Blackbird and Le Bouchon
- Tom Armitage
During my recent stay in Chicago, I made a return visit to Blackbird and ate for the first time at Le Bouchon. Although I enjoyed my meals at both places, the two restaurants could not be more different.
Blackbird is located in a narrow room with minimalist décor: white walls, mohair banquettes, and aluminum chairs. The tables are only a few inches apart, and the acoustics, fueled by the noise from the small, crowded bar across a narrow walkway from the tables and the muffled bass thump from some nondescript new wave music, create a deafening noise level. The reviews of Blackbird have uniformly heaped enthusiastic praise on Blackbird and its chef, Paul Kahan. (In a previous post, I mistakenly named Rick Diarmit, one of the owners, as the chef. Sorry, Paul.) Food & Wine Magazine named Paul Kahan as one of America's best new chefs in 1999 and Blackbird as Chicago's favorite restaurant. When you're hot, you're hot! In short, Blackbird has become the chic "in place" to drink, eat, and be seen. This assures a full-to-overflowing restaurant, although not my atmosphere of choice. The noise level, in particular, drove my wife crazy. The food, however, is still very, very good. Last year, I raved about the cured foie gras with caramelized quince puree, brioche, watercress, and aged balsamic. This time around, the proportion of quince puree had increased--more of a spoonful than a "smear"--and I found it to be a little too dominant and out of balance. A quibble, perhaps, on a well-conceived dish. The mussel soup with saffron, garlic and basil was divine--no fault to be found here. Likewise with a seared Maine diver scallop with leeks, salsify, fennel chip and sea urchin butter. For entrees, my wife ordered the glazed beef short rib with red cabbage and butternut squash puree. It was a pretty straightforward dish, and we both agreed that it suffered by comparison to the short ribs with polenta we had at Chez Panisse Café in Berkeley, California. The double cut lamb chop and braised shoulder with Israeli couscous, black mission figs, and sauce poivrade, on the other hand, was wonderful.
Le Bouchon, by contrast, is a low-key, informal, and relaxed neighborhood sort of place. No big "statement" is being made here. I fell in love with this place and its cozy French bistro environment, and with our waitress, Beth, who reflected the easy-going, friendly personality of the bistro. Le Bouchon was packed to overflowing when we arrived for dinner at 7:30 p.m. on a Monday night, but the big draw here is not that the place is "happening," but the excellent classic French bistro fare at very reasonable prices. For appetizers, the escargot were merely okay, but the warm goat cheese salad was excellent, and the onion tart was absolutely out of this world. I had very tasty, generously portioned, and thoroughly satisfying classic Cassoulet Toulousain. Even better was my wife's hanger steak with red wine sauce, full of flavor and served rare as requested, with garlic mashed potatoes. For desert, my wife and I shared a chocolate marquise with expresso crème anglaise that would have been fabulous at twice the price. All in all, a thoroughly satisfying meal and thoroughly enjoyable experience. Le Bouchon is the sort of place that, if I lived in Chicago, would be one of my regular hangs.
Our strategy for Blackbird is to go early. Less noise, better service. And skip dessert (very small portions, pricey, great taste sensations). The mussel soup, the lamb and venison are some of the best prepared dishes I've had since Paris and Barcelona.
I think Blackbird is like a lot of places we wind up frequenting--you figure out what's good and that's what you order.
Totally charming, more successful in ambience and conception than execution, yet still a great value for what you get. If we lived around there they would see us twice a month for sure. Reminds me somewhate of L'Express in Montreal.