Carla Meyer

Dining review: Blackbird usually excellent, sometimes amiss

The problem with reviewing Blackbird Kitchen + Bar is that it's a wonderful restaurant, a pretty good restaurant and a muddled and middling restaurant. It all depends when you go, how you order, who is overseeing the kitchen and who is waiting on your table.

People get hired. Others get fired. Stars emerge. Dreams converge. Ideas come to fruition. Things fall apart. Art. Craft. Chaos.

It's all here, sometimes all at once or doled out in nibbles at various times and on random days.

Blackbird could someday materialize as one of Sacramento's most inventive, dynamic and entertaining dining experiences.

The vision is there. So is the talent.

But months after opening in a smart and sophisticated loftlike space downtown, Blackbird and its seafood-centric cuisine are still working out the wrinkles, putting the right people in the proper posts, getting a handle on bouts with inconsistency and, best of all, still aspiring to greatness.

The greatness is there, to be sure, including a whole roasted trout that was both crispy and tender, peppered with subtle seasonings and paired with steamed clams, pesto and cool-looking, elongated little things called sea beans; a simple yet bold salad with Maine lobster, burrata and beautiful, extra-large wedges of heirloom tomatoes; a perfectly cooked and stylishly presented striped bass with the skin intact (crispy and full of flavor); a fantastic pork belly dish with peaches and prawns (with the heads intact); blackened catfish that awakened the palate with all the right spicy flavor notes; a rich, smoky clam chowder; and best of all, a daring and rather amazing $13 chilled corn soup with cherry tomatoes and tender crab meat garnished with, yes, a scoop of housemade avocado gelato.

The flavors, the mouth feel, the appearance and the overall eating experience of that one soup were enough for me to conclude that the kitchen is on to something special.

Speaking later by phone with Blackbird's owner, Carina Lampkin, confirmed as much. She's creative, offbeat, demanding, quirky, odd, eccentric, outspoken, brash, has the vocabulary of a poet and a pirate, and, oh, she's a Buddhist to boot.

Serenity now? Let's try for sometimes.

The often-superb food at Blackbird is the work of a kitchen led by Lampkin and a 23-year-old chef de cuisine and Thomas Keller-in-the-making named Kevin O'Connor. Foodies might recognize O'Connor as the underground dining impresario who hosted random, high-end dinners under the nom de plume "Tree House."

The two cooks make a great team. Lampkin specializes in crudo, or raw seafood dishes, while O'Connor continues to elevate his game with a variety of seafood and meat dishes that marry classical technique with contemporary inventiveness.

Lampkin said the two go their separate ways each night and dream about food in their own way, returning to the restaurant to share their visions – and make them come alive.

I'm told the fabulous pork belly dish, soon to come off the menu as peaches go out of season, was O'Connor's idea. It's cured and braised and then crisped up in the pan, topped with these plump prawns and garnished with purslane.

The flavors of the dish worked so well paired with a French-Canadian craft beer, Unibroue's Blanche de Chambly, which has notes of coriander and orange peel.

The only significant disappointment on the menu was the fried chicken – it was bland and dry and a rather serious misstep the first time we had it. But we ordered it again another time and it was much better – full of flavor, succulent inside, crisp on the outside.

At one point during our chat, I asked Lampkin her age. Her reply: "Thirty-one-derful."

She's young, but she has seen and done plenty. She survived (barely) a head-on car crash that claimed a close friend. Two broken hips, broken legs, a lacerated liver, collapsed lungs. It was all part of the equation. So was a $500,000 settlement.

The long road to recovery included plenty of partying and, eventually, a bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles, during which she came up with the idea for Blackbird. She poured her settlement into her new dream and made it happen.

Lampkin has plenty of cooking chops, honed at some top Bay Area restaurants. The arctic char crudo shows how she marries flavor, colors and textures with a mix of precision, artistry and playfulness. Pieces of this rich (and raw) fish are lined up on the plate with vichyssoise, each topped with a potato chip and teaspoonful of cured roe. Much simpler were the poached prawns served on crushed ice. Here, the emphasis is on freshness, quality, restraint.

For those not primed for a full dinner, a seat at the nicely appointed raw bar is a good option. Indeed, Blackbird has established itself by showcasing high-quality crudo.

A seat at the bar is also a worthy way to visit. The variety of cocktails mirror the cuisine in their inventiveness and skillful handling. The wine list is compact but wide-ranging, with an emphasis on whites and reds from Germany, Spain and France, and not so much on California.

As I reflect upon our several visits, I'm surprised by just how many superb dishes we had. Surprised, perhaps, because our experience was occasionally slowed down – or even thrown off track – by lack-luster service. At one point I wondered why our clearly inexperienced server hadn't started at a restaurant more commensurate with her skill set – such as Carl's Jr.

That all changed when server Chloe Henry handled our table – not once, but twice. Showing the kind of poise, charisma, attention to detail and knowledge that we encounter at the very best restaurants, this server helped us see just how good Blackbird can be when the front of the house matches the talent and determination in the kitchen.

Blackbird isn't a great restaurant yet. There are still those chaotic, clunky moments in our recent memory to contend with. But with its sophisticated approach to food, potentially first-rate service and its quirky and creative leadership, Blackbird seems on track to be something truly special.

Blackbird Kitchen + Bar

1015 Ninth St., Sacramento

(916) 498-9224

Hours: 4-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 4-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Beverage options: Full bar

Vegetarian friendly? Limited

Takeout? Yes

Noise level: Moderate

Overall: Three stars (out of four)

Since its early days of occasional chaos and random calamity, this new restaurant has taken steps to establish itself as a destination for sophisticated and creative cooking in a calm, cool and collected atmosphere downtown. The potential is there – and the expectations are mounting – for Blackbird to climb into the top tier of area restaurants.

Food: Three 1/2 stars

Even though it flubbed the fried chicken once (but not twice), here's a kitchen with plenty of talent, ambition, humility, artistry and dedication to the craft of cooking. Recommended dishes include the whole roasted trout with steamed clams, and the striped bass with smoked eggplant and sweet peppers. Don't overlook the excellent pork belly with peaches and prawns, or the amazing chilled corn soup. There are many raw-bar options, too, including a delicious arctic char topped with potato chips and roe. Creative cocktails, a selection of craft beers and a small wine list with affordable, mostly European options.

Service: Three stars

We'll have to average this category out, as we received subpar, good and excellent service. A restaurant with this caliber of food is obligated to be more discerning when it comes to hiring servers. The best server here showed how good Blackbird can be when everything is in sync.

Ambience: Three stars

The building, with seating available on two levels, has clean, modern lines, a pleasing flow, a muted palate of gray and black, and an overall design scheme that stands out from the crowd. Tables were made from a redwood that came down in Tahoe Park.

Value : Three stars

If you appreciate quality ingredients and fine preparations, you won't gasp at a $13 chilled corn soup. Entrees range from $16 to $24. Four kinds of oysters are $3-$3.50. Drinks aren't cheap, but they are top-shelf.