UFO’s in Portland

I have loved Portland Oregon since the first time I was there, in the fall of 2004, pit stopping at a Travelodge on East Burnside on my way to culinary school in Vancouver.  That motel, chosen somewhat randomly but almost certainly because of its very competitive rates, is still there and is one block from the little restaurant space where Gabriel Rucker would create Le Pigeon eighteen months after I passed through town.  It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the Travelodge is a little pricier now than it was then, because I can’t believe that I’m the only person who now thinks of East Burnside, in general terms, as the location of one of the west coast’s best and most iconic restaurants.

I have eaten at Le Pigeon five or six times, and have had the sense each time that it was one of those places that seem to have just sprouted up out of the ground—no construction, no human design, no permit hassles—just something as pre-ordained as a giant oak tree.  There tended not to be, in my experiences there, a single moment from the time a guest walked in the front door to the time he or she paid the bill, when one raised an eyebrow because something seemed out of place. When I picture Le Pigeon in my mind’s eye, I see cast iron pots, mason jars on shelves on the walls, smiling staff—none of it the least bit contrived.

To look at the current menu, as I did online after I arrived in Portland last week, is to see a selection of dishes only something like the roster of five years ago.  Shortly after Le Pigeon opened, everything coming out of Rucker’s kitchen had in abundance the three traits I consider to be most important in the production of superior cuisine: a sharpened focus on good ingredients, a hall pass for one’s creativity as it conjures and pursues artful and delicious combinations and permutations, and a wholesale freedom in the creative process from considering the inspiration and depth of one’s own profound wit.

The last characteristic is the only one beyond the grasp of any serious young chef these days, but we’ve all been suffering the unfortunate effects of its absence for years. Since the 1980’s, when America began to celebrify food, talented chefs around the country have been practiced at getting in their own way while designing and executing menus.  It occurs to them that their new lamb dish would be great with the addition of some tarragon, and then they have a feverish early-morning dream about infusing some tarragon into—oatmeal!  Or a tarragon beignet!!  Their dutiful staffs then set about indulging the chef’s genius, whipping up tarragon beignets which turn out to be very nicely constructed.

Even when the instinct and the execution work, the plate shows up at the table slightly out of balance, because the chef’s ingenuity is the most prominent ingredient.  And while we sometimes seem convinced that a dinner table full of ingenuity is inspiring, nourishing, restorative, it’s actually something a lot more like a charade, an affirmation session rife with congratulations of different sorts.  First diners demonstrate their own and each others’ good taste by pointing out this or that slightly-out-of-place texture or odd flavor, and then, praised be, if everyone is lucky enough to be regaled by the chef himself at the table.  Then the adulation reaches a fever pitch, for the man who dreamt this up—this tarragon ice cream, is standing so close we could touch him.

But while tarragon oatmeal fritters have descended like UFO’s in the dreams of legions of young American chefs in the last twenty years, west coast metropolises have been the most reliable places to find chefs who have politely excused themselves from the world of things unidentified or flying.  Owed to the regularity of superior local ingredients, many west coast chefs have been finding fulfillment for years from a creative process much less dependent on innovation, much more devoted to nourishment.

Portland especially, less encumbered by the appetite for glossy content that pervades Los Angeles and San Francisco, has for a decade or more been a city with very good restaurants that make you feel as though nothing is quite so direly important when you sit down to dinner.  There isn’t anything missing from the seriousness of the approach to food or service, but neither does one find very much stiffness or creative over-reaching.  Portland restaurants, while busy serving fresh and delicious food, have long been places where diners can actually relax.

What I found after I settled in to the city and began to look at some menus online was the impression that fritter UFO’s were indeed hovering overhead about five blocks east of the Burnside bridge.  During my visit to Portland last week, Chef Rucker and his cooks at Le Pigeon were serving, among other things, rabbit and eel terrine with a foie gras and miso vinaigrette, and pigeon crudo with smoked bourbon ice cream.  Both of these dishes were on the menu as appetizers.  What I remembered as Rucker’s flirtation with avant garde cuisine seemed to have blossomed into a full-throttle indulgence of his inner tarragon fritter.

A possible explanation presented itself when I decided instead to go to Rucker’s second restaurant—Little Bird, which opened about two years ago, closer to Portland’s city center.  My first night in the city, as I sat alone at the bar there with a negroni at about 8:30, and was served with promptness and grace by a bright and kind guy who was bartending, I settled in first for a salad of frisee, Dijon vinaigrette, a perfectly fat and juicy little boudin blanc and a perfectly-cooked crispy poached egg.  Following the salad there was a grilled half-chicken, crisp-skinned and bursting with juice, which was served astride a brothy succotash of tiny white beans and corn, cherry tomatoes and chili oil.

The exquisiteness of the food at Little Bird would be hard for me to overstate.—the two meals I ate there were indicative of a chef at the very top of his craft.  That first dinner was followed by a lunch a couple of days later that consisted of a half-bottle of Champagne and a butter lettuce salad with yogurt-feta dressing, watermelon and cucumbers, a ‘Le Pigeon’ burger which was one of those burgers that leave you absolutely convinced in the moment that your mouth will never enjoy a more delicious bite of food, and a side of brandied crimini mushrooms that served to remind me of the glory of simply-prepared vegetables.

Whether or not it’s the case, and without being privy to the inner workings of his mind, I am going to believe going forward that Gabe Rucker is allowing himself the license to serve lightly-cooked squab with ice cream at Le Pigeon because he opened another restaurant where we can all just have dinner.  Maybe the very high quality of the quotidian fare at Little Bird eases any qualms he would or would not feel about featuring pigeon crudo on his one and only dinner menu.  It certainly eases my concerns to know that a great boudin blanc with frisee and a poached egg and an exquisite Dijon vinaigrette is still there waiting for me.

I had ample time to consider this question and others as I headed back down the 5 freeway for the ten-hour trip to San Francisco, which would be punctuated by a date with Vernon and Charlene Rollins at New Sammy’s Cowboy Bistro outside of Ashland.  That is a story for, and from, another time.