Standing in the brightly lit, bi-level dining room of his restaurant, Alex Capasso looks like a rock roadie who got lost on his way to the concert. A pharaoh-like beard juts from his chin. The rolled-up sleeves of his pressed white jacket reveal a heavily tattooed forearm.
Capasso knows his tasty licks. Not the musical kind, but the literal kind. After turns at Brasserie Perrier in Philadelphia, Max’s in Cinnaminson, and Misto in Cherry Hill, the 34-year-old Trenton native opened Blackbird a little over a year ago in a Collings Avenue storefront he serendipitously stumbled upon during a bike ride with his kids.
Owner/chef Capasso and his chef de cuisine, William Connelly, are adept at teasing nuanced flavors out of fresh ingredients. Chopped artichoke hearts impart a mellow tang to creamy risotto paired with a pan-seared scallop galette (a patty of Pernod-spiked scallop mousse). The playful shellfish macchiato, a bisque served in an espresso cup capped with frothed milk concealing a few plump Prince Edward Island mussels, gets its intense flavor from house-made lobster and mussel stock.
The glistening yolk of a sunny-side-up quail egg mingles with a delicate lobster sauce to perfectly complement a pan-seared diver scallop nested in fregola sarda, a pearly Italian pasta similar to couscous. A tart, refreshing salad tangles sliced Granny Smith apples and big lumps of fresh crabmeat with tender mâche tossed in miso dressing. D’Artagnan oxtails are seared, braised, hand-shredded and mixed with luscious mascarpone to make a toothsome ragu for handmade cavatelle.
The cavatelle, like many Blackbird pastas, are made in-house. Gumdrop-size gnocchi in creamy tomato and basil sauce are ethereal. Half-moon-shaped agnolotti filled with butternut squash strike a splendidly autumnal note dressed in sage-infused brown butter, raisins, and pine nuts. Underneath the crimson arch of a butter-poached lobster tail, hand-cut linguini is nicely tender, but the straight-up Southern Italian tomato sauce is too viscous with olive oil.
There are a few duds. Peanut-and-sesame crusted Thai chicken spring rolls come with a chalky hot mustard. The bland salad of roasted peppers and tiny mozzarella balls the size of cherries cries out for salt and pepper.
Fortunately, Blackbird’s hits outnumber the misses. Triumphs include pepper-crusted, pan-roasted ribeye with Blackbird mac and cheese (seashell pasta with Parmesan, mascarpone, cheddar, and Gruyere); pan-seared foie gras over sautéed morels piped full of truffled chicken mousse; and suckling pig. The whole pig is brined overnight, roasted for six hours, and shredded; then the meat is piled atop tangy goat-cheese tarts with caramelized shallots and Black Mission figs.
Blackbird’s cheerful staff remains even-keeled right through the height of weekend dinner service. They quickly deliver terrific bread from Cherry Hill’s American Harvest, baked by Robert Bennett of Miel Patisserie and Le Bec-Fin fame. The sleek silverware is refreshed after every course, and water top-ups are automatic. Servers will shave black truffles, when available, over virtually any dish for a $20 surcharge, and the upper-crust clientele keeps them busy.
Desserts are the domain of pastry chef Jill Van Duyne (formerly of Stephen Starr’s Tangerine in Philadelphia). Fresh-grated ginger gives the moist gingerbread its memorable, not overbearing, tang. The chocolate trio includes a silky Valrhona pot de crème, airy white chocolate mousse, and a dense tart spiced with cinnamon and black pepper. Fresh pitted cherries are juicy little bombs tucked into fluffy chocolate bread pudding. Sliced, cinnamon-sprinkled Granny Smith apples add attitude to baked puff-pastry streusel. House-made lemon sorbet complements a lemon “soufflé,” actually a citrusy pound cake garnished with pistachio shortbread cookies and almond brittle.
Capasso has other projects in the works—a Center City restaurant for which he’s scouting real estate, and a contemporary diner called West Side Gravy planned for the empty space across the street from Blackbird—but he seems to be riding herd on every detail at Blackbird. If he keeps it up, he could wind up a culinary rock star.