A review of Bar Avignon in SE Portland Oregon
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 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 ambiance, ranging from light jazz to Morcheeba and Spiritualized, with the volume set at a comfortable level.
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 $4-$9 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 price, 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.
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.
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. 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.
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. A second salad of mixed lettuces, toasted almonds, pomegranate seeds and sunchoke was similar – nice, nothing remarkable, perfectly serviceable.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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+
All photos by John Valls Commercial Photography