More than two decades after opening Bardeo in Cleveland Park, big-name D.C. restaurateur Ashok Bajaj returns the space to its wine bar roots with tonight’s opening of Little Blackbird (3309 Connecticut Avenue NW).
The name derives from the old French word for blackbird, “merle,” which also happens to be the origin for the Merlot wine grape. But French is just the beginning of what guests will find on the menu and behind the bar. “We did not want to tie up to one sort of cuisine,” says Bajaj, whose globe-trotting Knightsbridge Restaurant Group currently covers Indian (Rasika, Bombay Club), Italian (Modena), and French (La Bise), to name a few.
Executive chef Ryan Moore, who also oversees Bajaj’s next-door Israeli sibling Sababa, turned to flavor and ingredient pairings that were classic, fun, and all things in between. The menu is bolstered by the kitchen’s large stone oven, which produces dishes like hearth-roasted halloumi cheese with cherry tomatoes and black olives and hanger steak. Other opening highlights include squash gnocchi, warm wine-braised olives, and lamb loin.
Little Blackbird takes the baton most recently from Bindaas, which served Indian dishes like kathi rolls and kebabs since 2016 (a Foggy Bottom location remains open, along with a fast-casual spinoff in Penn Quarter). While Bajaj says the street food place was “doing well,” the kitchen was simply too small to compete with the offerings of its bigger D.C. counterpart. After efforts to bring a larger Bindaas to the upper Northwest area stalled out, Bajaj and Moore settled on the idea for Little Blackbird. The entire space got a stylish makeover in preparation for the new venture.
“There’s a need for a good gathering place in the neighborhood, and I think Little Blackbird will fill that hole,” says Bajaj.
Hours are Sunday through Tuesday from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. and Wednesday to Saturday from 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Moore, who said he wanted to stay away from pizza, is firing up several variations of socca, a crispy flatbread found all around France and Italy.
“It’s one of those ancient, ancient breads,” Moore says. “It’s just chickpea flour, water and olive oil. Vegan batter.”
One of his variations gets an upscale treatment: a topping of lobster, carrot, ginger and mascarpone. For dessert, Moore is eager to share his single malt butterscotch pudding, a sweet and boozy treat made with 10-year-old Scotch whisky mixed straight in.
In developing the menu, Moore and Bajaj see Little Blackbird as something that can attract longstanding regulars while also holding up as a destination for diners looking for nice varietals and good food.
“I wanted to create a spot that the neighborhood could frequent and not feel overpriced,” says Moore.
The global wine selection features crowd-pleasing picks like Californian Cabernet Sauvignon and German Riesling alongside bottles from producers in spots like Israel, Lebanon, and New Zealand.
Servers and bartenders are trained on both the food and wines and prepared to offer matches that best complement one other. During menu testing, Moore also stumbled into a few feel-good “playful pairings,” like Oreos and cream sherry or Cheetos with Pinot Grigio.
While the full list offers the opportunity to splurge, just about every bottle featured on the opening menu is $60 or less, with many available for under $50. Glasses range from $12 to $15.
“It’s a neighborhood wine bar, it’s not a downtime wine bar,” Bajaj says. “Instead of sitting at home and opening a bottle, [guests] can pay another $15 or $20 and come and be served in beautiful stemware — and be served by somebody else.”