When Phil Vettel last reviewed Blackbird, Bill Clinton was president (though whether he’d stay president was an open question), Seinfeld was about to go off the air and Apple had just come out with an all-in-one, white and blue computer called an iMac. In 13-1/2 years since, Blackbird has been arguably the most influential restaurant of our time in Chicago; its porky, acid-pop bold flavor ethos and buzzing, scenester feel have become the DNA of local dining. And Vettel, possessor of our most prominent critical perch, has not been back, at least in print. (He apparently went several times last year with the intention of writing a review of Mike Sheerin-era Blackbird, but didn’t manage to publish it before Sheerin was replaced by David Posey.) At last he returns, and bestows four stars on the food being turned out by Posey, who he says “is cooking with a boldness that puts me in mind of the restaurant’s early days… Posey’s dishes are all about balancing the bitter and sweet, the fatty and lean.”
And then… he explains that it’s all despite the fact that dining at Blackbird has aspects “that are anathema to long-held notions of four-star dining. The dining room is comfortable, but hardly luxurious. The white-on-white room can be too bright. Two-person tables are too small, and too closely spaced. Noise is often an issue.” To hear Vettel, Blackbird bungled the dining experience— rather than set the paradigm over the last 13 years for the new, less formal, more energetic dining scene which has bloomed all over Chicago. And which has been embraced by contemporary diners in countless variations all over town— diners who have, in Vettel’s own words, “a growing sense that these fine-dining trappings have become the fringe on our culinary lampshade — nice if you like that sort of thing, but ultimately unimportant.” [Tribune]
Another longtime restaurant which has evolved and influenced dining comes in for four stars, albeit out of five, from Julia Kramer in Time Out Chicago. Lula Cafe was only a little above your typical hippie/hipster restaurant when it opened as a pioneer in Logan Square in 1999, and it notoriously validated the indifferent service of such places on an episode of This American Life.
But it was also a pioneer in farm to table dining when no one knew what that meant, and Kramer finds the 12-year-old Lula has grown from cafe to accomplished restaurant: “Dish after dish pushed the envelope from interesting to exciting. I had a bite that combined sweet-potato puree, black lentils and candied peanuts, and I was left with nothing else to say except, in awe, ‘Peanuts!’” In the end she puts it in some pretty heady company like, for instance, Blackbird: “These dishes were captivating flavor-wise. Others were marvelous just to look at, in a way similar to the plates at Blackbird or L2O. But Lula is not really like Blackbird and L2O: It’s in the world of neighborhood restaurants whose appetizers are 10 bucks and entrées 20. And in this landscape, the ambition and finesse of Lula’s food truly puts it in a league of its own.” [TOC]