Blackbird Kitchen

Tuesday Mar. 1st, 2011

(Attention all restaurant owner wannabes: Go to the Blackbird Kitchen and take notes. They’ll show you how it’s done.)

Many restaurants serve good food. Many delight the senses. Some are so welcoming that even lesser quality and taste is forgiven. Rare, however, is the restaurant with high marks in all categories. Lucky is Bozeman to have such a place in the Blackbird Kitchen.

There is nothing fancy about the Blackbird Kitchen, which is straightforward in its décor and atmosphere. Here is a working kitchen with just enough brick and kitsch to push its environment into modernist loft territory. Tables are artfully placed, barely avoiding standing-room-only claustrophobia. (For the intrepid diner or larger crowd, a communal table dominates the front of the house.) Though hard to read, a prominent chalkboard adorns one minimalist wall and makes cheerful recommendations for your dining or dessert pleasure. Music selection and volume is spot-on—if heard at all above the pitched sounds of satisfaction from diners. It is easy to see (and hear) that patrons are happy here. Laughter, ease, and coziness, with a smattering of stolen looks by couples tucked in corners, seem customary at Blackbird Kitchen. And this is the point: it is aptly named kitchen. Not pub, not even bistro, though close. It’s a place of comfort, and this has much to do with staff.

Efficiency reigns at the Blackbird. It appeared the entire house was serviced by three people: Karen the hostess, Nick the server, and a capable young woman who bussed. This brings us to the fundamentals of running a successful restaurant. Perfect strangers, we, but hostess Karen cared. Yes, it is her job to care, to coo, to woo, even on nights when blinding snow and cold made everything hard. She cares well, this hostess–we appeared, Karen appeared. Presto, shazam. Tableside, she bantered (just enough), acknowledged our presence (just enough to make us feel welcome and important), and routinely returned to be certain our experience at the Blackbird was enjoyable (just so you know, it was). It is a hallmark of the hospitality industry to acknowledge diners and patrons, strangers and regulars alike. Nick complimented Karen’s attention with exceedingly efficient, prompt and courteous service sans obsession.

To the food. The Blackbird has a wood-fired oven and uses it well. Not a small feat, by the way. An entire paragraph must be dedicated to their bread. It is no wonder people flock to this place to savor the bread, all crusty, tasty, and mellow in the middle, giving strong contention to the “man not living by bread alone” mantra. This bread is good, evidenced by the fact that most tables sported Blackbird’s appetizer plate of sliced bread with the once-trendy-now-oh-so-de-rigueur oil and balsamic. Caveat: This appetizer comes at a price, so the inclination is to finish the plate…maybe not the smartest choice unless your tummy is the size of New Jersey. Go easy on this dish or ask for a half-portion.

Blackbird’s menu boasts several pizzas with the same crust profile as their astonishing bread. Since a perfect pizza properly prepared (say that three times fast) from a wood-fired oven has no equal, a pie was ordered “to go” for next morning’s breakfast. Reheated on an oven rack, it proved itself good, but garnered a slight sigh and wish that pizza makers in Montana understood the added value of oregano and an occasional fennel seed.
The savvy menu at the Blackbird (wannabes, take notes!) was limited to appetizers of distinction, salads substantial enough to stand on their own (to be sure, during this review three women occupied an adjoining table just to eat salad), wood-fired pizzas, a few regulars on the entrée list—from which braised short ribs were ordered—and that hard-to-read chalkboard featuring specials—from which slow roasted local lamb was ordered. Both the ribs and lamb were succulent. (Sorry, had to employ an over-used superlative.) The lamb nestled in a sauce base of tomato without pushing the ragu envelope, and nudged the short ribs from first place because of its lush bed of polenta. Oh, Lord, the polenta! Creamy and surprisingly full of flavor, it had back notes of Grana Padano and had to be as good as anything a Florentine chef could whip up. And, burp, in spite of sated palates, a shared from-scratch dessert made the eyelids flutter. The food made the mouth glad. Inotherwords, the food at the Blackbird felt good–something Mom or Gram would cook if they nuanced each ingredient and coaxed every vegetable, every herb and spice, every cut of meat to joyfully surrender its truest flavor.

As for drinks, Blackbird’s house red did need a few deep breaths in the cold night air before being poured, but was served in a proper glass. Bummer: Initial thrill in seeing sleek bottles of water on each table turned to exasperation and disappointment when learned they were filled with municipal tap water. Puh-leeze! Stick chlorine in the swimming pool at Bogart Park, not in restaurant drinking water, please use a filter!
Prices at the Blackbird Kitchen are fair and frankly reasonable considering emphasis on quality, local and organic, and slow. This place is artisanal, the chef and cooks artists, deeply connected to their craft. Are you still taking notes? If so, listen: food doesn’t make a mouth glad unless it is prepared and presented with respect and purpose. Quite obviously, Karen is not the only one in the house who cares. In an age when many of us flock to cheap, over-portioned faux foods, the Blackbird is a refuge, and a happy one at that. The place fills-up quickly so go early, sit with others at the communal table, dip some crusty bread in oil, sit back and watch. This. This is how you do it. These people know how to run a restaurant. Four & a half stars.

Blackbird Kitchen
140 E Main
Open most days 5 – 9; Friday and Saturday until 10; Closed Monday

Cynthia Yates cut her teeth in the restaurant business, ran a café in the middle of nowhere, hosted a popular wine group, and was active in the Slow Food movement. An author of several lifestyle books, she has been known to eat on a regular basis.