Dinner & Jazz at Birdland

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I went for dinner and a show at Birdland Jazz Club recently, and my experience at this legendary venue was memorable indeed!  

Opened in 1949, and named for alto saxophonist Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, the original Birdland was located on Broadway near 52nd Street.  The iconic club was home to jazz legends like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, and Parker himself, along with many others.  In the 1960’s, however, Birdland shuttered when crowds fell off.  In 1986, the club reopened at 105th Street and Broadway, welcoming newer artists along with many of the famous names who had played the original venue.  Finally, 10 years later, the club moved one last time, to its current location on West 44th Street, and not surprisingly, they’ve booked some of the best names in jazz once again; names like Maynard Ferguson, John Pizzarelli, Phoebe Snow, Dave Brubeck, Jon Hendricks and many, many more.

For this first visit, I was in my comfort zone.  I was there to write up the food, and to review Natalie Douglas, a fantastic jazz and cabaret artist who’s done a series of tribute shows at the club over the years.  Natalie’s show was part of the Broadway@Birdland series, emceed by the multitalented Jim Caruso, who also hosts the wildly successful Jim Caruso’s Cast Party, a fabulous open mic variety show with performances by Broadway legends, jazz greats, cabaret divas, new up-and-comers, and even a star-struck tourist now and then!  The club itself is a class act, too, with tiers of tables covered in white linen cloths, additional seating at the neon accented bar, walls covered in elegant portraits of the artists who’ve played the room, and an ample stage with excellent lighting and sound.

But before the show...dinner!

Our hostess led us to our table, front and center.  We ordered a couple of cocktails.  Vincent had the Pomegranate Martini - refreshing and a bit sweet, and a bit tart; nicely balanced.  I went with the Key Lime Pie Martini, which did have a touch of cream, and the true taste of a key lime pie - it would’ve made a great dessert cocktail, as well!

Since I was there in a professional capacity, my husband Vincent left the ordering to me.  The Chilled Seafood Salad was very good - a mix of calamari, rock shrimp, and mussels, tossed with mixed greens and dressed in a light tarragon vinaigrette.  The seafood was fresh and unobtrusive, a bit chewy, accented nicely by the subtle acidity of the vinaigrette, while thinly sliced green olives gave the salad a Mediterranean savoriness.  The Crispy Smoked Pork Belly was excellent!  Gorgeous chunks of smoky flavored belly with a perfect ratio of fat to meat, and hint of char to give them crispiness, this appetizer was a hit with both of us.  The belly came with a green apple, cabbage and red pepper slaw, that paired well with the saltiness of the pork, and the balsamic syrup drizzle brought the entire dish together beautifully. 

For our main courses, we had the Mustard Seed Crusted Salmon, served with Portobello Dijon potato salad, and red pearl onions.  While the salmon was cooked perfectly, I was hoping for a sharper, nuttier flavor from the mustard seed coating.  To be honest, the entire dish was in need of seasoning.  We added a touch of salt, which helped, but the dijon in the potato salad was barely there as well.  It wasn’t an unsuccessful dish, just a bit blander than it could’ve been.  The Mushroom Risotto Cakes, however, were sensational!  The chef managed to take an excellent mushroom risotto, which usually has a loose, creamy consistency, and formed it into perfect little cakes that were enticingly crispy outside, and moist inside.  The combination of the mushrooms in the risotto and the accompanying white truffle fondue gave the dish a pleasantly pungent earthiness and the intoxicating aroma associated with good truffles.  On the side, there was a bundle of roasted asparagus - crisp and verdant, they provided just the right contrast to the deep mushroom flavors.  This is a dish I’d order again anytime!

Finally, for dessert, we sampled the Poached Pear with Saffron & Mascarpone Cream Sauce.  Again though the pear itself was tasty and poached beautifully, I really didn’t detect any of the sweet tanginess associated with mascarpone, or the distinctive floral, honey-like taste that saffron usually imparts, in the pretty yellow-orange soup at the bottom of the dish.  The Creole Bread Pudding with whiskey sauce, on the other hand was fantastic!  Dense, sticky, and not overly sweet, as a good bread pudding ought to be, there was a wonderful depth of flavor, helped along by the delicious whiskey sauce - you could taste just a hint of the alcohol, but it was nicely balanced and never overpowered the subtlety of the pudding.

As we finished our terrific dinner, I couldn’t help but think that Birdland is a throwback to the days when people dressed elegantly and went to a cozy club to hear great live music, while enjoying classic cocktails or a nice supper.  I could feel the history in that room, and we truly enjoyed our night there!  It’s also a pleasure to report that the new 100-seat Birdland Theater will soon open on the lower level of the club!  The new space will feature a new Italian inspired menu, allow the club to expand its Broadway@Birdland programming, and even book limited run Off-Broadway productions.  It looks like I’ll be back soon!

Michael Barbieri

Food & Entertainment Writer
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