Mark Schmidt brings a bit of the English Tavern to Austin
By Shelley Seale, Photos by Ryan Taylor
Blackbird and Henry is one of Austin’s newest culinary offerings, located on Guadalupe and 30th streets. With its casual, neighborhood ambience, it is a comfortable place to try the creative dishes of Executive Chef Mark Schmidt, who was inspired by both his Texas roots and British upbringing when creating his menu.
“Spending a lot of my childhood in England exposed me to things that weren’t available in Farmers Branch, Texas,” Schmidt says. “We traveled around the U.K. on holidays and it was really interesting to see all the regional differences in food back then. It imprinted in my memories and gave food a sense of place for me. That’s what I try to do now, give my food a sense of place.”
The 35-year veteran of the restaurant industry is a self-taught chef. He remembers being interested in food as young as 6 or 7 years old, being introduced to cooking by his mother and spending time at her side in their kitchen in Liverpool.
“At the time, I didn’t know I could make a career out of it. All I knew was that it made me happy to be in the kitchen,” he says.
By the 1970s, when it was time to think about college, the idea of a culinary school never crossed Schmidt’s mind. He had never heard of the Culinary Institute of America or any other culinary schools, for that matter.
“In Europe, you became an apprentice if you wanted to be a chef,” he says. “I thought that was how you did it.”
However, he was also painfully aware that most cooks never make much money, and so his university major took another direction: geology. He used cooking to pay his way through college, working at restaurants until he graduated with his degree in geology and went to work in the oil industry. As with many people who aren’t following their true internal passion, that didn’t last long. After only a few years, Schmidt returned to cooking full time.
“When I was coming up as a chef, I think my biggest inspirations were cookbooks and ethnic grocery stores,” Schmidt says. “It gave a poor, struggling cook a chance to travel in his mind.”
He worked at AquaKnox in Dallas, where he received his first of four invitations to cook at the James Beard House, and went on to Max’s Oyster Bar in Connecticut and The Compound in Santa Fe, N.M. Moving back to Texas, Schmidt opened Café 909 in Marble Falls in 2003. In its five years, Café 909 went on to become nationally acclaimed, and Chef Schmidt a culinary force to be reckoned with. During the past several years, Schmidt began visualizing a concept for his own restaurant in Austin.
“I wanted it to be a neighborhood restaurant, a place where you can come in for a nice dinner or come hang out and unwind after work, gather with friends and share some oysters and drinks,” he says.
The name came about while he and his wife, Shelly, were sitting in a pub in Northern England. They were brainstorming possible names for the new restaurant in the back garden of the pub, which was covered in ivy and had birds flitting about.
“Shelly initially suggested Blackbird and Ivy, but the space [in Austin]that I had just signed a lease on had no ivy, so we decided that didn’t make sense,” he says.
But the couple really liked the name, and after trying a few variations, the final inspiration came from one of their dogs, named Henry. Back in Austin, Schmidt began working on the finish-out and décor of his new place, which included salvaged materials and vintage brick veneer on the back wall. But he knew that wall needed something to anchor it.
“I worked with [Well+Done] design company, and we decided to do a series of vintage photos of people and their dogs. Some we found online and others I found by spending many hours going through vintage photos at local antique stores,” Schmidt says.
The result is a restaurant that is modern yet warm, with a pretty décor that is understated and provides simply an inviting backdrop for the main event: Chef Schmidt’s award-winning food, inspired by his time in Texas and England, as well as his travels throughout the world. The curried prawn kedgeree includes trout, couscous and cilantro, and is finished with a quail egg.
“The kedgeree is a good example of the English influence,” Schmidt says.
The menu also includes a staple of the British pub, fish and chips, and a grilled Scottish salmon with sourdough panzanella, cucumber and heirloom tomato. Schmidt is dedicated to sourcing ingredients from local farmers and independent suppliers, including Dyer Dairy of Georgetown and Houston Dairymaids, among others. Some examples of more locally inspired dishes include the Southern fried Texas quail with homestead white corn grits, and the cast iron Texas redfish with Andouille sausage, oyster and gumbo spice.
Although the food is personal and pretty special, beverages don’t get left behind. Shelly Schmidt is a sommelier and designed the wine list, and they partnered with Lara Nixon of Boxcar Bar Consulting to offer local craft ales and unique cocktails on tap.
“I am really proud of some of the drinks we came up with for brunch,” Schmidt says, citing the coconut-spiced rum lassi as his favorite.
After starting with dinner service, Blackbird and Henry recently opened for lunch and brunch, and offers special nights such as Curry & Pint Night on Wednesdays and half-priced oysters on Sundays. There are also plans for more special nights in the near future.
“I hope people enjoy Blackbird and Henry as much as I do,” Schmidt says. “My plans are for it to be just the first of more to come.”
Coconut-Spiced Rum Lassi
- 1.5 ounces spiced rum infused with orange, lemon and five spice
- 2 ounces coconut milk
- .75 ounces spiced jaggery simple syrup
- 2 ounces banana puree
- 2 ounces yogurt
- Heavy dash salt and Kashmir chili
Directions: Mix chilled ingredients and pour into a tulip glass. Garnish with Kashmir chili.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 cup couscous (Mediterranean style)
- 1 tablespoon shallots, minced
- 2 teaspoons curry powder
- 2 cups orange juice
- Zest of one orange
- 1/4 cup cilantro leaves
- 1/4 cup red onion, minced and rinsed
- 12 ounces smoked trout filet, skinned and flaked
- 1/2 cup English peas (optional)
- 8 quail eggs, hard-boiled
- 1/4 cup toasted coconut
- 1/4 cup fried shallot rings
- Cracked black pepper and nutmeg to taste
Directions: Toss the couscous with half the olive oil in a mediumsized mixing bowl and set aside. Heat the remaining olive oil in a small saucepan and cook shallots over medium heat until they start to color, about five minutes. Add curry powder and cook for an additional minute. Add orange juice and zest then bring to a boil. Pour hot liquid over reserved couscous and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Let steam for five minutes and fluff with a fork.
To finish: Add the cilantro, red onion, trout and peas (optional) to the couscous and mix just to incorporate. Divide the mixture between four service bowls, quarter the quail eggs and arrange on the top of each bowl. Garnish each bowl with the toasted coconut and fried shallots. Finish with fresh cracked black pepper and grated nutmeg.
Blackbird and Henry 3016 Guadalupe St., 512.394.5264.