Food and Wine loves him. The Beard Awards love him. Chicago seems infatuated with each restaurant he and his partners open. The preceding refer to two persons in the Chicago culinary landscape and it was with those thoughts in mind that I decided to make my lunch reservations for my two days in Chicago - Blackbird and Frontera Grill. Having heard much of Chef Paul Kahan the influences derived from both his father's smokehouse and his time at Bayless's Topolobampo I had high expectations going into the experience - less art, yet high end ingredients presented in an artistic manner. Browsing the menus I even went out of my way to ask if any of the dinner items could possibly be prepped for lunch and was informed that since the chef himself would be in-house that day it would be perfectly acceptable.
Arriving 5 minutes late for our noon reservation we were greeted by a most-pleasant hostess and taken to a great table near the front of the room. Water was poured and menus were delivered - both the daily $22 prix fixe and the standard lunch menu. Almost on cue the waiter appeared at our table and stated "are you ready for the foie gras?" My sister laughed at me, typically, while I confirmed the fact. Browsing the room I was very impressed by the modern yet refined feel - the place nearly felt "casual" while the open kitchen teamed with life in back, Chef Kahan proudly working alongside his team.
Orders were soon placed and I was informed that the chef would be making the foie gras and sweetbreads per his inspiration - not technically per the dinner menu. "Even better" I thought. Sitting for another few moments as the restaurant slowly began to fill up we were next served two types of bread - a hearty and smoky rye along with a whole grain bread with at least 2-3 types of seeds and subtle hints of spice. Accompanying the breads was a house-made butter with sage, tarragon, and perhaps basil - a little too hard to spread at first but wonderful given time to warm up.
Before getting into the food I will note that while professional, the service at Blackbird was invariably slow on this day due to the fact that a server had called in sick while another didn't make it to work until later in the shift - aside from delivery of dishes our waiter really never checked on us and the delay between bread and appetizer was 30 minutes, appetizer and main nearly 45 minutes, and main and dessert another 35 minutes. While the scenery, food, and company was great I must say things felt someone prolonged and we were trying to make it up to Wrigley for the Cubs game by 2:00pm - a fact they were indeed aware of.
Arriving first, my two appetizers and my sister's first part of the prix fixe - a bonus being that Chef Kahan himself personally came to the table to present and explain his two lunch creations (clearly not expected by our server Christopher who arrived ~45 seconds later to describe the dishes.) Beginning with my sister's, Chilled cuttlefish noodles with avocado, red onion jam and puffed buttermilk was absolutely revolutionary with well poached cuttlefish cephalopods spiral-cut into "noodles" and paired with creamy avocado, sweetened red onion puree, and "crispy" buttermilk chips - a nice juxtaposition of textures, sweet and savory, brine and earth.
The first of my items, pan-fried sautéed veal sweetbreads with smoked potato salad and microgreens was another winner with the succulent gland melting in the mouth yet given plenty of balance by the crispy panko-style coating. Not oily in the least, salted only enough to enhance, and well paired with a creamy potato and microgreen salad with heavy hints of smoke and undertones of apple and spice. Generally not a fan of potato salad I must admit I was almost more impressed by it than the actual sweetbreads which is saying a lot.
The second item, roasted Hudson Valley foie gras with peaches, peppers, and tomatoes was new to me - I'd never had roasted foie, only seared and terrine. The chef stated he wanted to do "something different" and if this dish was "different" then I'm all for it. Somewhat more "dry" than the standard foie, the lobe was easily cut with a knife and was perfectly prepared with no veins, strings, or discolored areas to be found. Using the acidity of the peppers and tomatoes (also roasted,) and the sweetness of the peaches (grilled,) to offset the unctuous liver proved a perfect compliment and the chef resisted more common presentations that rely on a bread of crunchy component to add texture - instead allowing the fruits and vegetables to stand on their own with the liver.
As noted above, significant time passed between our appetizers and mains - while the bread and water servers visited our main server never did. Finally, once again delivered from a member of the kitchen staff, our mains arrived - the first (a part of the prix fixe) was wood grilled California sturgeon with gold bar squash, cucumber, bbq onion, zucchini bread, candied olive and it once again shined. Three 1-2oz slices of fish, perfectly grilled outside and barely touched inside simply flaked apart and melted in the mouth while the mellow squash and crisp cucumber were accented by the sweetened onion. Adding texture - a "zucchini bread" that was described to us when the dishes were collected as dehydrated zucchini bread cut into croutons (I describe it as delicious) and olives as sweet as honey - unique and unexpected, but also great.
For myself, I selected the classic "croque madame" with house-cured ham, Swiss, red onion, fried egg and pommes frites simply because I couldn't pass it up when I saw it on the menu. Clearly not exactly classic given the onions and cheese selection, but quite good none the less. Less heavy that the versions with sauce Mornay at Bouchon or Butler & the Chef and although not quite as tasty, very good. The fries, an item I generally don't prefer, were on par with Keller's famous pommes and much better than Doug's raved duck-fat fries in the Chicago culinary landscape.
Again a significant delay separated us from dessert - dishes which were quite small and the only "overpriced" part of the experience - but flavors and textures that were absolutely worth the wait and the price. For my sister, warm walnut cake with NY674 apples, brown butter gastrique, and fromage blanc ice cream was definitely as good as it sounded with smooth and thick slices of spicy cake well tempered by the sweet apples, creamy yet acidic gastrique, and creamy cheesecake-esque ice cream. Reading up on the apple after the meal was additionally interesting - apparently a high-vitamin C apple created through selective breeding to be browning-resistant.
For myself the dessert choice was a no brainer - "haute cornbread" is a dream of mine. Entitled sweetcorn bavarois with cornbread pain perdu, pecans, maple sherbet the dish featured a sweetcorn Bavarian cream/pudding with shortbread base alongside chunks of brioche style cornbread accented with cinnamon and honey then topped with candied pecans. Alongside this amazing presentation was a sherbet that tasted like the very essence of maple syrup - I found the sherbet particularly thrilling in its texture as many maple ice creams seem too "milky" to accurately portray the maple flavor as it is traditionally seen in syrup or molasses.
When the meal was finished my sister and I both sat quite satisfied with the experience - particularly the food, but agreed that the speed of the meal was quite prolonged - other tables on either side of us were also commenting on the same. While the seasonal Intelligentsia options did seem interesting, we instead opted for the bill so that we'd not miss too much more of the ballgame (a quick trip on the L got us there by the bottom of the 3rd.) Discussing the meal on the way to the game it amazed me most how much we each kept coming back to the supporting aspects of the dish as much as the main component - the zucchini croutons, the potato salad, etc - the attention to detail was truly stupendous. Service issues aside I absolutely loved the meal from top to bottom and look forward to dining Avec and the Publican on future visits.