal customer such as yourself clearly speaks volumes of the positive impact the restaurant has already made.

To address a couple of your concerns:
- I do expect any popular restaurant to be engergetic and a little loud, particularly on Saturday night. There is a difference, though, between festive and LOUD.
- When a restaurant's service staff removes wine from their customers' table, they are essentially signing a contract which makes them responsible for every asect of wine service, from stemware to serving temperature to keeping glasses topped up. This is an extremely ambitious practice, usually taken on only at very formal, high-level restaurants. In the current scenario at Blackbird, it would actually be much better service to provide ice buckets or cooling sleeves if appropriate and to leave the wine on the table.

Thank you for stopping by and for sharing your thoughts.

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