The Skeptical Diner: Blackbird versus Barbette versus Cafe Maude

I finally got out to the newly opened Blackbird (at Bryant and 50th) today, and damn — it was a treat. Cut from the same “sophisticated local bistro” cloth as Barbette and Cafe Maude, the offerings at Blackbird emphasized fresh ingredients, low prices, many plates, and humble sophistication.

This suits me just fine, and it made me pause for thought: between Barbette, Cafe Maude and Blackbird, what’s the best restaurant? And why? They all do similar things with a lot of elegance and style, and I’ve had next to nothing bad at any of them. So, without further ado, here’s a head-to-head showdown between the three bistros.

Drinks

Johnny Michaels, the mixologist from La Belle Vie, lends a hand at Cafe Maude, creating a perfectly balanced blackberry mojito and a fig-infused vodka / espresso / sherry drink that must be tasted to be believed.

Advantage: Cafe Maude

Friendly Atmosphere

Barbette and Blackbird are both hell of friendly and welcoming, but there’s not even a whiff of attitude at Blackbird, in contrast to the occasional cooler-than-thou staffer at Barbette. Despite having generally likable waitstaff in general, Cafe Maude’s actively supercilious hosting staff throws it right out of the running.

Advantage: Blackbird

Price

All three restaurants present a mind-numbing variety of small-to-medium sized plates ranging from $3 to the mid-teens. You can easily scale your meal up or down based on hunger and the health of your wallet, and everything feels like a pretty good value.

Advantage: All

Local sourcing

Barbette makes a concerted effort to purchase from Minnesotan and Wisconsinite farmers and ranchers, and it writes its menus as such.

Advantage: Barbette

Dessert

Barbette’s decent but forgettable desserts put it out of the running. Cafe Maude and Blackbird both push the boundaries a bit with things such as sweet fried ravoli on ice cream (at Maude) and jasmine creme brulee with pistachio biscotti (Blackbird.)

Advantage: Cafe Maude/Blackbird

Cheese

Cafe Maude’s four-cheese menu presents reliable favorites paired with clever little garnishes. Cafe Barbette’s menu rotates daily and often uses locally sourced cheeses. Both are superb.

Advantage: Barbette/Cafe Maude

Happy Hour

Barbette knocks some of its tastiest food (the mussels, cheese and fries) down to $5 and offers inexpensive beer and wine to its happy hour patrons. Good stuff.

Advantage: Barbette

Noise

Barbette can get lively on a busy night, but conversation is always possible. The tunnel-shaped Blackbird gets loud in a hurry, with conversation drowning out the piped-in music. And Maude can be a cacophony.

Advantage: Barbette

Killer Apps

An almond-crusted chevre with apricot chutney and carmelized shallot starter at Blackbird is one of the best starter dishes available at any of the three restaurants, and Blackbird seems to have the best variety of sharable starter-style meals.

Advantage: Blackbird

Fries

All three restaurants do good fries. Blackbird presents its medium-cut, skin-on fries with a zippy Bernaise sauce. Cafe Maude goes for a “fondue” melted cheese sauce, while Barbette presents hyper-crispy, Belgian-cut thin fries with a mayo-based dip. They’re all good, but the small crispy fries have it.

Advantage: Barbette

Graphic Design

You can’t fault any of these places for the elegance of their signage or menus. That said, the black-and-white antique look of Blackbird just screams “hip!” Or maybe just “McSweeney’s!” Either way, it’s distinctive and does a great job of promising quirky excellent.

Advantage: Blackbird

Overall: Barbette. The generally friendlier, more comfortable, more chic-feeling Barbette triumphs over its worthy rivals, but only by a whisker. Six months from now, it could be anyone’s game.

3 Comments so far

  1. Hannah V. (unregistered) on July 31st, 2007 @ 11:28 am

    When (oh WHEN!) will I learn to not read your restaurant reviews when I’m hungry?!


  2. Erica M (unregistered) on July 31st, 2007 @ 1:10 pm

    Seriously! I haven’t even been to the other two, but I’m totally jonesing for Barbette right now. Haven’t been there in a while.


  3. morgan rw (unregistered) on August 9th, 2007 @ 4:55 pm

    hard to compare 2 newbies with a long time neighborhood asset like Barbette and its great food, comfy environs and a dedication to local producers and sustainable ag. my hard earned $$ will go to Barbette 1st; Maude second (because of the full bar, don’tcha know) and perhaps occasionaly to Blackbird..I can get a GREAT flank steak at Levain Bistro for less than the chewy london broil at B’Bird and I won’t be packed in a church pew like a sardine or be subjected to the noise and crying kids



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