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Donnelly Group’s Blackbird bistro a fine-dining disaster

The tempura albacore tuna dish is pictured at Blackbird Public House & Oyster Bar in Vancouver on August 21, 2014.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

0 out of 4 stars

The Blackbird Public House & Oyster Bar
905 Dunsmuir St., Vancouver, British Columbia
Appetizers, $8 to $22; sandwiches and mains, $14 to $30
International bistro
Rating System
Additional Info
Bistro open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; pub open until 1 a.m. (2 a.m. on Fri. and Sat.) Reservations available.

There is no sense in pussyfooting around it: the Blackbird bistro is horrible. My first meal there was easily one of the worst dining experiences I've had in nearly 10 years of reviewing restaurants. The second visit was slightly better, yet I still do not recommend it.

Opened last fall, the Blackbird Public House & Oyster Bar is a two-storey, nearly 9,000-square-foot behemoth in Vancouver's financial district (formerly home to the Keg Caesars). Upstairs is the pub, replete with billiards, shuffleboard, a stage for live music and a racetrack-shaped scotch bar. The bistro and oyster bar (plus a barbershop off to one corner) is on the main floor.

The Donnelly Group, which owns 17 downtown pubs and nightclubs – more than Earls and Cactus Club combined – is one of the city's largest entertainment purveyors. If you go for drinks after work, the chances are good that you'll end up in one of their establishments. The Blackbird bistro is the most upscale venue in the collection. They would have been better off sticking with beers and burgers.

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It's a handsome room, designed in the style of a Parisian brasserie by Craig Stanghetta, with lots of marble, brass, wooden wainscoting and immensely comfortable rounded cube leather armchairs.

But all the mirrors and glass make for terrible acoustics. And one of the main problems with the generally clueless service is that the servers can barely hear a word their customers are saying, and vice-versa. Which might explain why one brought us a bottle of shiraz when we asked for rioja – or maybe not.

With a long wine list, 24 beer taps and 70 types of whiskies, the beverage program is the Blackbird's biggest draw. But even the much-ballyhooed cocktails suffer from imbalance. Twice, I ordered the sour-shrub pineapple punch. Twice, I puckered uncomfortably until the ice melted in the glass. A well-mixed cocktail should be pleasant from the first sip.

To call a restaurant an oyster bar when there are only two types on offer is a bit of a stretch. I didn't dare order any on the first visit because the oyster shucker, bent over the ice with his long, greasy hair dangling in the horseradish, so completely turned me off. On the second visit, our otherwise charming bartender didn't know what oysters were available or where they were from. But at least the oyster shucker had her hair pulled back in a cap and did a very good job of preparing a dozen with no punctured stomachs or mangled edges. A trio of house-made mignonettes included a spicy wasabi cocktail, refreshingly briny cucumber nori and obliteratingly smoky bacon sherry (for people who don't really enjoy the taste of oysters).

Some of the Asian-inspired dishes, created by the company's research and development chef Alvin Pillay (who previously worked at Campagnolo and the Irish Heather) sound enticing. Don't be fooled.

Tempura albacore tuna is barely a tempura. The thickly sliced fish was wrapped in nori and a faint whisper of batter. A busy plate, smeared with tasteless black squid ink, avocado mousse and eye-squintingly sour yuzu gels, was the best of the bunch.

Tentsuyu sablefish, marinated to death in dashi, mirin and soy (tensuyu being the traditional dipping sauce for tempura), was brown. Normally white and buttery, this sablefish was as dense as snapper. An astonishingly discordant plate included braised pork belly slathered in a bright orange sweet-and-sour sauce (the kind you find on food-court chicken balls), a sticky mound of fermented black beans (reminiscent of the Mexican refried variety), sprinklings of hot chili powder, orange segments and puffed pork rinds.

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Steak frites was inedible the first time I ordered it. The striploin was as tough as leather and marbled with chewy veins of intervascular fat. Hard pont neuf potatoes were white, wrinkled and barely fried. The second time I ordered it, at lunch, the potatoes were golden and the beef was slightly tender. But the hot plate was garnished with wilted, brown arugula.

Octopus comes two ways: tough as nails in an appetizer muddled with gummy squid-ink polenta and tart olive relish, or ground with veal in a Hamburger Helper-style Bolognese with rubbery tagliatelle.

The best part of the experience was that server didn't blink when she cleared our quarter-eaten plates. The manager, obviously accustomed to customer complaints, took the steak off the bill and gave us a free round of drinks.

I must say that Nicola, the bartender at lunch, was a sweetheart. And the brie chicken sandwich was actually decent. At least the fries were cooked. If I had to go back, I would treat Blackbird like the pub it should be. I'd sit at the bar, drink some whiskey and order a burger.

The bistro? Bye bye.

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