The Re-Opened Blackbird Cafe
Last winter’s fire gave Blackbird Cafe a change of scenery (see our photos of the fire, and our perspective on the aftermath). After shaking the ashes from their shoes, owners Gail Mollner and Chris Stevens have carefully shepherded their collection of approachable recipes, staff members, and ideas to an airier and less garage sale-chic space in South Minneapolis. The new location is presided over by a cheeky display of antlers and antique mirrors, some fire survivors and some new to the space.
As before, the kitchen is steered by Stevens, who continues to serve up a mosaic of iconic dishes from around the country and the globe. The menu changes seasonally, but don’t be surprised to see fried chicken and house-made pasta stand proudly next to a walleye po’boy ($13), made with fish straight from the Red Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota. Even the beer list has something for everyone, from regional favorites like Lift Bridge, Bell’s, and Furthermore, to go-to brews like Guinness and PBR.
The cafe still boasts a staggering list of sandwiches, including a banh mi ($11). This Vietnamese sandwich (pork, pate, and pickled vegetables, traditionally served on a chewy baguette) has become a sort of requisite menu item in upscale Twin Cities’ cafes, but Blackbird serves up a particularly rich one. The pork and pate portion is so soft and thick, so salty and sweet, that you almost forget it’s meat and not a magic, mind-altering spread. While more affordable banh mis can be found at good ol’ joints like Quang, and the newer Bun Mi, Blackbird’s is served on a softer, buttery ciabatta bun from New French Bakery. It is luscious.
There’s a sandwich for almost every protein, including a fried egg. The Longhorn ($11) is also great — braised beef, sweetly accented by caramelized onions and the twang of tomato. However, the cafe’s breakfast version of a Monte Cristo ($10) is disappointing. Ham and eggs and tooth-aching marmalade are bookended with French toast that’s too floppy and bland to hold it together. In fact, the sandwich is upstaged by the creamy-on-the-inside hash browns that are served with it.
For those who want to stay on the outskirts of Sandwich Land, the spicy peanut noodles ($10) make an excellent choice. The peanut sauce is not too peanutty, but it is quite creamy and gutsy with heat. It coats a big fat tangle of udon (thick, spaghetti-like wheat noodles), the bitter nip and crunch of baby bok choy, and your choice of protein. The quality and punch of this Japanese-inspired dish is impressive on a menu that can seem a little far-flung.
Blackbird offers a lengthy list of sides and small plates to round out your meal. From empanadas ($7) to lamb nachos ($12), the spectrum is somewhat baffling, but it supports the café’s way of loving up many different regions and cuisines. The truffled gnocchi ($9) is melty and aromatic, and the celery-brie soup’s ($4.50 or $6) pleasant funkiness is surprising, but might not be worth the risk of tepidity (I was told the soup is too delicate to keep at high temperatures).
Echoing the quirky menu and decor, the desserts are also homemade projects. The coconut cake ($6) is especially satisfying on an arctic night. It is subtle and cloudy, with lots of milky goodness and just a sly hint of sugar. While it might disappoint the die-hard sweet tooth, it will simultaneously appease those who prefer creamy desserts… and those who have dined too richly (if that’s possible).
Full bellies and menu aside, Blackbird still impresses most indelibly with its genuine floor staff and a new, airy pastel vibe that is often scarce in the wood-paneled and snow beleaguered Midwest. When you’ve been waiting for an hour and your server-to-be stops by to gently assure you that her section will be open soon, your heart can’t help but swell a little. Take a seat at the long, clean bar and be cool; Blackbird is here to take care of you, once again.
BEST BET: Spicy Peanut Noodles. They’re hearty, they’re hot, they’re a winter’s foil!
Casual American Restaurant
3800 Nicollet Ave
CHEF / OWNERS: Chris Stevens / Chris Stevens and Gail Mollner
BAR: Beer + Wine
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: For groups of 6 or more
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
AVERAGE ENTREE: $5-$20 (not including small plates)