Ahhhhh Chicago! Finally after two long years I am back in your loving arms. Pete and I were on our own for this trip and decided to drive instead of fly, you know, just for kicks. Holy freaking long drives Phatman! It was a rough entry into the city but somehow less taxing on the body than recovering from the flight. Nonetheless, I was still pretty wiped when we got to the apartment (ya that’s right. No hotel for us, we rented a whole flat cause we roll like that) so I was very much looking forward to a quick trip to the beer store, a hot shower, and some loafing around Wrigleyville until dinner time at Blackbird. Every one of these road trips always, ALWAYS, has a moment or two of crazy adventure in it but usually it at least happens at some point after we’ve checked in. Not this time my Phatsoes!
We arrive at our destination and have been instructed by email that we can temporarily park in the alley behind the apartment to unload our bags. Simple enough so far. We enter a fancy code to open a box to get access to a key that opens the back gate. Following me so far? Me neither. We assumed that once that gate was open we could lock the key back up and close the gate behind us and open the front gate from inside to get to our ultimate destination: the front door. We were wrong. With the key safely locked away we close the gate behind us and lo and behold! It locks! Well, there’s no going back now. Onward we trudge to the front gate with our gear only to find that you CANNOT open it from the inside. You need the key. Yes, the key we just locked away safely out of our reach. Oh, and it was raining too. So now here we are tired from the 472 hour drive, wet from the rain, sober from the no beer yet, and stuck in a gated limbo.
Thankfully, I am a child of the 70s and Pete is a child of the 80s so we’ve played an obscene amount of video games in our day and within moments we are already thinking of what can be moved around to climb on and we’re searching the walls for any signs of hidden doors. We use an overturned recycling bin for Pete to stand on, reach over the gate, enter the code to get the key (blindly I might add), and YES! Key acquired! Queue the triumphant Zelda music as Pete holds it high above his head. Well, the hot shower is gonna have to wait. After that dilemma I need me a few cold pops. We score some killer microbrew stuff at the grocery store, mainly 3 Floyds stuff, and head back to the apartment for some quality sitting around. Honestly, is there anything better than a good sit?
Several beers later…..
I am now a squeaky clean boy dressed up all pretty in my nice jeans and sexy boy shirt and we’re off to Blackbird. Last time we were in Chicago this place was on our short list of places to eat at but the slick, elegant decor had us thinking it would a shee shee poo poo la di da place where big boy pants would be required. You all know how much that is really NOT my scene. With further research we discovered that jeans are cool there so there was now nothing stopping me from hitting up executive chef Paul Kahan’s sexy little restaurant. Initially the stark white dining room void of artwork on the walls is a bit strange to take in but with perfect lighting and great tunes it’s easy to start to really dig the look of it. We got there early and were standing by the hostess’ spot for a bit and I am not going to lie to you, we both felt very uncomfortable at first. We’re just two dirtbags from Montreal who love to eat and the rest of the crowd seemed to be way out of our tax bracket and much fancier than us. It felt like all eyes were on us. I was moments away from asking Pete if he wanted to duck out and go elswhere when the hostess, Christina, asked to take our sweaters we were holding and offered to get us a cocktail. She was as sweet as any hostess I’ve dealt with and very quickly made us feel much better about being there. Not sure if maybe she saw me in the midst of a silent panic attack or what but her great service and demeanor stopped me from leaving. You know, sometimes you do really get that feeling that fancy people don’t want you unfancying up their place and that’s fine, those are the places I avoid. But sometimes maybe, like in this case, it is the dirtbag (me & Pete) who puts that pressure on themself. No one was looking down on us. No one was rude to us. No one made us feel unwelcome. It was like we had a defense mechanism that popped up that said **DANGER DANGER-You don’t belong here!**. So to Christina, thank you. You saved us from walking out on what would turn out to be a mind blowing meal and all around great night. It also didn’t hurt that the drink, the Presbyterian (Medley Brothers bourbon, lemon, Rare Tea Okinawan black sugar, and ginger) was freaking kick ass.
We informed our sommelier that rather than getting wine we’d like to do beer pairings. Queue awkward silence. After his initial look like hey are you guys putting me on? We could see he got excited about the idea. I had figured with the craft beer movement, you know, moving, and rapidly, that this was becoming a more common request these days. Nope. He said we were the first that had asked him that ever. It was really cool and exciting that he immediately took this as a fun challenge. On to the menu! Whenever I see veal sweetbreads on a menu I order them, without fail. When I saw they had a great sounding starter with sweetbreads I naturally ordered heirloom tomatoes with farm fresh cheese, plums, country ham(so much better than city ham) and poppy seed crisps. What?? Do not try to understand the complicated mechanisms that are my brain. Kahan designs his menu with the freshest farm products daily, so the menu is never the same. Super fresh heirloom tomatoes are one of nature’s greatest creations ever. Throw some rich farm fresh cheese on there and I just can’t resist. Tomatoes, after all, are one of my top 2000 favorite things to eat. My jedi mind trick seemed to work fine on Pete cause he ended up ordering the roasted sweetbreads with kohlrabi, goldenrod grapes, lovage and honey so I got to try some of that too. We paired this with a Surly Bitter Brewer beer that worked amazingly with each of the dishes. There was no ingredient on here unnecessarily. Every flavor worked in perfect harmony and created that magic moment where it’s like there is music in your mouth with each bite.
Any awkwardness I felt when I first walked in was now completely gone. Top shelf service mixed with great drinks and remarkable food will do that to a person. For our main dishes Pete went with wood grilled sturgeon with braised pork cheeks, chilled cranberry beans, and brown butter–tomato vinaigrette. Hot damn that sounds good. I was close to getting the same thing but I wanted to maximize the amount of dishes we sampled. In the end I went with aged duck breast with turnip confit, peaches, sunflower seeds, and charred turnip green pesto. Ya baby! That dish ain’t no slouch neither. Cooking with peaches is about as sexy as it gets and this is prime peach season so I am pumped to try this out. The duck fat is rendered so well that all that is left is a thin, crisp layer on top of the meat which is perfectly medium rare. Only Momofuku Ko has served me a better duck dish than this and when you are coming in a close second to David Chang well, you’re doing alright for yourself. I’ve always been a big fan of how well shellfish and pork works together, the Portuguese are masters at this, so it seemed like a no-brainer that Pete’s dish would be good. Holy sweet merciful crap this is up there with some of the best put together plates I’ve ever tried. I am tempted to bop Pete upside the head with our new round of beer (which I’ve forgotten now thanks to many 3 Floyds and other drinks here) and finish his plate for him but he is all the way across the table, I’d have to get up, reach over, swing and it all seems like a lot of work. Plus, this is our first night in town. He would seek revenge.
These dishes have been so well composed and I’m so relaxed at this point that I am actually going to get dessert. That almost never happens but when you got a bittersweet chocolate pudding with mascarpone cream, espresso crunch, hickory nuts, and sambuca what am I supposed to do? In lieu of Pete’s traditional post dinner cheese plate he went with a parmesan cruller with black raspberry jam, basil custard, white chocolate and blackberries. Pretty hard to argue with either of those plates. Besides, arguing with plates of food makes people think you got problems. Right now the only problem I got is that my mouth isn’t big enough to cram this pudding into my face any faster. Don’t be fooled by the dirt look of my plate (which I think is intentionally playful) because this is the greatest single dessert I have ever eaten. Epically rich with great crunch with the espresso calming down anything that would be overly sweet, I could have had seconds of this and maybe even thirds. Just ridiculous. The basil in Pete’s dessert was surprisingly dominant but I was impressed how well that it still worked and it was one hell of a pretty dish too.
Wow. What a night. It went in a much different direction than I was expecting when I first walked in. I went from borderline panic attack to adding this place to my must stop spots in Chicago. One of the most well constructed menus I’ve been lucky enough to eat from.
But Blackbird, baby, please don’t be angry with me. I didn’t mean to dismiss you like that when I arrived. I had a lot of beer on the way over and I know it’s no excuse but I thought at first you didn’t want me there. I had no idea how amazing we would be together. I’m going back home in a few days so please let’s not let this be the way we leave things. I know you said some things and I said some things but just remember most of the things I say are dumb. If you can find it in you to forgive me for being so foolish I hope I can see you again next time I’m in town. I promise I’ll call when I’m back in Montreal. I know you felt the same magic I felt. Let’s never fight like this again.