Blackbird 2.0, six months removed from a mini scandal after it shut down suddenly and then broke the news to unsuspecting employees via email, has three new business partners, a new craft beer emphasis, a more tightly focused menu and a revamped floor plan that adds seating to the main level of this very attractive restaurant and bar.
But make no mistake about it – it’s still the Carina Lampkin show. She’s fiery, talented and occasionally tormented. Sometimes she thinks out loud, and her candor can be both endearing and alarming. What’s more, this chef is not exactly worried about what you think of her.
When I sent her a text message recently asking to speak with her in advance of this review, she explained she was slow replying because she was “taking a creative break” from her iPhone. That’s an interesting answer for a person ostensibly juggling all kinds of details with a new restaurant.
She also told me she is planning a three-week trip to Spain in May, even though the second coming of her restaurant is still rounding into shape after being open for six weeks or so. Many restaurateurs might consider the timing of such a trip extraordinary.
When asked about that, Lampkin responded without hesitation: “Just don’t care.”
Clearly, though, she cares about entertaining people with her food, which often has an edge, making it stand apart from typical “New American” fare we see so often. Her twists on classics are her twists.
While it’s difficult to admire how the demise of Blackbird went down, Lampkin said she has picked herself up and learned key lessons, bringing a new-found business acumen to her admirable artistic sensibilities and classic culinary training.
The new restaurant, renamed slightly as Blackbird Kitchen + Beer Gallery, has a chance to become something special with a kind of staying power the charming but shaky original never really enjoyed.
The original restaurant, which opened in April 2012 and closed in late September, made a significant splash during its short-lived run. The food was serious and sophisticated, with the kitchen occasionally employing modernist techniques and often succeeding by being new and exciting and different. But the Blackbird experience could also be hit or miss.
This time around, Lampkin is using her previous experience to connect better with customers. And the new partners – Demetri Gregorakis, Ronald McGlumphy and Anthony Priley – appear to be bringing balanced leadership to the new venture.
Though the downtown space has been overhauled and repositioned, it may be hard for occasional visitors to notice the difference. A closer look at the concept will show that the customer experience is now more versatile. A craft beer or cocktail and a snack. Maybe a sampling of beer styles and some small plates. A full-blown dinner with cocktails or wine. It’s all possible now.
The new version’s food, at its best, shows admirable amounts of creativity and finesse. Even dishes that need more work, such as the steak dinner (on the tough side) or the pasta (a bit goopy), are relatively minor misses that could be resolved by taking a look at execution and consistency.
In the past, I have raved about Blackbird’s chowder, a deeply satisfying and complex array of rich, creamy broth with four kinds of seafood, potatoes and bacon. There is a distinct sweetness in this new version and, after tasting it on two separate occasions, I found it lacked the underlying smoky note of the original. It’s a minor quibble.
Lampkin continues to embrace seafood as the focal point of her repertoire. Her full seafood entrees are rather compact, bordering on small plates or tapas. The salmon, for instance, was nicely cooked with the skin left on and pan-seared with skill. The flavor and texture were very good.
The seafood highlight is a new raw salmon toro dish that showcases precise plating skills with plenty of citrusy, herbaceous notes on the palate.
Surprisingly, perhaps, for a seafood-centric chef, is the fried chicken dish, which might be the best in town. The Mary’s organic chicken is brined, then fried to an eye-catching deep reddish brown. This kind of assertive frying creates a crisp crust on a bird that eats wonderfully, full of flavor and appropriately juicy. A half chicken cut into four meaty piece and served with a small arugula salad, the dish may have been lacking one element, such as a vegetable for balance. Still, at $16, it’s a winner and goes nicely with an assortment of craft beers.
Yes, Blackbird is smart to focus on craft beer this time, as it’s the hot thing going. Her style of cooking has the potential to inspire all kinds of compelling beer pairings.
There’s just one problem, however. It may be hard to find people on staff who know much about beer. When we told our friendly server, for instance, that we were looking for a West Coast-style IPA, she replied, “You’ll find that most of our beers are from the West Coast.” That’s a funny answer to a softball question – but she wasn’t trying to be amusing. West Coast style is perhaps the most distinctive and significant style of IPA going. Servers need to grasp the lingo and communicate that they understand craft beer.
Coming up with an impressive beer list, including 50 beers on tap, is one thing. But actually embracing the concept, being able to talk about the various styles and help customers wade through all kinds of names strange and familiar, takes a good deal of commitment. Blackbird isn’t there yet and it could suffer a credibility problem if that’s not addressed.
Nevertheless, the list itself is very good, divided into most of the key styles, from IPAs to sours. Many beers are available in three sizes. One element lacking is the percentage of alcohol listed with each beer. That’s pretty standard these days at the best pubs, for you need to know whether you’re about to drink something that’s 4 percent ABV or 14 percent ABV. Knowing the alcohol by volume could mean the difference between a pleasant drinking experience and one that ends with a serious hangover – or worse.
Another shortcoming is the lack of local breweries on the list. Lampkin said Blackbird plans to address that in the weeks ahead by meeting area brewers and showcasing their beer. Local breweries need to do their part by ensuring a consistent delivery of their product. That’s an issue with many small breweries.
Lampkin’s menu is not nearly as sweeping as it was in the original restaurant. But given the new emphasis on versatility, that’s not necessarily bad, and it’s clear she’s reining in food costs. There is now a bar menu that offers snacks and small plates, the kind of food that allows customers to experience a range of flavors. Gone are the acclaimed $1 oysters. Turns out, this loss leader didn’t get people to spend as much money on booze as anticipated. Oysters are now six for $18.
The hamburger, made with organic grass-fed beef, was superb, with house-cured bacon and something called “awesome sauce” that kicked up the flavor profile significantly. But Lampkin may be a few “speedbumps in flavor town” away from making Blackbird a touch too Guy Fieri, if you catch my drifteroo. Be that as it may, the sauce is, ahem, straight-up money.
The vegan risotto burger, while a tad dry and maybe not so aesthetically pleasing – it looked like a baked-out hippy loaf – was surprisingly tasty with appealing texture. The fish tacos were also very good, with a chipotle cream and pickled cabbage pico de gallo working nicely with the pleasing crunchiness of the beer-battered fish.
Our least favorite dish was the bavette steak dinner. This flavorful cut of steak, also known as the bistro cut, can be a challenge to get right. This one, cooked medium rare, was slightly tough and chewy, though the taste was pleasant.
For a restaurant on the comeback trail, Blackbird is headed in the right direction. In the past, I have questioned whether Lampkin, ever the artist, can give the kitchen the kind of commitment and focus it needs in the months ahead.
For now, it’s a work in progress for Lampkin, who brings something different to the local restaurant scene. Her food has its own style. She has a passion to make Blackbird 2.0 flourish. Once this restaurant settles in, it could be poised to truly distinguish itself this time.
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.