Almost since the day they opened, I’ve been hearing good things about Chef Gabriel Rucker and his restaurant Le Pigeon. I went for the first time a month ago, and have been going back ever since.
If you’ve been to Colleen’s Bistro, then you know the location. If not, picture the stretch of Burnside, just West of Doug Fir. Le Pigeon is hard to see, a small space squeezed in between other storefronts, but it’s worth taking the time to find.
The entire restaurant is made up of a large open kitchen, about seven farmhouse style tables, and a chef’s counter where you can watch the action. On nice days, there are a couple of tables outside. Some old chandeliers provide plenty of light, and with the matching vintage chairs, this is a quaint, charming spot. Le Pigeon is a place you’ll be equally comfortable taking a few friends, or a romantic date. Everything is local, organic, free-range ingredients. They use good glassware and good Laguiole knives. The wine list is excellent, with quite a few interesting choices. Right now the offerings are limited to beer and wine.
Chef Rucker, former sous chef of the now closed Gotham Building Tavern, has wanted his own place for some time: somewhere he could stretch his wings and experiment with out-of-the box thinking. It shows throughout the entire menu, all the way through the desserts.
Menu choices run the gamut, but many feature unusual combinations for Portland. Some are inspired and work perfectly. Others feel gimmicky, or not quite thought through. Still, there are many more hits than misses.
If it’s on the menu, don’t miss the marrow sandwich. It’s unbelievably rich and satisfying. Match this with a salad and you’ll have a great dinner. Sweetbreads with pickled strawberries are inspired; perfectly crisp, yet creamy inside, the sweetness of the strawberries singing a soft harmony. The cucumber gazpacho is a beautiful, refreshing green soup that tastes of summer, with a single perfectly grilled prawn in the middle. It totally works. A dish of squab is so rich you might think it is duck, until you remember it’s matched with duck fat-poached potatoes and marrow crostini. A totally classic and elegant dish, even if it is a bit of a pain to dig though those tiny bones.
One night I thought I’d order a boring entree like the fennel chicken with carrots. I was blown away by the perfect skin and masterful balance of flavors. The chicken arrives perched atop a addictive sweet onion confit, surrounded by carrots that made me think of the love my grandmother put into her cooking. I’d order it again in a heartbeat. The burger is excellent, a large patty of really juicy beef, though the thick ciabatta was somewhat annoying. Other than that, it is one of the best burgers in the city. Flat iron steak sounds boring, but when you cook it perfectly, lay it gently on a bed of truffle flavored greens, and top it with addictive semolina-crusted onion rings, it reaches an entirely new level. For the more adventurous, try the lambs tongue potato salad, or even the calf hearts. The times I’ve had them, it has been hard to find fault with either dish. Even the desserts can be stunning. Take, for instance, the bizarre sounding dish of sweet cornbread with apricots, topped with crispy bacon, honey, and maple ice cream. I’ve had it twice, and both times we sat there saying, “I can’t believe this is so good!” Likewise the berry cobbler; it tastes like a country backyard, bursting with summer. Having had a recent bad experience with basil ice cream, I was a bit hesitant to try it at Le Pigeon. What I got was damn near perfection, and a perfect foil to the cobbler’s berries.
There are, however, some problems. The foie pb&j is just what is sounds like, but didn’t really work for me. Take two slices of Franz white bread. Add thin layers of foie gras, peanut butter and jelly. While the foie gave it a rich depth, I felt the flavors were all slugging it out, and none of them really won. A salad of roasted beets, peaches, radishes, and watercress with peach cava vinaigrette also suffered from too many competing flavors, though on some nights it was better than others. I thought the radishes fought with the more subtle flavors, and slices of less than sweet peaches were not helped by a healthy dusting of salt and pepper. A “Pork and Beans” consisted of salty pork belly, with a so so onion aioli, and some average tempura beans. It was served on a cold plate, so the meat quickly chilled. Finally, an old bugaboo of mine rears its ugly head: lack of consistency. One night the beet salad was perfect, on another the ingredients weren’t quite as good, throwing off the whole dish. The steak, so good one night, fell flat a few days later, arriving somewhat overcooked, in a pool of oily separated sauce.
My conclusion? Like most new restaurants, this bird is still fighting to take wing. However, it is obvious the chef is inspired, creative, and talented. I think Le Pigeon is one of the most exciting restaurants to hit Portland in a long time, and even with the issues, I’m sure to keep returning. Brunch is served on weekends. I haven’t been, but the menu (at the bottom of this review), looks interesting.