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Blackbird Dining Establishment
619 Collings Avenue
Collingswood, Camden County, New Jersey
(856) 854-3444

I've been an enthusiastic follower of Chef Alex Capasso's culinary career for a number of years. He first lit up my radar screen as the exec at the dearly departed Max's Fine Dining in Cinnaminson, where he turned out an impressive array of innovative Franco-Italian offerings. At Misto in Cherry Hill, he continued to wow both the short-lived restaurant's clientele and professional critics alike.

But every chef's dream is to open his own establishment... and that dream became reality with the recent premiere of the Blackbird Dining Establishment in Collingswood. Housed in a former hardware store just off the White Horse Pike, the restaurant's attractive interior was completely designed by Mr. Capasso and comes replete with polished hardwood floors, mustard walls, splashes of beiges and browns, and mélange of enlarged black and white photographs, most of which were originally snapped by the chef himself. The décor is decidedly modern, though not starkly so, and imbued with a number of nicely integrated retro touches.

When it comes to the cuisine, in lieu of his usual Franco-Italian approach, Mr. Capasso has taken a more cosmopolitan stance. I would hasten to add, however, that the results are just as impressive, if not more so, than they were during his preceding tenures. With the aid of his chef du cuisine, William Connelly, also formerly of Misto, presentations remain beautifully orchestrated culinary gestalts, yet they do not overwhelm either the eye or the palate with a host of superfluous ingredients and/or architectural oddities.

The menu is a compact affair supplemented by a select number of daily specials. There are just four appetizers, four salads, three pastas (available as starters or entrées), four fish dishes, and four meat presentations -- the choices, however, are as divergent as they are delicious.

You may, for example, begin with the Thai chicken spring rolls ($10.00). They are wonderfully crisp, cut on the bias, and set on a sumptuous pillow of exotic Asian slaw. The satiny smoothness of a sweet chili sauce is nicely counterpoised by artistic dabs of spicy mustard.

For those who enjoy crustaceans, the arborio rice-crusted shrimp ($12.00) are something of a must. The crust is just right -- neither too generous nor too meager -- and the shrimp themselves are at the very peak of crunchy good health. They reside on a sensuous seabed, a disc of luscious avocado salad, and find a flavorful match in a consummating splash of cilantro pesto.

Continuing in the seafood vein, the pan-seared diver scallop ($10.00) is simply incomparable. The bivalve is prepared to a beautiful golden brown that ultimately yields to a rich, meaty interior. It is then set on a seabed of fregola sarda (Sardinian couscous), crowned with a sunnyside up quail's egg, and finished with a seductive lobster sauce.

Equally attractive and delicious is the potato and goat cheese terrine ($9.00). Set on a colorful pillow of roasted red peppers, it is crowned with micro celery & baby greens and finished with artistic dabs of a creamy white balsamic dressing.

Entrées, of course, continue with style, and the kitchen is particularly adept at seafood preparation. The Atlantic salmon ($23.00), for example, is beautifully pan roasted and set on a sensuous pillow of pommes purée imbued with extra virgin olive oil. The coup de grâce, however, is delivered by a light but extremely flavorful Provençal (shellfish) broth.

But even more appealing, in my opinion, is the superlative polenta-crusted halibut filet ($27.00). The polenta is judiciously applied -- just a gentle dusting -- and the pristine filet reclines on a seabed of parpadelle pasta embellished with a beguiling tomato-fennel sauce. A tiara of perfectly sautéed spinach adds an invigorating splash of color.

When it comes to the treasures of the sea, however, it's difficult to beat the benchmark bouillabaisse ($30.00), a daily special. The mussels are pristinely plump, the shrimp nicely crunchy, the diver scallops a buttery revelation, and the diminutive salmon filet marvelously moist. And the components aren't just "thrown together," they are attractively arranged on an island of creamy saffron risotto and surrounded by a hedonistic seafood broth.

But there are a number of items that will also capture the attention of carnivores. The pan-roasted lamb tenderloin ($25.00), for example, incorporates flavorful, slightly chewy strips of lamb attractively intertwined with tortellini niçoise (in the style of Nice, containing tomatoes, olives, and garlic). The finishing touch is a provocative black licorice essence.

Equally up to the mark is the oven-roasted filet of veal ($29.00). The slices are wonderfully tender, artfully arranged on a fricassee of morels and asparagus, and beautifully complemented by the veal's natural jus infused with a touch of sherry cream.

Even the pedestrian breast of free-range chicken ($23.00), the gastronomic escape hatch for less adventurous palates, proves itself a complete delight. Served on the bone, the flesh beneath the still crispy skin is remarkably plump and juicy and marries exceedingly well with a succotash risotto and perky jus de poulet

The only disappointment in three visits, proved to be the desserts, which were made off campus and were simply were not on a par with Mr. Capasso's superb appetizers and entrées. That minor glitch, however, has apparently been rectified with the recent addition of pastry chef Jill VanDuyne, formerly of Philadelphia's Tangerine.

There is absolutely no question that Blackbird Dining Establishment is truly a remarkable dining experience. And, knowing Mr. Capasso, there is no question in my mind that, like a fine wine, his wonderful restaurant will continue to mature with the passing the years.

Cuisine: Eclectic
Hours: Lunch: Tues - Sat, from 11:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.: Dinner: Tues - Thurs, 5:00 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.; Sun, 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Free parking lot; street parking
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.blackbirdnj.com

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