With the corporate expense account on its final gasp for life, AO and I hopped a plane to Portland on the flimsy pretext of transacting business. From Le Pigeon we expected a small, serene setting and a shrine to gastronomic excellence (or, at least, ambition). Instead, we found a tiny but boisterous bistro packed until midnight with a crowd of young foodies.
AO began with a nice rendition of foie gras accompanied by mashed, dried mission fig and pine on a superfluous triangular buttery pastry. The pine was the principal ingredient signifying unconventionality or “innovation,” and its mild flavor provided a soothing presence to the richer foie and sweeter fig. I loved my appetizer of warm lamb belly, which is “the meaty flap that surrounds the front ribs of the lamb” now in vogue with trailblazing chefs. It was served with a salad of asparagus, spring peas (as the meal actually took place in May), and a dab of a mint salsa verde catalyzed by pecorino. New York Times critic Merrill Stubbs is correct in arguing that lamb belly “offers a more nuanced mouthful than its porcine predecessor.”
I envied every bite of AO’s beef cheek bourguignon. Chef Gabriel Rucker’s take on the classic dish was modern but in perfect harmony with traditional recipes. The preparation consisted of succulent beef cheeks, a few carrots, and a robust sauce which deftly used salt to balance the red wine sauce. Plus, the beef cheeks were delicious.
Rucker has a reputation as an aficionado of tongue. I eschewed eating the organ until four years ago, when Babbo’s warm lamb’s tongue with a two-minute egg proved so revelatory. El Taurino/King Taco continually reinforces the Babbo experience with its brilliantly sapid taco de lengua, the best of its kind in my experience. Accordingly, I was eager to see what Rucker could do with tongue. I was concerned that the only beef tongue on the menu was mixed in with the spätzle that accompanied the flat iron steak; while I tend to enjoy spätzle, I generally do not like to order steak. Nevertheless, I put myself in Rucker's hands and, to my delight, the steak was excellent. Le Pigeon respected the cut of meat and served it rare, allowing the steak to retain its flavor. Moreover, the creamy, mustardy spätzle with the tongue was a luscious complement to the steak. It was no surprise to learn that Rucker, a native Californian, also enjoys tacos de lengua and cabeza.
My praise here is getting uncomfortably fulsome, and I admit that by the time the steak came around, AO and I were at the bottom of a second bottle of wine with one to go. But, even as we started plowing through a Vouvray Trie de Vendange—striking a minor blow against the dwindling balance sheet of my former employer—my sensory perception remained intact.
The desserts were not as successful as the savory portion of the meal, though they were good. Most enjoyable was the profiterole filled with foie gras cream and dressed with sea salt and caramel. It traversed the familiar terrain of the salty/sweet juxtaposition— and much like the bourguignon—the pendulum was set firmly, but not excessively on the salty. Less successful was the coffee pot de crème, served with crème brûlée. The pot de crème was boring, and the brûlée repeated the very same salty/sweet interplay that was in the profiterole. It was a better version of the basic, cloying American crème brûlée with its thick shell and incandescent yellow crème. The pastry chef’s inexperience here showed, and she should take a lesson in making the standard from Astier.
An exemplar of the new Portland dining scene, Le Pigeon is refreshing and exciting precisely because it is not a temple of refinement or elegance as found in New York or San Francisco. It is not even a finished product. But it exudes the freshness and exuberance that are lacking in larger cities with their Zagat scores, older clientele, and bourgeois posturing. At Le Pigeon, the artifice yields to a genuine and unpretentious desire for good and thoughtful food in the setting of a vibrant bistro.
738 E. Burnside St.