After my two visits to the new Blackbird Eatery in O’Bryonville, it seems that the place hasn’t been discovered yet. In business for about two months, Blackbird was sparsely populated during both a Friday lunch and a weekend dinner. It sits around the corner from busy Madison Road between two other well-known dining destinations — The BonBonerie Bakery & Café and Eighth & English — and it’s hard to see the Blackbird sign from Madison. But they’re serving two meals every day except Monday and Tuesday, and giving the area a welcome addition for good eats.
Blackbird is the latest venture by longtime Cincinnati restaurateurs Mary and Mark Swortwood, who closed their Columbia Tusculum restaurants Green Dog Café and Buz to focus on the new project in a more central neighborhood. (The Swortwoods were also the original owners of Blue Ash’s Brown Dog Café.)
Formerly a chicken joint called Son of a Preacher Man, the building had been vacant for over a year when the Swortwoods began extensive renovations in January. While they were able to use a lot of kitchen equipment from their previous restaurants, Mark told me they completely gutted the dining room and started from scratch to transform the single room into a more intimate, inviting space where guests might linger over drinks and dinner or Sunday brunch.
I remember Preacher Man as a brightly lit, somewhat cramped room with booths and tables — not at all incongruous with chicken and biscuits, but not necessarily what you’d want for a more upscale restaurant. Blackbird has toned down the lighting, muted the color scheme to a soothing pale green/beige palette, gotten rid of the booths and added a bar. My only reservation about the décor is that if the room gets full it could be quite noisy with all the hard surfaces. But that didn’t happen on my visits.
In fact, my first visit — for dinner — turned out surprisingly quiet, even though we went on a Saturday night. No more than half the tables filled up during the evening, which did make conversation easy. My friends and I each started with one of the house cocktails ($11), taking suggestions from our server who steered us toward the Blackbird Mules (choice of vodka or rye with housemade ginger beer) and Summer Bourbon Smash (based on rye, triple sec and raspberry liqueur). The drinks came with lots of crushed ice — nice for a summer refreshment but with the downside of making the drinks watery very fast. We put some of the ice in our water glasses and sipped and chatted merrily.
A couple shareable starters came next, including a generous bowl of maple bacon roasted almonds ($4) and a plate of red beet hummus ($9) garnished with smoked yogurt and fried chickpeas. The baked flatbread triangles that came with the hummus were cooked just right: a little crispy, warm and tender. The proportion of hummus to all the bread was a little off, though. More hummus or less bread would have been better.
I also tried the Birdhouse Salad ($8) — mixed greens with dried tomatoes and pickled shallots — but found it lackluster and didn’t come close to finishing it. One of my pet peeves is when restaurants serve too many greens and not enough of the tastier ingredients, which is what happened here.
Perhaps the kitchen might reconsider the proportion of various elements of some of the dishes. As the meal progressed, I also noticed a trend of under-seasoning the entrées, resulting in blandness where there ought to be a savory pop of flavor.
Case in point was the Nori Pesto Salmon ($17) with zucchini, pea shoots and green couscous, which sounded so good we almost fought over who would get to order it. Not only was it lacking in taste, but the dish also arrived lukewarm.
We had better luck with the grilled lamb tenderloins ($29), consisting of slices of medium-rare lamb over green lentils with pickled golden raisins and a yogurt sauce. Maybe that sounds strange, but it worked well, with the sweet raisins and the creamy/tangy yogurt blending nicely with the lentils. They served a healthy portion of lamb, more than we could finish, in fact.
We accompanied the main courses with a couple glasses of wine from a list of almost two dozen choices. I noticed that the bottles-only list was fairly priced with minimal markup, which is a nice thing to see. Also noteworthy in the wine department is the glass pours are half-price on Wednesdays.
Our dinner had been fairly light so we decided to try all three of the dessert offerings, and I’m so glad we did. Dessert was the star of the meal, thanks to the delicious work of pastry chef Chris Roswog, who also bakes all the restaurant’s bread and rolls.
We enjoyed the ginger cake, a chocolate mousse creation and something called milk and cookies ($8-$9 each). It was the last of those that knocked me out: vanilla panna cotta with cherry jam and pecan shortbread on the side.
A few days later I returned with another friend to try lunch and found a couple of dishes that we liked. She ordered the Chicken Paillard Salad ($16) after we saw our server deliver it to someone at another table. The chicken had been breaded and oven-baked or fried and the salad included plenty of sliced avocado, nicely sweet charred carrots and a sprinkling of pumpkin seeds for crunch.
Taking our server’s recommendation, I had the Chili Tofu Burger ($13) on a housemade bun. It was too fat and messy to pick up and eat, so I had to resort to knife and fork. But the flavors were pleasing and included chili jam, pickled carrots, baby spinach and avocado.
Overall, while I think the cooking needs a few tweaks, there’s enough good stuff coming out of the kitchen to satisfy most diners who find their way to this little restaurant row on O’Bryon Street.
Blackbird Eatery, 3009 O’Bryon St., O’Bryonville, 513-321-0413 blackbirdeatery.com. Hours: 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m.; 5-9 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. brunch; 4-8 p.m. supper Sunday.