BLACKBIRD KITCHEN & COCKTAILS
3026 Merrick Rd., Wantagh
AMBIENCE: Pottery Barn meets the neighborhood pub that elevates bar food and drink with a short menu of simple dishes, skillfully prepared.
ESSENTIALS: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 4:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday; takeout, wheelchair-accessible, Wi-Fi available, street parking, weekend valet.
On a stretch of Merrick Road next to a psychic and a dog groomer, Blackbird Kitchen & Cocktails raises the bar in bar food — with only two guys cooking in the kitchen. From a brisket and short rib burger to a kale Caesar chopped like ribbons, nothing is too complicated, yet the food is satisfying.
Even in its simplicity, there’s an air of possibility here that’s attracting a supportive clientele clamoring for new neighborhood restaurants.
Chef and partner Chris Perrotta’s goal was to open a place that was fairly small, so he could cook the kind of food he wanted to make without taking shortcuts. But he had a tight budget. “I’m still a young guy,” he said. Back in the conception phase, he was coming off an eight-year stint running a restaurant in Queens where he had an ownership stake. By September, he and Frank Ubriaco — his partner and brother-in-law — opened the 40-seat Blackbird Kitchen & Cocktails.
It is tasteful if nondescript inside, a narrow room with dark wood, a long bar, black chairs and flourishes like a bird cage on the wall. Remember back in the days before our noses were glued to our phones? Then, it was common to see people reading a book or newspaper at accommodating bars and cafes. Blackbird is that kind of place in that it’s neither too dark nor too loud.
Blackbird encourages drinking as well as dining, with a signature gin and blackberry drink, a seasonal rotation such as a pumpkin martini and a spicy ginger Dark and Stormy to keep the flavors of summer in the forefront. Wines cover the bases with rosé, prosecco, chardonnay, malbec and cab. The beers are a bit more interesting, with Peroni, Sea Dog and Southern Tier among them.
Perrotta and Ubriaco do just about everything themselves with too-few staff. This is not a criticism, but often the reality of starting an independently owned restaurant. Their work includes spending mornings driving around to source meats from Prime Time Butcher in Woodbury and vegetables from Rottkamp Brothers Farm in Glen Head. Until Rottkamp’s sell the last produce of the season, Perrotta will pick up his potatoes, greens, garlic and beets.
Those beets highlight the quinoa that kicks off the small plates listings. They’re roasted and paired with Mission figs, manchego cheese and pumpkin seeds. Other dishes are more compelling, like the cacio e pepe-inspired arancini, small enough for snacking. The dish is a vegetarian-friendly change-up of the softball-sized version, tinted with tomato paste, stuffed with beef and peas.
House-made ricotta elevates cheesy bread, curds on toast drizzled with olive oil and garnished with lemon zest and herbs. Order that kale salad with the delicate raviolini, little envelopes of butternut squash with a hint of sweetness. In an era of Baroque, it’s a relief that the burger is minimalist here — a two-handed number perfectly confident in a thin sheath of Gruyere. By the way, Perrotta is making the brioche buns in-house.
As for the fries, they’re admirable, with their crisp exterior and pillowy inside. Perrotta said each day he sorts potatoes, using the larger ones for fries, which are skinned and cut, boiled, air-dried, then fried. He freezes them for the next day’s orders, when they’re fried again and served with the burger or as a poutine small plate with cheese curds and gravy.
The smaller potatoes are held for another entree, the roast chicken: a conservative dish that’s unquestionably good. Sometimes you’ll find the breast looking as if it’s in flight atop a cityscape of pepper-flecked potatoes dolloped with salsa verde. There’s a charm to the presentation — and to this place.