Blackbird Cafe | Darling Harbour

I am biased against Darling Harbour restaurants. My posts on the Italian-based Casa Di Nico and Nick’s Bar & Grill show this. They’re not all terrible, but most are really just fronts for good views that happen to provide mediocre food. Food tastes better when girt by a harbour view, right? It certainly works, given that these restaraurants get absolutely packed during peak times. There is a market here, it just happens that I’m not in the target demographic.

Thus, it was with a healthy dose of dubioussness on my latest Darling Harbour restaurant visit to Blackbird Café. I’ve been long before, in a time bygone, when I was just a normal, non-food blogging university student. By current standards, that visit would have scored a 6 or so. Fast forward two-ish years and what do we have now?

Date Last Visited: 22/3/14
Address: Balcony Level, Cockle Bay Wharf Sydney, NSW 2000
Recommended Dish(es): kangaroo loin, peking duck pizza

Given what I said before the jump, why would I make the effort to visit Blackbird? The reason – make no mistake – is because I was invited by the folks at Pop Marketing Group. Plus, I wanted to see what kind of change Blackbird has undergone in the 2+ years since I last went. It would be an interesting exercise to see if restaurants can significantly up their game, given a “long enough” span of time. Yes, you bet the Usual Disclaimer applies. Be especially aware that service quality is one area I can never confidently predict for you, given these types of restaurants.

Blackbird cafe

Spot the black bird

I brought along my parents and cousin on this visit. A tactical decision really – more stomachs = more food sampled!

If you’re trying to find Blackbird and aren’t familiar with the Darling Harbour environment, it may be a little difficult. All you need to do is look for the swans, and then look for the Blackbird banner nestled on the first level. Make your way up the stairs and you’re good to go.

Blackbird Cafe

This gets real crowded and messy later

Generally, when things get busy, service quality degrades rapidly. This applies from the lowliest hawker stall to the most grandiose fine dining establishment. It’s variance in quality, as well as its baseline that matters. Knowing that Darling Harbour restaurants have a reputation for terrible service (check out Blackbird’s Urbanspoon rating, for example), I made my booking as early as allowable given my time constraints – at 5:30pm.

You can see how the place is deserted – for now. It doesn’t take long for the place to pack it in.

Blackbird cafe menu

Le menu, page 1

As the circumstances were good, I give you le menu, part 1.

Blackbird cafe

Le menu, page 2

Followed immediately by le menu, part 2. Note the $10 desserts!

Blackbird cafe

A smart move is to request a window seat in your booking.

If you’re here, you may as well maximise the positives of dining at a place like this. Namely, the views. Do try and request a window seat, unless you have a vampiric aversion to sunlight. Harbourside dining isn’t a frequent activity for me, but I do try to soak it all in when I get the chance. While it did sprinkle a bit later, our alfresco experience was largely enjoyable.

Trinity mocktail blackbird cafe

Trinity – Bourbon, watermelon liqueur, Kahlua, strawberry puree, cranberry juice, lime juice, sugar syrup; minus the Kahlua ($10)

I don’t exactly remember the circumstances that led to us getting a non-alcoholic version of the trinity cocktail (well, mocktail). Still, it came, and it looks a stunner. I’ve never seen so much red in a drink.

For those who are making a mental association of “red = fruity sweetness you’re pretty much on the mark there. The drink itself is quite good; it’s tangier than you’d expect due to the citrus fruits in it. It’s a good zing.

Obligatory drink out of the way, let’s move onto even tastier eye candy.

Blackbird cafe tasting platter

Blackbird tasting plate (special presentation) – arancini balls, grilled haloumi stack & szechuan pepper squid ($22.9 x 2 or $16.9, $16.5 & $16.9 if ordered separately, in order)

This Blackbird tasting plate is quite the beauty, though if you order it for two people, you will get a different presentation (quoting our server here).

Blackbird cafe tasting plate

I have my eye on the squid

Of three, only one element can be the best. That honour belongs to the squid, which manages to be ever so slightly above your regular salt ‘n’ pepper variant by being tailored for a more fiery (or Asian, if you will) palate. This comes in the form of szechuan pepper spices garnishing the squid, as opposed to the usual S&P.

That works for me, and I will just say that I would prefer it this way to regular S&P squid every time. My affair with chilli is forever.

As for the squid itself: it’s rubbery and chewy, but in the “oh yum squid” kind of way and not the “oh ewww I’m eating rubber” way. Good enough.

Oh by the way, the sauce isn’t very good. Way too tangy. Don’t need it.

Blackbird cafe arancini balls

Balls of ricey goodness (is that a word?)

Arancini (or risotto/rice) balls have a rich flavour which is helped in that they’re served piping hot. Take care when taking that first bite. These were soft and fluffy, encased by a casing that yields easily. It’s nothing special, as this is what any good Arancini should be like; but it does the job.

Blackbird cafe haloumi stack

Haloumi – one of the only acceptable cheeses to star in its own dish

Haloumi is one of the few cheeses that can be the star of its own dish, which is the case in the haloumi stack. I personally like haloumi, but don’t make a habit of ordering it because I don’t love it. It’s the same here – good haloumi this was, but didn’t leave much of an impression apart from the fact that it was way too salty. Appropriate for a haloumi wrap, not so much for a salad.

I’d say the beetroot made a bigger one. There was something texturally satisfying with the beetroot that I still haven’t forgotten!

Blackbird cafe szechuan pepper squid

I ate way more than my fair share here

Overall, the entree platter is a visually impressive start to the meal that mostly delivers on the taste front. But now, it’s time to bring out the big guns.

Blackbird cafe crispy duck pizza

Crispy duck pizza w/hoisin sauce, shallots, cucumber, coriander & orange cinnamon glaze ($27.9)

Let’s get the bad out of the way first, the crispy duck pizza w/hoisin sauce is a little too sweet. Hoisin sauce is inherently sweet, adding an orange-based condiment to it will tip the balance over. That happened to a small degree here.

Other than that, this pizza kicks a**. It’s really quite good. The base was thin and chewy (not crispy), to the point where it actually felt like I was eating Peking duck pancakes instead of a pizza. Trust me, that is an extremely good thing. The duck was not as soft as I’d have liked it to be, but otherwise delivered.

Blackbird cafe crispy duck pizza

One for me, one for me

That’s all I really need to say, isn’t it?

Sure, it’s not a replacement for actual Peking duck pancakes, but boy there are so many other things that could have gone wrong that this pizza did right instead. It’s just too pricey. Ah, the Darling Harbour restaurant tax.

Blackbird cafe crispy pork belly

Crispy double-roasted pork belly w/seared scallops, served on truffle butter mash & apple mousse finished w/reduction of cider

If I had to name a “weakest dish”, it would be this one. That blows, as I was looking forward to it the most, not to mention how good it looks. Alas, the double-roasted pork belly takes out the title. The main problem is that it’s too dry. The secondary problem is that there’s not much flavour infused into the flesh. These elements are critical for a good pork belly, and this sample did not deliver.

Blackbird cafe pork belly

Skilled handling by le father

The applesauce does a partial job of recovering some of the lost flavour, but it can only do so much. It is assuredly an area for improvement.

Blackbird cafe panfried gnocchi

Panfried gnocchi w/buffalo mozzaralla, fresh basil & cherry tomatoes ($26.9)

Bouncing back from the woes of a porcine nature, the panfried gnocchi makes a solid attempt at a rescue. I love gnocchi – the starchiness of the dish is utterly delectable, well worth the caloric load.

It’s not as good as the one from Vesta, because it’s too tomato-ey for my liking, but I can see it appealing to a certain class of tomato-lovers.

Blackbird cafe

The dynamic duo, one fats & protein, one carby. Choose your poison.

Now, onto round 2 of mains. Boy, we’re really stuffing ourselves here.

Blackbird cafe snapper

Panfried snapper fillet w/rustic spinach & potato mash w/a salsa of corn, tomato & cucumber ($34.9)

Getting some fish on the table, the panfried snapper is a stock standard fish dish backed up by some yummy mash. The fish itself is cooked well enough, and I’m glad to note that there aren’t any extraneous bones or scales I could find.

The salsa is what makes this dish stand out a bit more, and adds a textural zing.

When all is said, a decent, albeit safe & standard dish.

Blackbird cafe kangaroo loin

Chargrilled tender kangaroo loin served on truffle mash potatoes & finished w/JD sauce. Served rare ($29.9)

Mum was eyeing the chargrilled kangaroo loin on the menu, and what mum wants, she gets. I must say though, this was a very enjoyable dish, to the point where I could call it the highlight.

If I wasn’t told, I could be led to believe that it was a beef dish. That it was cooked well enough to avoid the usual “gamey” nature of kangaroo meat is saying something.

In case you get some kanga that isn’t cooked as well as mine, you’ve got some mash to cover it up. Red meat and mash go together like…mash and gravy. LOL.

I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of mash served with many of the mains…hmmm…don’t do what we did – that much mash gets heavy after awhile. Worse if you’re like our family – we finish everything on the plate. Oh dear, and we’re only getting to the desserts now.

Blackbird cafe kangaroo loin

Top down plating

Blackbird cafe dessert tasting plate

Blackbird dessert tasting plate. Clockwise from top left:
* baked white chocolate cheesecake w/caramelised poached pineapple w/coconut gelato
* chocolate brownie served w/bailey’s ice cream & chocolate sauce finished w/pashmak
* raspberry & almond ‘frangipane’ tart w/raspberry coulis & vanilla ice cream
* traditional tiramisu w/vanilla bean ice cream
($29)

Forgive me for the sudden and terrible degradation in photo quality. Night has fallen by this point, and what a window seat giveth, it taketh away when it comes to lighting. The table was practically dark, but oh did I try.

Still, you can make out Blackbird’s dessert tasting plate, no? This is a brilliant choice for groups, because let’s face it – you’re going to have trouble deciding what you want for dessert, especially when other people might be sharing and want to weigh in. “Por que no los dos” applies 2x over here, so just GO FOR IT.

For me, the two standouts were the tiramisu and baked white chocolate cheesecake. The Tiramisu, surprisingly, because it was simply a really great rendition of this Italian classic. The white chocolate cheesecake, because it was the only dessert on this plate that actually still tasted good after a few bites.

Blackbird cafe dessert tasting plate

Four towers of sugar

Not that’s to say the others are bad, but when you’ve had 10 spoonfuls of each dessert, your palate gets overwhelmed. Best shared with a group of at least 4.

But wow, being the food masochists we are, we didn’t stop there. One more to go!

Blackbird cafe stick date pudding

Sticky date pudding w/warm hot butterscotch sauce & vanilla bean ice cream ($10)

Oh, should have seen this one coming, no? The sticky date pudding easily wins best dessert, but of course it’s not a fair game. It’s hard to beat a good sticky date pudding with an icy cold ball of vanilla bean ice cream to chill. It’s not Jones the Grocer-quality, but you won’t be thinking that as you’re digging away at this. Put it this way, I was stuffed; absolutely stuffed at this point, and I still ate half of this baby.

Needless to say, my food pregnancy is a story in and of itself.

So how did Blackbird fare? In 2 years, it’s improved, certainly. A new menu and new talent seems to have kept it somewhat ahead of the curve, as far as Darling Harbour restaurants are concerned. Its one big weakness is that it’s still mostly the same stuff you can get anywhere else, with slight variations, but generally with far cheaper prices.

My recommendation? If you love the views and have a big event with lots of people, Blackbird suits your bill pretty well.

As usual, feel free to leave a comment or three 😀

Awesome:

  • The alfresco charm
  • Food is mostly quite good, some nice Asian twists

Not so Awesome:

  • Menu is still predominantly stock-standard Italian, just like every other Darling Harbour restaurant
  • When it gets busy, lower your expectations of good service

7/10 Caesars

Blackbird Cafe on Urbanspoon

11 comments on “Blackbird Cafe | Darling Harbour”

  1. Michael Shen Reply

    Not a clue was had – I’m about as useful in alcohol knowledge as an orange haha.

    Yeah, pics can and often does make the food look better. Hence the words are of equal import.

  2. FightTheCraving Reply

    I have to say, it’s been a while since I’ve been here and I’m not sure if it’s your great photography or they’re changing for the better but it’s definitely not what I last remembered the place to be.

    Maybe it deserves a revisit, not a fan of that pier-side restaurant strip though!

    • Michael Shen Reply

      My situation was exactly like yours – went ages ago, didn’t think much of it. Now, I can say it’s definitely changed quite a bit, but still has some ways to go.

      I’m not a fan of the Darling Harbour restaurant situation either, but what can you do – looks sell!

    • Michael Shen Reply

      My photography /may/ have had something to do with it 😉

      The entree tasting plate was pretty good, the dessert tasting plate a bit more muted. Got samey after awhile!

  3. milkteaxx Reply

    everything looks amazing, especially the pork belly, sad to hear it wasnt up to your expectations! i quite like baia tho!

  4. iFat (@iFat23) Reply

    You need to put: “My affair with chilli is forever” on a t-shirt.

    I’d buy that in a heartbeat.

    P.S. I’d say that I have a love/hate affair with Blackbird but I’ve never really loved it.

    • Michael Shen Reply

      It’s time to put the custom-print t-shirt manufacturers out of business (Y).

      I’ve never loved Blackbird, but this meal took the friendship just a *little* further.

  5. Sherrie @ Crystal Noir Reply

    Damn, that pork belly looked so good so I would’ve been equally disappointed! Though everything else does seem very tasty 😀 I enjoyed my lamb salad that I ordered there last time!

    • Michael Shen Reply

      Apart from that belly, the food was pretty good. Didn’t have any lamb, though mum did want to order it. Luckily we didn’t as we were stuffed to the top by then!

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