Restaurants & Bars

Spring vs. Blackbird (long review)

Drew | Feb 12, 200610:49 AM     3

I know there have been a number of messages posted concerning these two restaurants, but I thought I would insert my two cents on the subject. I ate at both restaurants last month on back-to-back nights.

My brother and I ate at Blackbird first. Not being from Chicago (I live in Portland, Maine; my brother lives in Chicago) I was surprised how easy it was to get a reservation, granted it was a Monday night, since I had heard it was one of the best and most popular restaurants in Chicago.
My first complaint about the restaurant is how tightly spaced the tables are. We sat along the long banquet and the tables are so tightly packed they had to pull the table out so that my brother could get into the banquet. I hate when places do that, though I understand the financial rational behind it, especially for such a small space. The overall design is minimalist and very modern, two things I normally like in restaurant design. However, the lighting is extremely bright, and when considering that the interior of the restaurant is mostly white, it makes you feel as if a spotlight is on you. I know that Blackbird is a place to be seen, but I find bright lighting to be very uncomfortable, especially if you want to stay and linger at the table. The restaurant is also very loud, which I personally do not mind but I know many people find a complete turn-off.
Now finally, for the food. Everything we had was very good. The foie gras appetizer ($15) with currants and duck confit crepe was very good, one of the best foie apps I've had in a while. A great play between tart, sweetness of the currants and the awesome rich, fattiness of the foie. The scallop app with black truffles, meyer lemon and almonds was also a hit. A great dish (a little funny I ordered a Maine scallop in chicago since I live in Maine)that had very clean flavors. The two scallops were huge, and while some may complain that two scallops for $14 is expensive, it did deliver. For entrees we had the artic char ($29) and kobe beef shortribs ($34). The char was very good. It's a great fish, sort of a combination between trout and salmon in taste yet similar in appearance to salmon and a fish that is not very common on menus. The brown butter sauce was nice with the char and nothing really overwhelmed the great flavor of the fish itself. The shortribs were just okay. I had some really large sections of pure fat (yes I know that shortribs are supposed to be fatty) but only about half of the portion was meat. The candied turnips were great. Nothing like root vegetables with beef. I will also add that I think the whole Kobe beef thing is over, since almost all Kobe beef in the US is domestic, not Japanese, but I digress. Overall, the service was very good and the food was above average, but I found that interior space so uncomfortable that it really took away from the experience. Definitely not a place for a romantic dinner.
Now for Spring. I immediately liked the interior. The Zen garden next to the entrance might be a little much, but the design is great. Again, no problem with reservations, this time on a Tuesday night. We sat on a banquet in the middle of the restaurant. The interior is very Asian inspired (with some bamboo wood accents) and very simple. It does manage to bring in a little more color than Blackbird and the lighting is very subtle.
We started with 6 oysters on the 1/2 shell ($12). These tiny oysters, similar in size to Kumamotos, were excellent. Nothing is worse than eating raw oysters that were not opened properly, the bodies torn and small pieces of shell hidden within. These were perfect, however, served with a simple mignotte. We then had a tuna nicose ($16), served with tiny pieces of beans, olives and beautiful white anchovies (one of my favorite foods) and finished simply with olive oil. Again, this dish delivered. Flavors were just right, simple and classic but with a modern flair. The tuna was seared on all sides but still cold and raw, in my opinion, the only way to eat tuna. For entrees we had a shortrib dumpling and sliced sirlion served with Chinese mustard sauce and black trumpet mushrooms ($28 I think) and Opakapaka with turnip sauce ($28). Both dishes were amazing. The mustard sauce was great with the steak and the dumpling was excellent. The opakapaka (basically pink snapper) was perfectly cooked and the sauce was great. Again, less is more with seafood. The side dishes were also excellent. The artichoke confit and agnolitti (not a normal side, but we saw it on the menu with an entree and they agreed to do it as a side). Both were very good and it's nice to see a chef take some time and effort into developing really strong side dishes. Dessert was interesting, as the "Coffee and Cigarettes" actually had tobacco infused into it, but who could complain about two hot cinnamon doughnuts? We also ordered tea, which was disappointing, not because of the tea, but the teapot, which did not pour well and spilled all over the table every time we poured from it since the loose tea leaves kept clogging the spout. Before I sign off on Spring, let me say that the service was exceptional. Our server was extremely knowledgeable and personable and really enhanced the experience.
Sorry for the length of this review, but I had to do both restaurants justice. Blackbird was very good and to my surprise was not pretentious, but not the place I would go back to. The food was great, but not great enough to warrant me being uncomfortable for 2 hours. Spring to me (and my brother) was the clear favorite. Every dish we had was a hit and the prices were not crazy for the level of the restaurant. It's the kind of place I would go back to. It was upscale without being too stuffy, there was no pretention and the food was great. Not a bad combination.

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