A welcome homecoming

Posted: September 16, 2007

It has been nearly two years since Alex Capasso slipped off the cooking radar. One of my favorite young chefs simply disappeared into the ether of consulting work and the seemingly endless chase that planning a chef-owned place can so often become.

But after a long quest across South Jersey, where the Brasserie Perrier alum earned a stellar reputation at Max's and Misto, Capasso has come full circle to his hometown of Collingswood. And it was worth the wait. The old Collings Avenue hardware store once called Weldon's is now the home of Blackbird Dining Establishment. And within four short months, it has become one of South Jersey's best restaurants.

Where once his neighbors went to buy shovels and cut new keys, Capasso is now spinning pasta "love letters" tossed with braised rabbit, frothing "cappuccinos" steeped with figs, and working wonders with baby goat.

The name is a cumbersome mouthful, to be sure, embellished at the last minute to avoid confusion with another local business. But that's more an awkward vestige of Capasso's roundabout comeback than a reflection on the tasteful clarity of the experience he's created here. The bilevel space has been transformed into a bistro of warm and simple elegance, with mission-style wood and glass accents at the entrance, walnut floors, braided-leather banquettes, and artfully framed black-and-white photos of kitchen friends and family taken by the chef himself.

There is a nicely polished service staff led by Brazilian-born maitre d' Mark Nascimento, whose suave inquiry - "More pepper, Capitaine?" - was delivered with just enough wry charm to make us smile.

But it is the seamless contemporary cooking from Capasso and his longtime kitchen lieutenant, William Connelly, that truly makes Blackbird worth a trip - even with a $3 bridge toll.

Rooted in French and Italian techniques with a few nods to Asia, and using excellent local ingredients, Blackbird's kitchen delivers some memorable plates. Dinner isn't cheap, with regular menu entrees ranging into the high $20s. But Capasso also turned out one of the best $30 four-course menus I've seen for a recent "farm to fork" event, though I'll concede I couldn't resist that menu's numerous opportunities for upgrades.

That fig cappuccino, a warm soup tinted with peppermint and tupelo honey and dolloped with foamed milk, was just one of the farm menu's stellar starters, which we upgraded with dabs of melting gorgonzola and snappy pine nuts. Pudding-soft sweetbreads crisped in cornmeal were a textural thrill over chewy beads of fregola sarda pasta. And sheer ribbons of chilled homemade fettuccine glazed in lemony creme fraiche and jewels of caviar were garnished with the luxury of fresh warm morels ($5 extra).

Entrees for the special menu were also stellar. The confit of chicken thighs served over summer succotash risotto was so meltingly tender, the skins crisped like crackers, it's a wonder that technique (slow stewing in duck fat and schmaltz) isn't seen more often.

But the evening's most ingenious dish was Capasso's ode to kid goat, which brought shreds of gently braised meat mounded atop an oversized ravioli fluffed with goat-cheese-whipped potatoes, then topped with a fanned ruby-rare rosette of sweet tenderloin ($7 for that flourish).

It's a dish, at once rustic and elegant, that should soon be a fixture on Blackbird's regular menu. But that frequently changing selection had plenty of other worthy options.

Seared Gulf shrimp crackled beneath a crust of pulverized arborio rice and coriander over a creamy guacamole pedestal lit by a surprising tingle of spice. A country stew of braised rabbit luxuriated in the folds of wide, stationery-shaped "love letter" pasta sheets. Like all the pastas, it was available as a half-portion starter. Capasso's tiny gnocchi, a legacy of his Brasserie days (as was the superb goat cheese/potato terrine), were also best served simply, in a bright marinara scattered with milky poufs of melting mozzarella.

Among the entrees, a pristine slice of seared hamachi with miso sauce over a crisped cake of udon noodles showed a convincing touch with Asian flavors (at least more interesting than the Thai chicken spring rolls). A crispy striped bass stacked between twirled nests of shaved cucumber noodles tossed in tarragon pesto had an herbaceous punch that was vividly flavored but remarkably light.

There's nothing light about Capasso's meat entrees, but they're artfully hearty. A thick slice of ribeye paired with an indulgently homemade mac 'n' cheese that was tangy with parmesan cream. Succulent slices of veal tenderloin were stacked like cards with huge morels and asparagus tips in sherried cream.

Blackbird's kitchen wasn't quite flawless. The pappardelle were clumpy alongside the otherwise excellent polenta-crusted halibut. The dull black cod was less flavorful than the bok choy and lemongrass foam it came with.

But these are trivial complaints next to Blackbird's biggest weakness - dessert. The chocolate banana cake was dry. The thyme-scented creme brulee was too thickly crusted. The sorbets were icy.

The best bet is a bowl of ripe berries tossed in a froth of freshly whipped zabaglione. But even Capasso concedes these chef-made sweets aren't the desserts of his final vision.

"I'm still looking for a pastry chef," he says. "Know anyone?"

Now that Capasso's blip has blinked back onto the radar brighter than ever, Blackbird shouldn't be hard for that pastry chef to find.

Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Teresa's Next Door in Wayne.

Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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