Chris Stevens of Blackbird: Chef Chat, part 2

Chef Chris Stevens overhauled the old Blackbird menu.

Chef Chris Stevens overhauled the old Blackbird menu.

Michelle Bruch
Chef Chris Stevens overhauled the old Blackbird menu.
Blackbird is back, and we sat down with chef Chris Stevens for an early look at the menu.

The restaurant shut down in February after a grease fire destroyed a line of businesses at 50th and Bryant. Blackbird reopened for dinner last week at 38th and Nicollet, and this week the restaurant is open for lunch as well.

Read on to learn all about the food--what's back from the old menu, what's new to try, and what the staff chowed down on the first night Blackbird reopened. Many of the old neighborhood favorites are still on the menu, with a few tweaks here and there.

This is the second in a three-part series.

[jump] How much has the menu changed? Your customers reportedly ordered you not to change a thing.

About half of the menu is the same as before. We have a lot of standards that people really like to eat, and we tried to keep most of the sandwiches. It's like seeing old friends.

We committed ourselves to at least changing half of the menu every month just to keep things fresh and keep us interested in the kitchen. We added some more sides and little appetizer things, just to encourage people to be a little more adventurous.

What are your favorites off the new menu?

I'm really digging the shitake short ribs. This is a fun little variation on an entrée we made last year. They were a bigger cut, braised in this really heavy mushroom braise, with porcini mushrooms and dried shitakes and soy sauce tamari. We garnished it with fresh horseradish and Thai chilies and mint, and it was a huge hit and it was super delicious. But we didn't want to bring it back as an entrée. So we did Korean style, thin-cut short ribs. We just grill them off and we have this little sauté that we do with shitake mushrooms. It has some of the same feelings as the entrée, but it's a little appetizer thing.

I'm enjoying the fried rice a lot too. We buy Berkshire pork shanks or pork hocks, so that's the bottom of the ham leg--it's got a lot of bone in it and a lot of connective tissue because that's where all the tendons attach to the knee. There's just a little bit of meat on it, but we braise them for a really long time. We actually dry rub it with lots of paprika, some thyme, and a few other things, and then we smoke it and braise it, and then cook all the meat off, and then use Pabst Blue Ribbon. That pulls all of the connective tissue out of the meat so it's this super gelatinous, yummy little sauce. We use that as the base for sautéing the rice, and then it has squash and a handful of Thai basil--it has a good scent. We top it with a chicken wing.

Any holdovers from the old menu you'd like to highlight?

Most of the sandwiches are the same. We've got a really nice brisket sandwich that we call the Longhorn. For our walleye sandwich, we use fresh walleye from Coastal--it's from the Red Lake Indian reservation. It's a beautiful fresh walleye with corn meal breading and deep fried. It's got this pickled cabbage on it and Cajun mayo, and that's kind of an old favorite.

Our bahn mi, people keep talking about that. It's just super tasty. We all hunkered down the first night and ate one before service, we were all so hungry for one.

The black bean burger, the Southwestern, that's an old favorite. Also the spicy peanut noodles.

This space is quite a bit bigger than the old one.

We sat 45 in the old space, and this is about 75, so almost double.

Any other major changes to the restaurant?

We've got a bigger tap beer selection. We've got six beers instead of one, mostly local stuff, like Fulton's Sweet Child of Vine.
Your blog about the restaurant build-out says you hung balloons to figure out where the lights would go.

That was our electrician's idea. We actually recovered these [light fixtures] from the space. If you look at them really closely, this one is all bent, but they're wrought iron, and they were pretty much indestructible. All the wiring is burnt out, but we just pulled that out and rewired them and put them up because we thought they were really cool--they make cool shadows. But they're big. When we were trying to figure out whether they would work in the space, the balloons helped a lot.

What's the history of your new building at 38th and Nicollet?

Theisen Vending Company owned it, and they bought it in 1960 and built the building next door that the Aliveness Project is moving into. From my understanding, this space was just a warehouse. They had big steel plates in here and forklifts, so it wasn't really a public space at all. For decades it was [a warehouse], and then I think they moved to Golden Valley in '03 or '04, so it was vacant.

Are you still trying to keep prices affordable at the new location?

Yeah, I don't think we've really changed too much. Nothing is over $20.

Is that hard to do?

We eat a lot off the bottom of the animal. Flank steak is really delicious, but it's essentially a cut of beef down [below]. Not the tenderloins, necessarily. And then we try to work with smaller amounts of meat. With the fried rice, for example, it's going to be a couple ounces of pork, not six ounces. That helps a lot. Then we use super high-quality ingredients. Right now we're using Berkshire pork from Six Point--a cooperative in southwestern Minnesota--so it's more expensive, but we [make it work]. We do a lot of ham shanks, a lot of braises, and a lot of long, slow cooking, and that seems to work out pretty well.

Our chat with Chris Stevens of Blackbird continues tomorrow...