Sarah Pliner, one of Portland’s best chefs, and one of the founders of Aviary Restaurant was killed in a bicycle accident yesterday.
The news this morning via local food writer Michael Zusman’s Facebook, was like a gut punch.
I met Sarah several times over the years, but can’t claim to have had deep insights into her personality. But over the years I’ve heard many good things from people who loved her. However, I can speak to her food. In my opinion, she was one of the finest chefs ever to grace the Portland food scene. When she and her fellow chefs Jasper Shen – now at XLB, and Kat Whitehead of Salt & Straw opened Aviary, it shot to the top of every Portland food critic’s list of best restaurants. When it closed in 2020, those who loved the restaurant were stunned by the loss. I still wax rhapsodically about dishes I’ve had at Aviary. I think the best tribute I can give her is to talk about some of the meals I’ve had at the restaurant, so I’ll quote a small part of my review to give you an idea of the cooking she was capable of.
The food they serve is executed with a rare degree of excellence. It is not merely to be consumed; it’s meant to be thought about, tasted with eyes closed, lingered over, and discussed with a good friend. This is modern dining, and the perfect way to do fusion; each cuisine enhancing the other without getting in the way. Dishes show the juxtaposition between the way Aviary can move between simplicity, and complexity bordering on molecular gastronomy without resorting to gimmickry.
A salad of warm snap peas and barley is a gastronomic puzzle, a clever brain tease on how to eat the dish. A large crunchy barley disk astride a brilliant salad hides the surprises beneath. Tender snap peas and un-hulled cooked barley line the plate with delicate hon shimejis Asian mushrooms and lily bulbs. Marble-sized spheres, one containing orange juice and rose-water, the other yogurt, act as little yolks of flavor. Pop them with a fork to change the texture and taste, mixing as you go. Switch to another dish and back a few minutes later, and you’ll find the flavors have bloomed. I was transported to a rose garden.
The brioche-crusted halibut stands out from anything similar in town. Three light brown and white stuffed spheres of halibut with just enough fat to feel sushi-like, stand alluringly in a vibrant green pool of butter-poached cucumber and dark green shiso. Each is topped with a tiny orange bump of sea urchin and a dot of paste made from umeboshi fruit as an accent. Smooth yet pungent greens with wasabi, toasty sesame oil and a hailstorm of sesame seeds sit to the side. If you take a bite from the edge of the halibut it tastes like fish sticks, but swirl one in the sauce and pop it whole into your mouth and a parade of flavors will be revealed, a synergy of rich fish, soft popping sea urchin, cooling cucumber and the complex umami of umeboshi and shiso.
A plate of seared octopus salad looks like a kitchen mistake… but the salad is a masterpiece, showcasing not only the technique but the art of construct and balance.
I loved Sarah Pliner for her cooking, pushing Portland food in a different direction, and her commitment to a quality far beyond the Portland norm. I was so looking forward to her next restaurant. My condolences to her friends, fellow chefs, and family.
From Michael Zusman,
My good friend, Sarah Pliner, was killed riding her bike yesterday. She was a wonderful person first as well as a great chef. My heart goes out to her family and other friends. She was an introvert and never craved the limelight as is the fashion in the industry these days. Make no mistake, however, her food at Aviary was peerless in its creativity and execution. Recently, she had been cooking at Bluto’s and the food there was predictably excellent. She was detail-oriented and it showed in every plate.
The sadness is deep over her untimely loss. She had a lot more life to live…and meals to cook. She was looking forward to opening a tiny new restaurant where she could showcase her skills for small audiences. I’m sure it would have been great.
This is a tough time for the restaurant industry and Sarah’s loss makes it that much harder. I will miss her immensely. May her memory be a blessing.