Chain restaurants thrive in Vancouver, and, whether you love ’em or hate ’em, you’re probably familiar with the Donnelly Group. In the past, the chain’s pubs and clubs haven’t exactly been known for their food. But the company’s newest baby, the Blackbird, is changing that.
The restaurant’s full name is the Blackbird Public House & Oyster Bar, but that’s a little confusing for the set-up of this two-storey behemoth smack in the middle of the financial district. (The nearly 9,000-square-foot space occupies the former home of the Keg Caesar’s, beneath Brandi’s and Swedish Touch.) Upstairs is the pub, complete with pool table, shuffleboard, live music, and a racetrack-shaped scotch bar with more than 70 labels on offer. The main floor, where the oyster bar is situated, is actually referred to as the bistro, and it also houses in one corner what must be one of the coolest men’s haircut joints in town, Ian Daburn’s Barbershop at the Blackbird.
Designed by Craig Stanghetta (who masterminded the Homer Street Cafe’s stunning décor), the bistro is not all typical Donnelly darkness. That’s not to say it’s as bright as a day at the beach in July, but, with its grey-toned checkerboard floors, wood accents, and numerous orb-shaped lights, it has the feel of an upbeat Paris brasserie. There are a couple of TV screens on this level, but they face only one side of the room and weren’t visible from our table.
Besides having the smarts to hire Stanghetta, Jeff Donnelly has also added three other topnotch players to his group in recent years: barman Jay Jones, bar and beverage director Trevor Kallies, and research and development chef Alvin Pillay.
There’s an extensive beer list (mostly craft brews on tap) and a solid wine selection, but it’s the cocktail collection that showcases the team’s creativity. I love the way Kallies incorporates lavender bitters and lemon zest into the Beloved & the Mad, a warm-you-up libation with Remy Martin VSOP cognac, Giffard crème de violette, dry vermouth, and lemon juice. Smoky Sombra mescal gives extra depth to Jones’s Pineapple Punch, which is made with pineapple vinegar, fresh lemon, celery bitters, and ginger beer.
Pillay, meanwhile, is leading the sea change in the Donnelly kitchen, starting with product sourcing. Formerly chef de cuisine at Campagnolo and executive chef at the Irish Heather, he’s a full-on supporter of all that’s local and sustainable.
“My philosophy is food from the farmers and suppliers we know,” the enthusiastic chef says in a follow-up phone call. He names a few: Organic Ocean for seafood, Abbotsford’s Gelderman Farms for pork (and blueberries), Sawmill Bay Shellfish Co. for oysters, and Rossdown Farms for poultry. “I feel good about cooking, and customers are savvy; the minimum expectation is to have those kinds of quality ingredients.”
The types of oysters on offer vary, of course, but a recent visit featured Kushi, Miyagi, and Beau Soleil from the East Coast, which taste like a swig of ocean. Pillay makes a killer cocktail sauce and also served the mollusks up with a sherry-and-bacon accompaniment. (The Blackbird offers oyster and scotch pairings.)
The menu features pub-style sandwiches and meal-size salads, but many items are unique. Charred beef short ribs are marinated in soy sauce, served on a bed of pickled vegetables, and topped with cilantro: this satisfying starter is like a banh mi sandwich without the bread.
Spiced chicken pie turned out to be a surprising delight. Served in a ramekin big enough to suit an NHL enforcer, this comfort dish is chock full of chunky carrots and parsnips and ultra-tender pieces of chicken breast. Pillay’s take on country-style gravy, piquant with garlic, pepper, and allspice, gives the puff pastry a pleasant kick. It’s topped with a chicken wing and served with a heap of watercress in a simple lemon-and-olive oil dressing.
Dried chilies punch up a tagliatelle pasta tossed in a citrus sauce along with crispy kale and abundantly flavourful humpback shrimp. Okra with masala spice and puréed sweet potato accompany a tender salmon filet, while oyster mushrooms and spinach dress up a warm farro salad that’s served with a juicy chicken.
None of us opted for eggs, but they have their own dedicated section on the dinner menu. “At Balthazar in New York, you can get eggs all day; that was the thought behind it,” Pillay says of his main dishes that star eggs from Richmond’s Rabbit River Farms. “A lot of our clientele are businesspeople who work all hours, and I think they like the idea of coming in for an omelette or corned beef hash at any hour of the day.”
Desserts underwhelmed (that first bite of chocolate gâteau tasted like batter); French press coffee did not. Nor did the service—our psych-major waiter was well-informed and attentive. Mains run from $18 to $26, while sandwiches and burgers range from $14 to $17.