Friday, August 19, 2011

Le Pigeon - Portland, Oregon

Le Pigeon

Portland has such prodigious natural bounty available to it that creating a fine meal need not be difficult work. With its proximity to both river and sea, there's abundant fresh seafood, and nearby farmlands supply excellent produce. Perhaps as a result, Portland has long been a good food town, but creativity has not generally been its calling card; who needs to be creative when you can so happily subsist like a bear on a regular diet of fresh wild salmon and berries?

When we last visited Portland five years ago, we saw some signs of change. The most interesting meals we had were on the then somewhat uncharted east side of the Willamette River, at ClarkLewis and Gotham Building Tavern, both run at the time by Chef Naomi Pomeroy. So I was intrigued to see during my trip research that Gabriel Rucker, now chef of Le Pigeon, was the sous chef at Gotham back when we had eaten there.

Since opening Le Pigeon, Rucker has been bestowed a Food & Wine "Best New Chefs" recognition in 2007, and the James Beard "Rising Star Chef of the Year Award" this past May. Along the way, Le Pigeon has developed a reputation for offal-centricity, though from our experience I think that characterization sort of misses the mark. I saw no more "variety meats" than I'd expect to see on any menu, though they did show up in some unexpected places.

Le Pigeon is an intimate space, maybe 40 seats all told, roughly ten of which line a bar in front of the open kitchen. Several others are situated at communal tables, including a long table angled tightly along the expansive front window where we were seated.[1] The menu is also a fairly intimate affair, with a short selection of a half dozen appetizers and an equal number of entrées, plus a (seemingly incongruous) burger.


Rucker's creativity finds expression not so much in technique, which is largely classical, as in his mix-and-match approach to dish composition. "Eel, corn, watermelon, shiitake, cilantro" sounded like something you'd find in a mystery basket on a show like "Chopped." More bluntly, it sounded like a train wreck. It wasn't. Fresh-water eel is brought in live and slaughtered in-house, simply grilled, and the delicate but meaty flesh is paired with accompaniments that speak of the freshness of summer: sweet corn, even sweeter watermelon, lightly pickled mushrooms, a drizzle of bright cilantro vinaigrette.

(continued ...)

scallop ceviche

That tightrope balance was just slightly askew with a ceviche-style dish in which the delicate bay scallops, flecked with mint and basil, were overwhelmed by the acid of the crab vinaigrette, which even the sweet, perfectly ripe grape tomatoes couldn't counterbalance.

rabbit and salami risotto

"Rabbit, salami risotto, gouda, fennel" was another list of ingredients that defied conception as a completed dish. What arrived was slippery rice lashed with creamy gouda cheese, interspersed with nubs of spicy salami, topped with a generous mound of tender confited rabbit; and then a crown of lightly pickled peppers and a drizzle of a bright green herb sauce to cut through all those layers of richness. This was embarassingly good, the kind of thing you secretly hoard from your fellow diners.


But the most memorable dish of the evening (maybe - this is a close call with one of the desserts) was the quail, burnished golden-brown crispy skin encasing tender, mildly gamy meat, served over a tripe and pepper stew with some generous dollops of a (saffron-infused?) aioli. Who'd've thunk to combine quail and tripe? It was simply and unexpectedly perfect.

ivory salmon

The menu appears to always offer some fresh local fish of the day (salmon, ling cod, albacore tuna). This ivory salmon, with king oyster mushrooms and corn, was fine but unexceptional compared to the other items we tried.

Le Pigeon burger

After five years, I still remember the burger served at Gotham Building Tavern: juicy, flavorful beef, excellent bacon, aged cheddar cheese, served on a toasty English muffin. The Le Pigeon burger is a similar breed: locally-sourced chuck, ground in-house and well-seasoned, simply grilled, topped with a slice of local sharp Tillamook cheddar, grilled onions, a smear of house-made ketchup on the bottom (ciabatta) bun and mustard on top, and then crowned with a clever "slaw" of shredded iceberg lettuce tossed with aioli. Though a burger seems a bit out of place among the other offerings, you can get the entire backstory here, and see that it's prepared with every bit of attention to detail as the rest of the menu:

Desserts also go both classical and unconventional. In the former category, crème brûlée was as old-school as they come, and was flawlessly executed.

creme brulee

An espresso pot de crème and a chocolate shortbread cookie were superfluous but welcome additions.

chocolate mascarpone tart

A chocolate tart with masarpone and house-made candied cherries was likewise good, something of a reconstructed black forest cake, but would not raise any eyebrows.

foie gras profiteroles

The dessert that will raise eyebrows, and should not be missed, is the foie gras profiteroles.[2] Another twist on a classic, these light, faintly crispy puffs (the choux pastry itself enhanced with foie, recipe here) are filled with a rich foie gras ice cream that perfectly balances sweet and savory, and then generously drizzled with a thin caramel, a sprinkle of coarse sea salt, and delicate chocolate shavings. Outrageously good, it was very possibly one of the best desserts I've had all year.

The wine list, by comparison to the menu, was expansive. More wide than deep (though there's likely more than 100 bottles on the list), Loire, Burgundy, and the Rhone are given at least equal attention as Oregon offerings, with Italy and Germany well represented as well. More than 15 choices by the glass or 1/2 liter and about two-dozen 1/2-bottles are also welcome options. We stuck with a local product that we'd never heard of, the "Marina Piper" pinot noir from Cottonwood Winery. A blend of juice from four different vineyards, it was reasonably priced (around $40) and provided a nice balance of fruit, mineral and acid.

The kind of creative cooking that tends to get the most attention these days (in certain circles anyway, and I'm perhaps as guilty of it as any) is often technique-driven: hydrocolloids and heavy equipment are discussed as much as the flavors they produce. Le Pigeon's cooking style is classical by comparison, playing instead with unorthodox combinations of ingredients. The results are often equally surprising and inspiring.

Le Pigeon
738 E. Burnside St.
Portland, OR

Le Pigeon on Urbanspoon

[1] This made for some interesting manuevering when the four-top who had been seated before us, closer to the wall, needed to get out, and we all had to clear out in order for them to make their exit.

[2] I've repeatedly noted how I enjoy dishes that either treat foie as a dessert component or, if appearing earlier in the meal, avoid the typical sweet accompaniments.

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