Mark and Shelly Schmidt sit at a neighborhood pub in Northern England. Ivy crawls up the side of the pub’s exterior, each stem gripping the walls like a long-lost friend. Blackbirds fly in and out of the ivy, cutting a path through the mid-summer air. “We have to come up with a name for the restaurant,” Mark says to his wife.
Feature Story and Photos by Becca Chavoya
Review by Sara Benner
She ponders a bit, observing her surroundings. “What about The Blackbird and Ivy?” she replies.
It doesn’t sound quite right.
Then, it clicks.
“What about The Blackbird and Henry?” she says.
Henry is the couple’s beloved labradoodle, a cross-breed between a lab and a standard poodle. The two liked the way it rolled off of the tongue, so they brought the name with them to Austin.
The eatery, located on Guadalupe Street, is the long-awaited product of Chef Mark Schmidt, former chef of Cafe 909 in Marble Falls. The concept is simple: British-inspired dishes with a Texan flare. Schmidt’s mother is from Liverpool, and although he grew up in Farmer’s Branch, Texas, he spent the majority of his childhood summers in England learning how to cook from his English family members. “I had an uncle in England who would always set a box in front of the stove and I would stand there and watch him cook eggs. I remember the first thing I learned how to make was an omelet,” Schmidt says.
Schmidt knew as early as seven-years-old that he wanted to work in a kitchen. With nothing more than a willingness to learn, he gradually worked his way up from his first dishwashing job at age fifteen. “Growing up in England, I just assumed that the way you became a chef was through getting a job in the kitchen and working your way up— the traditional apprenticeship system,” Schmidt says. By his mid-30s, Schmidt was working with esteemed culinary artists such as Stephan Pyles and Mark Kiffin, both James Beard Award recipients. Through his experience working with accomplished chefs, Schmidt says he was able to define his own style of cooking and, in turn, launch his own culinary endeavor.
“There’s definitely pub influences at The Blackbird and Henry, but it’s not pub grub,” Schmidt says. The menu contains classic English dishes, such as fish and chips, while also throwing in a few Texas inspirations. Schmidt’s favorite dish to prepare is the curried prawn kedgeree, a traditional English dish made of rice, curry and fish. Schmidt’s version substitutes the rice for a citrus curried couscous, to which he adds minced red onion, cilantro and spicy fried dahl, topped with shrimp and a boiled quail egg. “That’s a good example of what I call my style of cooking, taking an old classic and having fun with it. We are using gulf shrimp, so it’s of the region, but it’s got the British influence,” Schmidt says.
A few of Schmidt’s other signature dishes at The Blackbird and Henry include a cockle and black pudding risotto, preserved duck leg and a Texas honey junket for dessert. The lunch menu boasts a variety of sandwiches and salads, like the short-rib grilled cheese, which is comprised of The Blackbird and Henry’s homemade sourdough bread, aged cheddar and caramelized onion. The dish is complimented well by a cool fingerling salad, made with homemade mustard.
“My goal for this is to be a really good, solid neighborhood restaurant,” Schmidt says. He offers a variety of weekly specials for his patrons to enjoy after a day at work. On Wednesdays, it’s curry and pint night, followed by happy hour from 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and half-priced oysters on Sundays.
Despite the difficulties of opening a new restaurant, Schmidt is confident in his staff and his menu. “We’ve got all the right elements, but it’s still a roll of the dice,” he says.
RESTAURANT IN REVIEW:
By Sara Benner
I’m no Anglophile, but there’s something just amazing about a well done English-style brunch. After reading Becca’s profile about The Blackbird & Henry, a new English-Texan restaurant, I just had to go see what all the fuss was about.
The atmosphere of The Blackbird & Henry in the morning is calm. Bright with natural light from its floor-to ceiling-windows and warm with wooden touches throughout its white, tiled restaurant space. But once I saw the menu, my heart sank a little. Chicken schnitzel, fried quail with grits and pain perdu (AKA french toast). It all sounded amazing, and I’m willing to bet it was, but as someone with food allergies, at first it seemed like I would be having “just a mimosa, thank you.”
Fortunately, the wait staff at The Blackbird & Henry is the bomb. After I explained what my needs were, they took the time to talk with the back of the house and provide me with several solutions, but by far the most appealing to me that morning was their hot smoked salmon and egg bruschetta, but substituting their house made sourdough bread (weeps) for home fries.
While some — my dining companion/boyfriend— in particular, may think it took a few minutes too long to get the food on the table after our order was placed, I believe brunch, especially when the house isn’t too busy, shouldn’t be a rushed affair.
When my specially catered plate arrived, I cursed myself under my breath for forgetting my iPhone at home. The food was gorgeous and would have been one of the highlights of my Instagram career. The swirled eggs were punctuated by warm pink salmon and crème fraiche, with an X-marks-the-spot arrangement of slender asparagus and a sprinkling of chives. To the right of the gentle hill of soft scrambled eggs (whisked by angels, I’m almost positive of it) was a right pretty pile of golden fried home fries in a uniform small dice. Kudos on the knife skills.
Though the portions were maybe a few more bites than I could muster, I was determined to take every bite of it home with me. My dining companion was less impressed with his Blackbird Burger, a chickpea veggie burger with mushrooms and cheddar, because he was expecting it to be more like falafel.
However, his crispy fries and mysterious “ketchup” are worth mention. I couldn’t quite figure out what was in it, but it tasted like what would happen if a tomato and some horseradish got together for a little bump and grind.
Maybe it’s better off that I left the phone at home…