By Ray Pride, June 25, 1998
On any night late in the week, an aerial view of the broad esplanade of Randolph Street’s reupholstered market mile will reveal the antlike crawl of restaurant row traffic, gathering and disgorging clusters of the peckish and moneyed. There is the dance of car hikes and taxis and speed-walking pedestrians along the stretch just west of the Kennedy Expressway. Even when the faces aren’t pretty, most of the clothes are.
A local magazine with a prodigious inferiority complex Second-Citied this ever-bustling stretch of eat-and-be-seen real estate as “The future SoHo of Chicago.” But if you want to effectively extend that belittling metaphor, move east, out of the mosh pit of graying diners, past the white-noise whishhh of the expressway until you come upon a pristine storefront, a glass facade with almost no detail in the only occupied building for a few blocks. Through the doors, a crowd eats within a minimalist Edward Hopper canvas that is marked by flattering highlights instead of grasping shadows. You would have to say that Blackbird is its own standalone Tribeca: a small, fresh ripple in Chicago’s tireless dining scene.
Blackbird, which sounds utterly midwestern, draws its name from the Merlot grape (in French, “blackbird” is “merle”; “merlot” is a nickname for a young, small one). Open since late November, the seventy-seat storefront has not suffered in any of its reviews, particularly those from outside the city. Qantas flew a correspondent from the Financial Times, London’s equivalent of the Wall Street Journal, around the world to immerse himself in the newest restaurants, and Blackbird was among the eight chosen. In the May 30th edition, lucky correspondent Ian Holmes wrote of chef and co-owner Paul Kahan’s work: “With clean flavors, strong taste-texture combinations and palatable prices, this food is the most sought after in the city.”
Taking things for granted is taken for granted nowadays. Questions are seldom asked about the succession of actions, the chain that delivers a good meal to the table. How can momentary, faddish “heat” translate into durability? Few restaurants thrive, mature, last. A 1992 Cornell University hotel school study asserted that half of all new restaurants are gone within three years. Media puff announces the new sensaysh and hangs its first menu out to dry. Reviewers seem compelled to convey “heat” more than the fire that gets a restaurant off the ground and keeps it running. A skein of randomly assembled phrases from Blackbird’s sheaf of mouth-watering clips: “Trendsetters are flocking… The local glitterati… Chic-chic… hot-hot… one haute spot… a sea of expensive and mostly black clothing… the bartender, dressed in black (naturally)…”
Heat. The gossip columns have sprinkled the usual run of celebrities—Michael Jordan, Billy Corgan and Cindy Crawford—but the visits from other chefs are the celebs Blackbird celebrates. General manager and co-owner Donnie Madia quotes one of his restaurateur drop-ins as saying, “The city doesn’t need more restaurants, it needs more restaurants like this.” His eyes grow little-boy big as he lists the likes of Kahan’s former bosses Rick Bayless and Erwin Drechsler; Charlie Trotter coming by a couple weeks earlier with members of his staff; and other local luminaries such as Michael Foley, Michael Kornick from Marché, Gabino Sotelino from Ambria, Francois Kwaku-Dongo from Spago. And he’s particularly heartened by the customers regularly referred to Blackbird by Spago’s Klaus and Amanda Puck.
More heat: At 8pm the following Saturday after the Financial Times plaudit, after the raves in the Tribune, Sun-Times, Chicago magazine and other outlets, there are walk-ins, but even with cancellations, they are disappointed. There’s no room left even at the bar until the kitchen closes at 11:30.
Highlighter lines fill the ledger page. Madia doesn’t want to tempt his luck, but admits that Thursday through Saturday is booked solid for the coming six weeks, and Monday through Wednesday gets booked up by the day before. Weekend reservations are taken three to four months in advance.
Madia ponders what the restaurant should be, unconsciously evoking another Second City-ism. It should be like “some corner you turn fifteen years ago in Manhattan, then there this is.” But that’s hard to find even there now, so maybe this patch of Randolph is the last frontier.
Ghost signs float in the urban gloom outside the sheet of glass. Golden numbers advertise the square footage of some since-demolished office building: 52,000. Only part of a second sign can be read: “City Of…” No one takes in the faded horizon from the dining room. The room is a sleek marvel when it’s empty, but when filled, it melts away in the hum of conversation and the air filled with the smell of good food. Architect and interior designer Thomas Schlesser says, “Everyone put in a tremendous amount of effort to make this place. But if there was no great chef, it would only be a style experiment instead of what it’s supposed to be: a backdrop to a great dining experience.”
“We’re only a few minutes behind,” another employee says. “Nothing we don’t expect. If we had this kind of crowd—people who are ready to eat, people who the word’s just trickled down to—when we first opened? We might have been nervous.”
A couple beams out the front door, grabbing Madia’s hand. “Y’know, from the second you walk in here, you’re transported into another world.” He takes the compliment, whatever it means, as the couple is framed against the glass, the faded signs, the balconies from a nearby condo-fication.
“Wow, this is the most intense crowd we’ve had in here in a while,” Kahan says, making another round of the small room. An Italian freelance photographer drops in with an assignment fax and a copy of his magazine and negotiates in broken English for getting the lights up, which would still the room like last call. It’s a tough decision: international publicity at the price of disturbing tonight’s diners?
Two men are talking at the bar. “If you come with me to San Francisco, I can think of a million places like this…but not.”
Once upon a time, a couple weeks after I had a memorable birthday dinner at Erwin, where Kahan was chef de cuisine, I ran into him late one night in a local saloon. He told me an intricate, step-by-step story about how to make Osso Bucco. I wish I had remembered it with all its lived-in details and loving, specialized language. It was the poetry of process, the joy of someone who knows their work talking it up: the language of the chef. I said that if he ever got a place of his own, I’d want to know about it. I’d want to write about it but I’d want to eat there, early and often. He shrugged and laughed.
The same conversation was going on elsewhere as well.
In Kahan’s familiar telling, he was hitchhiking through California years ago when he stumbled upon Chez Panisse. Paul Kahan was Saul on the road to Provence, or at least Berkeley, where he discovered the cooking of Alice Waters, described simply by food writer Marian Burros as “the mother of modern American cooking,” for her philosophy of concentrating on local ingredients while bringing French country influences to her work. Back in Chicago, Kahan first worked under Erwin Drechsler at Metropolis Cafe, and later with Rick Bayless at Topolobampo as sous chef. When Drechsler opened Erwin on Halsted, Kahan moved there.
Madia’s first job as a runner at the Chicago Board of Trade shows his back-and-forth manner on the floor at the restaurant, juggling details with a ready smile. Later, he managed China Club, then worked as a restaurant manager for Big Time Productions, supervising Ooh La La and Vinyl. He had met another of the partners, bar manager Ricky Diarmit, from an earlier bartending job, and began to search for a space, a chef, investors.
Each partner had distinct strengths that now dovetail nicely on the floor, orchestrating an experience with bubbling enthusiasm. But Madia didn’t yet know Kahan. “I never knew Paul, but always enjoyed his food,” he says. “My girlfriend at the time said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you could get the chef?’ We were at brunch there one Sunday, and it was great, and Paul comes out, he’s cooked a double shift, he worked Saturday night and brunch, he was tired, eyes drooping, all beat up. ‘That’s the chef?'” he remembers. “Boy, I could see he worked hard.”
About the time Kahan came on board, they found the beat-down space on Randolph, an island unto itself a few hundred yards from the bustle of the burgeoning restaurant scene to the west. Kahan and Madia both recollect similar sentiments—every person who had responded enthusiastically to their hopes for an ambitious restaurant of their own was in for a call. How can you help us piece this place together?
”We’re gonna owe everybody,” Kahan said one September afternoon last year. This Saturday cocoa powder hangs wetly in the gloomy afternoon air. Two months before opening and the gutted storefront on Randolph reeks of lumber, and tufts of sawdust scatter underfoot. The overwhelming waft is of construction, not concoction or confection. No fresh pepper or garlic, just an overwhelmingly clean plywood smell in a room buttressed by stacked sheets of drywall, their UL Surface Burning Characteristics still showing.
Madia and Kahan have unfurled plans atop plywood frameworks, showing how designer Thomas Schlesser’s long lines and lazy angles will keep the room from the dreaded “bowling alley” effect.
The rest of Randolph is lined with temples of grandeur. Schlesser’s style is sparse, but not spartan, working with mostly neutral colors and a spatial complexity in a restrained environment. Schlesser, who just left a position at Landahl Design Studio as a senior architectural designer to sound out opportunities in New York, designed the restaurant Vinyl, among other undertakings. “Space is a key preoccupation with me. The challenge was to take the relatively small space of a few thousand square feet, this typical Chicago long, narrow space confined with brick walls and create a restaurant space. There’s always a high level of abstraction to what I do, but the partners had seen Vinyl, liked things I’d done there: restraint, clarity of space and form.”
The result is a sparse look without the usual trappings. “I didn’t use curtains or any of the other clichés you see in restaurants in this city.”
Some food critics have made the familiar plaints about the proximity of tables to one another, but Schlesser says, “It seems crowded, but getting all the things [into this building] was really successful. Every square foot has worked out effectively. There’s not much [room] to start with when you have to have a kitchen capable of the quality they produce and a bar that can keep up with the customers.” He also emphasizes how perspective changes in different parts of the room. “The long banquette [that diners are seated along] has a sculptured quality; it’s like an upholstered wall. Then the overhang gives the illusion of a private niche; the ceilings are twelve feet high.”
Pointing details from the renderings, Kahan jokingly calls the banquettes and the overhang “total design overkill” but is putting in long days and nights to get to the point where it can be installed. Pitching in with the construction work is a double-time job, different from the months of planning and waiting for approvals and licenses and inspections. Kahan flexes uncomfortably, “You know how the chicken leg cracks when you break it off? That’s how my shoulder feels.”
“We’re pulling out super-expensive stuff wherever we can. None of us are sacrifice guys [when it comes to quality]. At least fifty people have helped to the nth degree. It’s crunch time, now, though.” The universe of permits and inspections prompt some worry. (I ran into Kahan on Halloween, after the ghoulish adventure of the group making their last submissions for a liquor license.) But for now the walls are still scrawled with everyone’s phone number.
“Like our phone book?” Kahan chuckles. “We’re covering it up today.” But takeout menus are stabbed to the wall for now in the space where the restaurant’s single bit of decor, a painting of a splash of orange with a small blackbird nesting in its warmth, will rest later. The only color today comes from scattered paintball scars from games that will have to stop.
We move upstairs, where a party room and lounge will open sometime later in 1998. There are piles of cookware, glassware, cases of wine to be sampled. We talk about the 130 bottles of wine Kahan, acting as his own sommelier, wants on his menu, amid sacks of sealant and big tool chests and nail guns.
Kahan had been collecting for ten years in hopes of opening his own restaurant one day. “I had this accumulating in a bedroom for years. Just the best stuff. It’s important to me. I’ve cooked with crappy, warped cookware, and I’ve cooked with good cookware, and there’s no choice, it’s like using good ingredients. I’m kind of a gearhead about this stuff. All my sauce pans are from this Italian company Paderno. There’s a copper disc in the bottom to warm quickly. Everything I bought? Is guaranteed for life. A set of all-clad sauté pans can cost $2,000.
“We could’ve bought thirty-dollar bistro chairs for the room, which might have been either incredibly smart or incredibly simple,” he continues. “Thomas designed this Eames-style chair, a silver base with a comfortable back, the same mahogany stain as the floor. So we’re saving money but spending a lot, too.” Still, there are cost restraints. “Now I’ve gone through this, when people go into a restaurant and question markup, I want to kill them.” We stand at the front entrance. “Just the door fittings, that’s twenty-five dollars times three. A door like at Spago is $2,000. It’s like ching-ching-ching.” He runs his hand where the door handle will be. “A two-hundred-dollar rounded piece of stainless top-to-bottom door pull right there.”
What’s the hoped-for payoff? “Bouley or Soltner from Lutece, those two guys, I could be anywhere close to them, that would be great. I want to have my hand on everything. It’ll be hard but with only sixty-five seats, it’ll work. I’m gonna be here all the time. I’ve resigned myself to the first year.”
Dinner the first week of this year, the tumult has begun. Despite being prohibited, cell phones were on tabletops all around. The crowd was talking about the food at other restaurants, not having caught up to the teeming plates before them, flanks and planks and chunks of wood-charcoal-grilled goodness. Blackbird has only had a liquor license since New Year’s Eve, when liquor wholesalers were trucking in all day, from 9am to 9pm, up the stairs, down the stairs. We order wine suggested by another partner, headwaiter Eduard Seitan. Kahan circulates, insists that we try his squab salad, “absolutely my favorite bird on the planet.”
I ask about a particular wave of bouquet and Kahan points to the stockpot, which boils twenty-four hours a day. Here is the essential of why you cannot, shall not do this at home, why a restaurant can sneak into each ingredient a quiet marinade, spice or douse. “It takes a two or three days reduction for demi-glacé,” he says. “It takes fifty pounds of veal bones just to start.” The chicken stock takes the same effort, round the clock.
One Saturday last month, I watch the workings of Blackbird from opening to closing. At 11am, the reservations are confirmed. If anyone cancels, patrons from the waiting list get on. “We do ninety-five percent reservations,” Madia says. “We really work not to overbook the room.” Fifteen to eighteen tables get turned in each time slot. The morning tang of mop gives way to single ingredients being prepared. A chicken and wild rice soup is on the menu that everyone’s trying, a French-tasting broth with hints of lime leaves, ginger, leeks, cilantro. Every time you talk to Kahan about one of his dishes, he knows only his uncertainties, what he’s going to change. He’s disappointed in the soup. I linger over it.
In the basement “where all the unsexy work goes on,” a Cubs game plays in the background. Little minces of red bell pepper pile up like edible Legos. Potatoes, small as toys, rest in glistening piles. A festively colored halibut ceviche is prepared for tonight’s “amuse,” the small taste brought to table while customers look over the menu.
Upstairs, as the afternoon lengthens, it’s a different room. The sleek, neutral blank awaits rows of faces. It all seems to reflect the modest shrug Kahan often gives when complimented. “We’re trying.” It isn’t like clockwork, it is clockwork. It’s 3:30 now: the phone begins to burble.
Ingredients sizzle in the open kitchen. Tom Denney, sous chef, formerly of Soul Kitchen and Erwin, where he met Kahan, is caramelizing rutabagas and the room bursts with the smell of shallots hitting the pan. “It’s gonna be like this all the way until service,” he says. He’s had a bruising earlier, but life goes on.
At 4:30, servers are given a taste of the “amuse” and new mango and orange sorbets. The ceviche is wedged between two thin slices of cucumber, with a taste of orange on top, drizzled with oil. A silver Audi is parked in front. The driver is calling in on her cell phone attempting to get an 8pm reservation. Ah, it’s too late. “But how would late-late be for you?”
Downstairs, Kahan throws in a technique here, there, as he passes through. He pauses from tying off a trash bag to show how to neatly slice a seven-ounce halibut filet. One task at a time, all dovetailing. He takes out the pâté for the charcuterie plate: a mixture of duck livers, pork, prunes, cognac, aging in the walk-in. Blackbird cures their own meats, makes their sausage and pâté, always working toward the next day, the next, the next.
Now it’s time to open a sealed can of Maine divers’ scallops in a sealed can like house paint comes in, without preservative, “You could eat ’em just like that,” Kahan says, holding up one of the sweet-smelling, dumpling-size scallops. The pastry chef chats up an experimental banana cake while an intern demurely cleans sweetbreads.
One of the waiters is joking around. Kahan looks up from showing how to peel fava beans and says, laughing, “Jason is a billionaire in the making.”
“Then I’ll buy Blackbird,” he says.
“Great,” Kahan says, chuckling. “Bring in the new chef. Set me free. In the shower this morning, I was actually singing old blues songs.”
A little before 5pm. The sun begins to shift. From the street, the falling light turns the facade into a wall of white reflected light. Inside is a silvered mystery. The bartender, Nicole, busies herself behind the bar, singing annoying nursery songs while opera plays in the background. “The sun comes out when she walks,” a busboy announces to no one in particular.
5:15pm. “This is the worst time of the night,” a few minutes before opening. “It’s the crunch. Are we all done?” Cars begin to pull up outside on their way to the expressway. What is this gleaming place? “We got five minutes, people,” Madia announces, pushing his blond-and-silver hair back and up in a swell neo-Tintin swoop. Lights go down, the music up a little. Stage set, astonish me, please. “Good evening…!”
Behind the line, Denney deadpans, “I gave blood today.” A server jokes, “Push the specials he’s responsible for.”
“Yeah,” Denney says, “I bet you you cannot beat the record of sirloins sold on a Saturday night—forty-five! I bet you!” Denney pulls up his pants leg. “Look at this. I slipped back here and I was in mid-air like slow motion, this high off the ground.” He grits his teeth and returns to the flames. The bartender is whistling “This Old Man” as the music turns gentler, jazzier.
A little after 6pm. All but four tables are filled. “Friday is date night,” Madia notes. “Saturday, earlier, older, moving toward hip and hipsters. We were still burgeoning at 11:30pm last Saturday.”
Later, as you watch the tickets for hot dishes stack up, touches of temper surface and drop. It’s amazing how many ingredients are secreted into every crevice of the fourteen-foot area behind the line. If you are at work in a kitchen, you don’t get to watch, enjoy the play of assembly in the manufacture of a meal.
Upstairs is hopping, but downstairs? Quiet as the pre-monster attack moments in an indifferent horror movie. Sheira Harris, the pastry chef, is fussing over variations on sorbet and tuille and powdered sugar even as feet pound overhead. “I like food that’s just itself,” she says. “I don’t like geometric things, I want to enhance the qualities of the food.” There are two illustrations over her station: one of a fancy pecan pie, the other of a big anthropomorphic snow man dessert. “They’re both valid.” She jabs a slice of tuille into the sorbet. “Just simple. There’s not enough here to worry about elegant.” The ten and thirty-degree leans of the crisp tuille are like the design upstairs, not jarring, but soothing and swoopy.
Presentations succeeded by a good demolishing are another recurring characteristic, such as in Kahan’s variation on the Lyonnaise salad, an endive salad incorporating the small Yukon gold potatoes I had seen earlier, with basil, rendered pancetta and poached egg, in a fried cup made from shaved Yukon golds. Truly coarse pepper is ground atop the egg and vinaigrette on greens, the entire confection waiting to be crushed by a few bold diagonal knife and fork strokes.
It’s the kind of clean-tasting mix of textures that shows Kahan’s sure hand with the possibility of fish, seafood and contrasting textures. Contrasts are essential to “simple, well-prepared American cuisine,” Kahan says, and by focusing on fresh and seasonal ingredients, he can get the most from the simple contrast of flavors that are smoky, spicy, sweet or salty. A recent entrée addition is grilled capon breasts, about a ten-ounce half-breast on top of split, baby roasted turnips, with chunks of super-moist fresh porcini, sweet snap peas, topped with a roasted garlic vinaigrette with a hint of lemon. “Very focused, very clean,” Kahan says, saluting an ideal. There’s no pasta on this menu.
Brief, pungent scent waves work throughout the evening. A ripple of oil carries across the room, then sautéed garlic, then seafood. “That’s the soft-shell crabs,” Diarmit says from behind the bar, and indeed, it is. “Can’t keep ’em.” On cue, a runner from the kitchen: One order of crabs left, strike ’em.
7:10. Now every table is filled, and there is no one waiting: Balance. Attention to detail as time allows. A customer is shocked when he’s brought a new napkin when he’s not even aware the first one’s fallen to the floor. Ten sauté pans are in the fire at once. Like a glimpse of a cutaway peering inside an internal combustion engine, even if a different sort of caloric power, firing on all cylinders.
7:40. The green and blue highlighter lines march steadily down the ledger page. It’s a good night, I’m told, where all appears balletic and nothing ballistic, flurried yet seldom frantic. The customers keep their eyes before them, seldom looking toward the work behind the line in the open kitchen. It’s what fascinates about any well-designed kitchen—repetitive motions in unpredictable succession. The assembly line, but one reliant on intuition and instant response.
The 8:45 crowd waltzes in, grayer succeeded by gayer. On line, pushing dishes toward the heat lamp, Denney leans his shaved head forward. “You know Brando? ‘The horror, the horror.'” The server laughs, takes his plate. Domesticated and uneventful. Unless you are taking bites of the result. The table didn’t see the Brando: they only have eyes for the California Sturgeon with fat Israeli couscous in the yogurt, cucumber and carrot-ginger sauce. The tempo of conversation shifts and the bar fills with latecomers who only want a glass of wine, to drink in the room. Sit at the bar, and you have a city view, best seat in the house. CITY OF… the sign trails off, ever unfinished from this perspective.
A fire pumper’s flashing light briefly candies the all-too-photorealistic view, red and white gyrating. Nicole, the bartender, launches into a martini-shaking performance. There is a delicate balance a little out of whack. Tarriers at tables and latecomers make reservations slide a few minutes behind. Kahan’s eyes are tired below his wild, curly hair, but he’s still quick to laugh. He circulates, gravity with a grin. “It’s a nice mix of the goofballs and the serious foodies,” he observes, neatly dividing the hipoisie from the otherwise privileged.
He takes a break a little later and we talk at the front door. So how does Kahan know when he’s added one flavor too many? “I’ve been doing this for so long it’s just plain and simple. I combine three or four flavors together that work well and that’s it. I don’t think you can pick out anything that has three or four main flavors. I’m a simpleton, I guess. I don’t like to eat, like, twenty different flavors. Stick with the classics.”
Someone Kahan hasn’t seen since high school says hello, asks him what he’s doing, what’s new. “Work,” he replies. “Work is new every day.”