Review: Bar Avignon

Bar Avignon. Photos by John Valls

From the moment you walk into Bar Avignon the atmosphere wraps its arms around you. A long bar stretches the length of the restaurant, an easy place to feel comfortable if you are dining alone.  In the front, a small group of tables holds about 20, and a few raised booths make up the back. If you are in a group, a little screened area surrounded by wine bottles is available. I prefer the tables in front, which, while close together, provide an insulated view of cars splashing by on a rainy night.

High windows bathe the room with plenty of light, and earthy colors add to the cozy atmosphere. The owners are usually working the bar, making sure everyone is happy. It’s the perfect place for a date, or just to wind down after a long day. Quiet music contributes to the ambience, ranging from light jazz to Morcheeba and Spirtualized, with the volume set at a comfortable level.

Bar Avignon Screened Dining Area

Screened Dining Area

My only complaint about the interior is that the overhead fans always seem to be on, and every time I’ve been to Bar Avignon, it has been cold. Several times all the patrons have kept their coats on, and over my five visits it became a recurring joke.

Cocktails are basic but well made, and I’ve never been disappointed with an order. I enjoy going in during the happy hour for a choice of appetizers in the $3-$6 range, and I like that the staff comes around to give me a last chance to order before it ends – a nice touch. The wine list has some good choices with approachable prices starting at $28, but the by-the-glass list is a bit hit and miss. 17 beers are available, 8 by draft, ranging from Budweiser and Miller (?), to Chimay “Blue Label”. It’s not the best list in town, but most people won’t have any trouble finding one that makes them happy.

The staff is knowledgeable about both the wine and the dishes. However, it seems like they are either around too much when things seem to be going well or too little when the kitchen isn’t firing on all cylinders.

I’ve tried an assortment of dishes at Bar Avignon with confusing results, making this a difficult review to write. During my first three meals I was blown away by the quality of the food. After writing my review, but before I had published it, I went back with a friend. This time the food was lousy, and I was embarrassed to have recommended it to her. Ten days later I went back again, and while the food was average, the service, or more precisely the flow of food from the kitchen, was way off – it took 30 minutes to get our salads and 40 after that to get our entrees.

Bavette steak with beefsteak tomatoes, herb salsa, arugula

Bavette steak with beefsteak tomatoes, herb salsa, arugula

I’ve given this a lot of thought. How should I write a review with such a dichotomy of experiences?  Structurally it’s awkward, so I’m going to offer my original review, with notes added about my later impressions. If I go back a few times and things have returned to normal, I will call it an aberration, and make some changes.

These days bread and butter is an extra charge just about everywhere, and Bar Avignon is no different. What sets them above the fray is the quality of ingredients.  I’ve never tried Rogue Creamery butter before, but it is outstanding, especially when smeared on crusty Little T American Baker bread. An alternate pairing with their grassy olive oil which has a slight artichoke flavor is a good contrast, and a great way to whet your appetite while you are deciding what to order ($3.50).

In my experience, all the appetizers are large and easy to split. The house-made chicken liver mousse has a wonderful earthy flavor matching perfectly with a deep red onion jam which helps the flavors bloom on the tongue ($6). I appreciated the composition of crostini with albacore conserva, white bean and olivada. Olivada isn’t something I notice very often on Portland menus. It is an olive paste, which sounds overpowering, but the warming of the olives when the spread is made mellows their flavor. Its appearance here on thinly sliced pieces of grilled bread with a smear of white bean and albacore confit, is a study in harmony of both texture and flavor ($7).

Bar Avignon watermelon with Moroccan olives

Watermelon with Moroccan olives & Genovese basil

The salads are also big enough to split. An heirloom chicory salad with pear, candied walnuts and little chunks of blue cheese was a bit pedestrian, but the chicory was fresh and just slightly bitter, making for a good palate cleanser ($8.50). A second salad of mixed lettuces, toasted almonds, pomegranate seeds and sunchoke was similar – nice, nothing remarkable, perfectly serviceable ($8.50).

A salad of Cara Cara naval and blood oranges with shavings of Sardinian cheese, olives and balsamic showcases an intricate dish created with simple ingredients. Cara Caras are sweet and complex, and when mixed with the other ingredients, the overall flavors play off each other. As I recall, one night they were matched with mild grapefruit, the colors and flavors a beautiful contradiction, another time it was just oranges. The first night I tried this dish it was consummately wintery, with diverse flavors playing off one another. On my last visit the fruit was much more muted, which changed everything; it was “just another salad” ($7).

The slightly gamey meat of the wild boar ribs appetizer is rich and earthy, the moist meat falling off with a gentle pull from the fork, the chutney with tomatoes roasted just enough to bring sweet memories of early fall, with a barely sour reminder that we are still in winter ($8).

The entrées raise the level of cooking higher than I expect for such an unpretentious restaurant. A Carlton Farms pork chop with apples, bacon and Alsatian cabbage is a comforting surrender to the season. The meat is thick and moist with an earthy hint of smoke. The chop is accompanied by cabbage which has a wonderful flavor; some of the best I’ve ever had. Apples over the top have a strong blast of contrasting vinegar, and fatty lardons are scattered throughout. Though the vinegar flavor may be a bit too strong for some people, I enjoyed it ($16).

The time I tried the roasted chicken it was served with basmati rice, rabe, pecans and harissa. The rabe is chopped very fine, just specks added to rice with pecans. On first glance, the exterior of the chicken looks dry, almost flat in color, but the skin turned out to be moist and crispy. It is difficult to describe, but not difficult to eat. The meat was classically cooked, and had a lovely flavor.  Vibrant cooked kale nested underneath ($16).

Bar Avignon Pork Chop

Carlton Farms pork chop, Tuscan grains & greens, apricot, almond

The large, dry-aged New York steak was the big surprise of my first few dinners, a perfect medium-rare, along with a potato-celery root gratin and cooked greens. My companion, who had participated in the Steakhouse Showdown, took a bite and said exactly what I was thinking – it was second only to the El Gaucho steak, loaded with flavor from the classic marbling. Even better, it was half the price of El Gaucho. The topping was perfectly-seasoned and crusty, infused with the peppery, herby taste of persillade. I’ve never had a better gratin than that one that accompanies the steak. The potatoes are light yet flavorful, and not nearly as heavy as it usually is. The celery root provides an interesting depth and additional texture. As in other dishes, the accompanying greens have a nice garlic/peppery flavor, and are well cooked, but still holding their form. During my first two meals, this was the best steak I’ve ever had in this price range. Unfortunately, on a later dinner, this steak was more like strip club quality: poor flavor, tough to chew and unmemorable. My companion thought I was crazy to have suggested he order it ($24).

One rainy evening, I selected a risotto with fennel and trumpet mushrooms. Whenever I order this dish in a restaurant, I expect it to be gummy, because much of the time it is. However, at Bar Avignon it was rich and properly prepared, with a slight toothy give-back in texture ($13).

Bar Avignon Roast Chicken

Roast chicken with basmati rice, almonds, cucumber raita

On my last visit, an order of cod was beautiful, but so salt-laden it was literally inedible, making me recoil when I took a bite. I didn’t want to send it back or I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing about it, but I could only take two bites and pushed the rest around my plate. When the server picked it up, we weren’t asked why we’d barely touched the fish. Someone should have cared enough to inquire ($18).

The desserts I’ve tried have been a mixed bag. The pecan pie is a corn syrup version with a nutty center. It’s not too sweet, an all too common failing of pecan pie, and the crust is fine and holds up well against the filling. The white dollop of whipped cream on top has a nice bourbon flavor ($7). But an apple crisp with whipped crème fraiche was a mess – cooked in too cool an oven so it didn’t have that good, slightly caramelized flavor it should, and it tasted like a box of cinnamon had been dumped in it by mistake. I’m picky about crisps and don’t expect much from a restaurant version, but this was a disaster ($7).

I like Bar Avignon, and after my first few meals thought I would be stopping by regularly. The ambiance is inviting, the menu compelling, and for the most part the service is good. However, my most recent dining experiences make me wonder if I should roll the dice and return. Could something have happened I didn’t know about? Perhaps a kitchen staff change, or the chef went on vacation? I don’t know, and will be interested to hear feedback from your next visit. In the meantime, I’ve dropped the food score a full point, but plan to revisit in the near future.

  • Ambiance: C
  • Food: C+
  • Service: C+

 

  • Address: 2138 SE Division Street, Portland OR. Map
  • Phone: (503) 517-0808
  • Hours: Daily, 4pm-close
  • Happy Hour: Mon-Fri 4pm-6pm
  • Website: BarAvignon.com

All photos by John Valls Commercial Photography

Bar Avignon on Urbanspoon

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. says

    My wife and I have been to Bar Avignon a dozen times or so since they opened and have always been pleased with our dining experience, though our tastes are less discriminating than yours. Typically we just get a few appetizers or small plates as it’s frequently one of several stops on any given outing, so I rarely have the same dish twice with the exception of the marinated and warmed olives and spiced hazelnuts that we seem to get every time.

    Personally, I appreciate that in addition to a good cocktail menu (that includes sangria in the summertime) and very nice wine list their beer selection isn’t just an afterthought. They always have a good selection of local beer on tap and even have a cask engine, which is pretty rare in town. I’m usually able to overlook negatives with service or food quality as long as I have a pint of something good in front of me, but I’m easily pleased like that.

    I look forward to a future follow-up review.

  2. ElGordo says

    What is this place doing serving bowling pin bottles of Budweiser? It has such an excellent beer selection otherwise.

    • hoonan says

      I might be wrong about this, but I think the Budweiser pin bottles are an ode to Randy’s good friend, Adam Sappington.

    • Bruno says

      I find it amazing that in the town that has the largest consumption of PBR in the world, Bar Av is getting flack for offering Bud & Miller. Le Pigeon has always had Miller High Life bottles on their list. Just sayin…

      Love Bar Av…love Randy & Nancy, the warm cozy vibe, always something tasty to eat and tasty to drink, always a few great oyster options. It’s kinda like my Cheer’s, but Portland style.

      Food Dude I do hope you return in a bit to follow up on the mixed experiences of your last visits.

  3. ann sofka says

    i, too, want to say good things because the owners are so nice. i had to ask that the fans be turned off cuz it was cold. i went for fried chicken night. though well sourced, the crispy skin was flavorless. the potatoes with mushroom gravy were gluey. the sauce, out of place.the service was friendly/competent. the martini was very small for the price…$8.the chix was$13, the potatoes $5…not a bang for the buck.

    • CO says

      Martinis are supposed to be small(classically around 3.5 oz total after dillution.). They are pure booze. In fact, I’d be willing to be that on most cocktail menus it is the drink with the highest volume of spirits/liquor in it! If it was well made, used quality gin and fresh vermouth, you got a good deal. It’s complaints like this that absolutely drive bartenders mad….

    • Food Dude says

      As CO said, a real martini should be small. If you are used to fake flavored martini drinks such as Vault Martini serves, than you would be disappointed in most of the good restaurants in Portland.

  4. says

    I was searching for reviews of Bar Avignon. My husband and I will be in Portland next month and are looking for local cuisine to try. I’m sad to hear that your experiences here have been mixed. What other restaurants could you recommend that are comparable in price that might be more consistent?
    ~Nancy Lewis~

  5. Swine and Dine says

    FD, As a long-time fan of your food ethos and writing style, I have to say I’m confused about your review of Bar Avignon. A “C” for ambience? After your lead rhapsodizes about the place enfolding you in its warm atmosphere? I am a regular drinker and diner at Avignon. One of the reasons I go so often is that I think it so perfectly nails the best of the small warm Portland DIY style without pretension. In my experience service at Avignon has almost always been exemplary–attentive without being fawning. I’m also surprised by your lukewarm response to the wine list. As a wine professional, I think Avignon has a remarkably diverse and reasonable list for a small place, and almost always something surprising, offbeat and delicious by the glass. I agree that very infrequently the food can be inconsistent. But from my point of view that inconsistency comes from a business that could settle for a few predictable apps and entrees always mixing up their offerings seasonally and striving for and usually achieving excellence, when just pretty good would probably be easier and more profitable. I urge you to return and have a rethink or two. As for me, I’ll be returning to one of my favorite places in PDX weekly.

    • Food Dude says

      The atmosphere is warm and inviting, but not above average. A “C” is not a bad score, and I can only think of few restaurants I would give an “A” to.

      You may have always had good experiences at Bar Avignon, but I didn’t. It wasn’t terrible, but there were some issues. A “C+” is slightly above average, again, not a bad score.

      You say

      very infrequently the food can be inconsistent. But from my point of view that inconsistency comes from a business that could settle for a few predictable apps and entrees always mixing up their offerings seasonally and striving for and usually achieving excellence, when just pretty good would probably be easier and more profitable.

      That makes no sense to me. I’m paying good money for food. I don’t want to be embarrassed when I send someone on my recommendation. I’d rather have “pretty good”, than teetering from “great” to “inedible”. Lots of restaurant in Portland change their menus frequently, some daily, and don’t have such a variance in quality.

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