Posted on 05 June 2012 by dubs
Blackbird Kitchen and Bar
1015 9th Street – Sacramento
Words by Adam Saake | Photos by Nicholas Wray
The first week of April saw the opening of the frequently discussed and much anticipated Blackbird Kitchen and Bar. Owner and Chef Carina Lampkin nested inside the 1015 9th Street location, where she and company set to work on changing the downtown space into a tastefully designed restaurant and bar with a laidback, European feel. Stairs lead up to the second-floor mezzanine, which overlooks the front half of the restaurant, giving guests a bird’s eye view. Upon my visit, the 7 o’clock hour brought a setting sun that tore through the glass front doors and illuminated the bar, the top of which is a gorgeous plank of solid redwood. To put it bluntly, this bird is pretty. And Lampkin accomplished this by putting her DIY attitude to work with little capital.
“I had a vision of taking this dilapidated building and transforming it into something beautiful. I didn’t have a lot of money. So it was me, and my friends and my mom chipping paint and learning how to plaster,” says Lampkin.
The concept for Blackbird began on a bicycle trip from San Francisco, where Lampkin was living and cooking at the time, to Los Angeles. The bike trip was her pilgrimage to overcome the personal trauma of losing one of her close friends in a car accident in 2006. Lampkin was in that same car, and the accident put her in a coma for 30 days.
“When I woke up, the song was going through my head,” remembers Lampkin.
This was the first of other signs that Lampkin felt was her friend trying to communicate with her. Her mother recounts hearing a crow cawing loudly during her memorial service when her loved ones were speaking of her infectious laugh.
“She felt that her spirit was in that crow,” says Lampkin.
And so on that bike trip, with time to think and talk, the idea was hatched by her friend.
“My friend Christian said to me, ‘Carina, you love helping people so much. Why don’t you move to Sacramento and open a business with your family?’ So that’s what I did,” says Lampkin.
Now let’s talk seafood. When you hear the name Blackbird, it’s not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind, but Lampkin wasn’t about to call the place the Clam Shack. However, there are clams on the menu. Applewood-smoked clams, to be exact, in a seafood chowder that is absolutely divine. It’s one of those things where you look over your shoulder to make sure no one is watching you lick the bottom of the bowl clean. Resident wine buff Tyler Stacy paired this with a Domaine Delaye Chardonnay that nicely complemented the rich chowder. It’s great for business that Stacy is on board at Blackbird. He’s a young, up and coming guy in the local wine scene, and he knows his stuff. When you dine at Blackbird, he’ll steer you in the right direction with pairings. And with him around, glassware will be proper, no doubt.
There are many memorable dishes on the small, 15-item menu that Lampkin and Chef de Cuisine Kevin O’Connor (you may remember him when we covered his Tree House Dinners) have assembled. The menu is sort of an homage to San Francisco’s Bar Crudo, where Lampkin worked under the talented Mike Selvera, her “favorite chef.” His approach to menu size, raw bar and ambiance certainly was an influence when setting the groundwork for Blackbird, and that’s a very good thing.
“Mike Selvera was never competitive in the kitchen, was always cool and never mad if you forgot something on an order. Jameson came out around 8 o’clock every night as we were listening to punk rock music,” recalls Lampkin.
Lampkin borrowed some of her best menu items, slightly tweaked of course, from Bar Crudo including the aforementioned chowder. The Maine lobster and roasted beet salad with burrata cheese, Banyuls vinaigrette and upland crest was bright, stunning and delicious. Stacy supplied a beautiful German Pinot/Trollinger, and I was happy as a clam. The raw bar, which is tucked a bit further back in the restaurant, has seating for guests to get right up close to the shucking action. Choose from Miyagi, Beausoleil, Kumamoto or Shigoku oysters on the half shell and stuff yourself silly during happy hour when the Miyagis are $1 apiece. And when it comes to oysters, there isn’t much to say about the chef’s preparation unless we’re talking sauces. It’s just about quality and freshness, and Blackbird’s oysters have just that. Stacy knocked it out of the park with a bright and mineral-y Muscadet from Gilbert Chon to sip while I slurped.
Other options from the raw bar are a nod to Japanese cuisine like the Kona Kampachi with citrus, cucumber, Thai aromatics and purple shiso; or the Arctic Char with housemade kimchi (awesome), honey-soy reduction, micro cilantro and black lava salt. All of these dishes were beautifully plated and garnished by O’Connor, and the colors and creativity are singing on this menu. This creative energy is something that Lampkin made sure that her general manager Dona Bridges sought out when selecting the staff.
“During the interview process, I asked if anyone’s a career restaurant person, that’s who we want to work with and please make sure that they also have a background in art. Because not only do I want this to be a restaurant, but I want it to be a creative powerhouse,” says Lampkin.
The winner from the raw bar was the Dayboat scallops dish that, before and after I had eaten it, servers and bartenders were asking me, “Have you tried the scallops yet?” It’s a good sign when your entire staff is raving about a dish. Presented on a green pea puree that was stellar all on its own, shaved asparagus, pink peppercorns and lemon oil and paired with a lovely German Riesling, the scallops were all they were cracked up to be. But to tell you the truth, even through dishes like the squid ink fettucine with grilled Monterey squid, dino kale, chorizo and preserved Meyer lemon, I saved just enough appetite for the main event: whole roasted Passmore Ranch trout. Passamore Ranch just has a killer product. The preparation of this dish makes me weak in the knees–I’m still remembering breaking into the skin as the steam rose from the perfectly cooked flesh. Sinful. Served with fava beans, spring onion, sous-vide fennel and sweet herbs, it’s all about the trout at Blackbird.
Just as Blackbird’s kitchen speaks volumes, as does its bar. Patrick O’Neill’s many years of bar experience have culminated here and his passion for the craft is evident when you order a drink from him. He’s got classics on the list like the Blood and Sand or the Moscow Mule (served in a bronze mug) and mixes up intrigue with the wildly colorful Purple Haze. The bar reminds me of a kitchen counter lined with glass jars filled with fresh herbs like mint, basil and rosemary; and citrus fruits like oranges, cumquats, lemons and limes. The liquor selection is a bartender’s playground, and the list is still changing and evolving. It’ll be nice to see what the Blackbird bar comes up with once they’re completely settled in.
Blackbird is a whole defined by its parts; a restaurant of young talents converging in one space and taking ownership, each of them a brush stroke in helping to paint the larger picture. Lampkin has taken them under her wing and is guiding them toward perfection by showing them that focusing on the details makes the difference.
“The difference between a great restaurant and an awesome restaurant is attention to detail,” says Lampkin.
Lampkin attributes her own success to what she calls “amazing grace.” She teaches her kitchen about meditation and the power that their thoughts or mood may have on the cooking.
“If you’re angry and you’re cooking, that anger goes into your food. Because when you have a thought, there’s an electrical release and that travels through your hand into the food. If you’re upset, that guest is going leave with anxiety in their stomach. But if you’re joyful and meditating happy thoughts, they’ll leave with that,” explains Lampkin.
You’ll be sure to leave Blackbird with happy thoughts.