Who Knew: We’re Picking Up What ‘Blackbird’ Is Putting Down


Blackbird's vibrant palette deserves some kind of restaurant award.

‘Who Knew?’ is sponsored by Walter Stewart’s Market.

Concept restaurants are older than you might think.

Long before the Polo Bar traded in clubby, manufactured exclusivity, and even before Olive Garden hatched the infinite breadstick, 11th-century Chinese restaurateurs conducted an early prototype of market research. Though it’s unlikely that focus groups were convened behind one-way mirrors, and data-mining for diner insights had yet to be invented, Song dynasty restaurant visionaries noticed that many of their patrons were visitors from other regions and tailored their menus to these specific tastes. Thus, a merchant visiting Hangzhou from Kaifeng might find a familiar bowl of noodle soup, and the buzzy hotspot was born. 

Friday night cocktail, not made by me.

Ten centuries later, a Friday night reservation for four was procured for Blackbird, Z Hospitality Group’s latest restaurant concept. The concept in question?  Per their website, a “sleek, sophisticated” space on Elm Street, next to sister Solé, with “dim lighting, share plates,” and “rounds of inventive, handcrafted cocktails.” And guess what? It works. Exceptionally well. Like many adults, I’m loath to handcraft my own cocktail on a Friday night after a wall-to-wall workweek. I want to see friends. Eat small plates of different things. Hear the sweet sound of cocktail shakers being operated by other people. Blackbird picked up on that need, and on its first Friday in business, it was packed cheek-to-jowl by folks with similar definitions of a good time. The spirited, anything-goes vibe of their menu speaks to the merchant traveler in us all, placing sushi next to focaccia next to tiny tostadas. Is there a cultural through-line? Not really. And also, who cares? That sounds like a Monday question.

The mood is bright and minimally decorated. Lines and repeating shapes in black and stark white give Blackbird’s walls optical interest without distracting from the side-eye view of what your table neighbors are eating. The fixtures are less visibly opulent than Solé’s soft-hued 2023 retrofit; my husband’s initial reaction was, audibly, “This is like Solé CB2.” Astute, if not the point. The focus here is on the table, not what’s around it.

Winner winner, matcha and vodka dinner.

Blackbird quickly emerges from its sister restaurant’s shadow. The cocktails are abundant in number and, hands-down, the most adventurous in New Canaan. Their “Drive-In” boasts popcorn-infused gin, chinola passionfruit juice, thyme cordial, and lime. The “Seoul Paloma” combines Lunazul Blanco tequila with gochujang & mandarin, a Mexican-Korean flight of fancy for anyone who ever followed the Kogi Taco Truck on Twitter, as I did. I opted for a Last Word (gin, maraschino liqueur, genepy, lime) that was tart enough to wake me up, like an Aviation without the crème violette. 

The runaway winner of the cocktail category at our table was a Green & Tonic, which looked enough like a green juice to telegraph health but was just a simple, well-balanced combination of Tito’s vodka, matcha, lemon, and tonic. If you’re out of ideas for a fresh summer cocktail, well, now you’re not. It was fantastic. For $28, if you’re up to the challenge, Blackbird also serves a flight of four espresso martinis, each using a different base liquor. I admire the chutzpah and the trend-savviness (all the world loves an espresso martini, and what Instagrams better than a cute set of four boozy coffees?). Still, I was ultimately too chicken to consume so much caffeine after 7 PM. I’m hopeful a decaf version is on offer.

The beets that turned me into a beet evangelist.

The menu takes similarly canny swings, anticipating a local diner’s well-traveled palate and a modern food fanatic’s ultimate wish to share everything with the table rather than gnaw endlessly on the same slab of porterhouse for 45 minutes. Committing to an entrée can be stressful in a way that agreeing to get a sushi starter for the table just isn’t.

Standouts for the four of us were many. The candy cane beets were dazzling little gems, brightened by kumquat slices, sitting pretty atop caramelized yogurt. A fried oyster studded with salsify and leek, perched in a tiny pool of habanero butter, was briny, featherlight, and paired perfectly with my ginny, limey cocktail. The Campo Grande Iberico pork was perfectly done, well-flavored, and tender. It came accompanied by a small mountain of fried rice; a tidy sautée with Asian, Spanish, and Peruvian inflections that somehow transcended geographical origin. We absolutely adored the Jambalaya rice balls, an andouille-flecked amalgam of my mother’s Louisiana Creole cooking staple with Sicilian arancini. It is a genius combination of techniques that results in a salty, spicy little croquette to serve as ballast against a heavy pour.

Fried oysters were a revelation. Were tweezed microgreens on everything? Yes, but that’s where health comes from.

A PSA about zoodles: we’ve all tried to make them at home and wound up with a watery mush, insulting in its insipid attempt to resemble Actual Pasta. At Blackbird, we ordered the zoodles to see how vegetarians and the gluten-averse might experience the place, and they arrived well-formed, topped with an umami-powered mushroom ragu and accompanied by falafel. Again, with the genre-bending flavor combos, it worked. I appreciated that on a menu fairly overwhelmed with animal protein, the vegetarian entree option wasn’t a pallid afterthought, but an item I’d readily seek out. 

I initially campaigned against ordering the smash burger–who needs something so ubiquitous when there are a dozen other culinary alleyways to peer down on this menu? But burgers are always a bellwether for technique, and I was glad Andrew won this battle. It was perfectly executed and came on a bun positively resplendent with sesame seeds, which is always a good sign. It’s constructed with pickled tomatoes, gruyère (which should honestly top more burgers), and something called Baconnaise, which may be available for licensing if you’re shopping for a new drag name.

Jambalaya rice balls. Do yourself a favor and get two orders for the table.

On the night we tried it, the BLT panzanella wasn’t true panzanella; it was a salad with an underwhelming ratio of croutons. For my money, Uncorked’s BLT salad works a bit harder. Next time, I’ll opt for Blackbird’s fennel and arugula; with smoked trout, everything bagel spice, and horseradish, it sounds profoundly savory and optimally crunchy.

Desserts: we ordered them all, and a cloud of dissent hovered over our table for the first time. Someone preferred the donuts–I think they were baby zeppoles sitting on Yuzu jam, but don’t quote me. Some, including me, favored a little matcha pot de crème with black-and-white sesame-studded cookies. Andrew liked the bread pudding because he will invariably love it if there is caramel in anything. My iPhone tasting notes begin to degrade in quality at this point, saying, “Donuts were better, and the matcha thing,” followed by an incomprehensible bullet point about whipped cream. Did I have another glass of wine? Yes. Did I need it? Clearly, no.

I can’t possibly tell you what this was called. A Guinness cake of some sort? A flourless chocolate torte? Whatever it was, it was well-accessorized and disappeared quickly.

Still, it was a standout meal, with stellar company and a menu I can’t wait to explore further. The prices were… fine. Not cheap, not outrageous, just on par for this town. I truly appreciate it when wines by the glass don’t travel too far north of $20, and on this menu, only the Sancerre and Barolo had the nerve. Too bad Sancerre is my go-to. But all the same, as a cocktail spot taking some admirable menu swings, Blackbird is an overachiever. Said our friend Joyce Solano, “They’re making some of the best food in New Canaan, and that’s pretty good for a drinks place.” 

Matcha meal bookends FTW!

2024 seems to be New Canaan’s Upgrade Era. Plans are underway for a more permanent outdoor dining situation, an interesting new movie theater, and we have a newly landscaped train station (shoutout to my NCBL pals!) and library town green. Now this: a buzzy new hotspot ready for summer evenings, adventurous palates, and Friday nights when you can turn it all over to the pros and toast your good fortune to live in such a town. I’m here for it, and I’ll see you there.

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