Good food and snobby wine like you've never seen it: Cheap.
It’s such a pity about the wine list at Bluebird. Developed by owner Tom McDonald (who also owns Webster’s Wine Bar), it’s full of uncommon and interesting gems, many of which can be had for under $10 per glass. But to find them, you first must get acclimated to the way the list is organized (by climate, of all things), a process that requires reading a textbooklike page of introduction. Thus, the list is not so much designed for people to choose a wine as it is for people to educate themselves about it. But if people wanted an education, they’d take a wine class. And then they could write pretentious wine lists of their own.
This off-putting first impression is especially unfortunate for a restaurant like Bluebird, which otherwise demonstrates worlds of potential. Casual, relaxed and yet somehow still sexy, it possesses a chameleonlike ability to provide a romantic three-course dinner just as easily as it can handle a softball team coming in for beers. (Considering the extensive beer list, though, that’d be one hell of a sophisticated softball team.)
What’s more, Bluebird is one of the most affordable openings Chicago has seen in a while. Small plates, such as the chickpeas (which arrive in a rich broth studded with chorizo and almonds), average a mere $6. Meats and cheeses (I fell in love with the luscious senorio de montelarreina, a Spanish sheep’s milk queso) run $2 to $4 per ounce. An entrée of egg noodles topped with meaty, savory chunks of braised rabbit costs a bit more at $14. And a flatbread topped with a decadent combination of manchego, ham and a baked egg is big enough to feed two at only $11. (Of course, that doesn’t seem like such a value when the egg arrives completely raw, as it did for me.)
Toast layered with anchovies and sweet onion relish is the only thing that seems overpriced. The combination is unexpectedly harmonious, the gentle flavor of the onions taming the anchovies’ brininess. But like the other toasts on the menu, each one provides two bites at best, so it seems a little stingy for $5.
The fact that there’s only one dessert on the menu is probably a favor thrown to HotChocolate next door, the restaurant from which Bluebird partner Paul Johnston defected. It’s a specific kind of dessert, a plate of dried fruits, nuts, and figs and dates that have been stuffed with marcona almonds and dipped in chocolate. For a lone dessert, it’s not terribly populist. Then again, by the time dessert comes it should already be clear that Bluebird is somewhat presumptuous. This is not always a bad thing—the dessert plate, for example, turns out to be surprisingly satisfying. So resistance is futile. You’ll take what Bluebird gives you. And, for the most part, you’ll like it.
1749 N Damen Ave at Willow St (773-486-2473). El: Blue to Damen. Bus: 50, 56, 73. Dinner. Average small plate: $10.