Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Le Pigeon - Portland, OR

"Just trust me."

It's something we love to hear in movies, from an admired boss, or when accompanied by the strong grip of a swarthy lover as he takes you, bosom heaving, aboard his trimaran ready for a weekend of adventure, romance, and sport-fucking off the coast of Sint Maarten.

But most diners are utterly unwilling to turn that same level of trust over to an able chef. The number of true prix fixe restaurants in the Bay Area are very very few. Sure places will offer a tasting menu in addition to an a la carte menu or will offer a selection of choices for each course, but how many places offer a fixed menu, no substitutions, sorry?

Close to none.

I've worked at restaurants that bend over backwards for even the most asinine customer substitutions. A classic exchange:

"Could I get those clams just steamed with butter, garlic, and white wine instead of with this stuff?" (Stuff is inevitably said with a confused disdain, a sense of "why would ANYONE possibly want to eat this dish THIS way. How WEIRD."

"We'll do what we can."

And then, after dining:

"That was the worst meal I've ever had."

Yeah, well don't blame the chef. You cooked the fucking food, asshole.

We won't go to the Symphony and tell Tilson-Thomas how to conduct (well, I would if I could), we won't go to Stephen King and tell him how to write formulaic horror, and we won't go up to Ralph Lauren and tell him how to design slightly dated menswear, but we will go up to men and women, many of whom have spent longer honing their skills and reaped far fewer rewards (and at a more advanced age) then any of those aforementioned gentlemen, and tell them how to do their jobs.

Oh, but we can cook at home, so it's okay to criticize.

Well, I can write, draw pictures of sportcoats, and wave a stick vaguely in time with music, but that doesn't necessarily mean I know how to do it as well as King, Lauren, or Tilson-Thomas.

So what's the point? Trust our chefs! Nothing's more exhilarating then being exposed to new flavor sensations, flawless preparation, capable direction. It's fun. It's enlightening. It's sexy. Roll with it. "Trust me, you'll like it. It's food."

And trust your wine people too. Chances are they know more about it then you do, particularly because they know enough not to care as much as you do.

Along those lines, Le Pigeon in Portland was one of the best meals of my life.

Just looking at the menu you know you're in for something special. New menu every week. Six appetizers, six entrees (and a burger). That's it. At the bottom of the menu: "substitutions politely declined, no more than 2 methods of payment per party." Also: "we don't take reservations between 6:30 and 7:30." How great is that? Here are the rules, play by them.

Are people offended? Doesn't seem like it. Le Pigeon is packed and the accolades keep piling on.

The space is tiny: three large communal tables and ten-seat counter around the kitchen. High ceiling. Tiny open kitchen. A mysterious back room. Desserts written on a large chalkboard. That's it.

Girlfriend Charlie and I were ushered to two seats at the chef's counter where we watched three tattooed hipsters cooking and cooking and cooking. They were friendly, engaging, and seemed to be having a lot of fun (compared to the dour glowers one often sees on young white cooks in open kitchens).

Wine list is nice and fairly expansive. Good selection of a dozen or so wines by the glass/half-liter/full-liter, 20-ish half bottles, 10 dessert wines, and about 60 full bottles. While the list offers a selection of Northwest wines, it doesn't pander to them (and given the French-tinged menu, that's a good thing). Already a little buzzed from our enormous cocktails at the Doug Fir just down the road, we opted for a half-liter of a nice aromatic Cairanne.

First course. Charlie had the chestnut gnocchi, poussin, and parsnip. I have a love-hate relationship with gnocchi having had my first experiences with terrible gummy Olive Garden-type shit. Le Pigeon's gnocchi were dense in flavor but impossibly light in texture. The parsnips imparted a deep earthy sweetness enhanced by the fresh chestnuts. Bits of meaty young chicken broke up the monochromaticity of the dish.

Since I can't resist when I see it, I had the foie gras appetizer. Generous slice of torchon, seared and served on top of a slice of buttery brioche toast. The toast seemed to be cut to the exact same size and shape as the foie gras. The ensemble was then perched on fresh roasted beets surrounded with a beet puree. The meaty richness of the liver was echoed in the buttery crispness of the toast, which was complimented by the earthy sweetness (yes I know I just used that phrase a few sentences ago, I'll cop to it), each layer adding another flavor or texture dimension.

Entrees. Charlie had the pork stuffed pork, a boneless pork chop stuffed with a spiced pork mixture which tasted (not at all in a bad way) like SPAM. Fresh roasted seasonal vegetables and a bright Mediterranean salsa verde. The pork was ever-so-slightly dry in parts, but the well-matched flavors made up for it. I had the skate wing, dusted in flour, pan-sauteed crisp, and perched atop creamy celery-root puree. The skate was accompanied by a "sauce" of crayfish tails, bits of chorizo, and pan "jus," or as much of a jus as can be created from cooking skate. Great.

If the meal couldn't get any better, it did with dessert. Foie gras pumpkin pie, the liver adding just a hint of savoriness to the lightly-spiced pumpkin in puff pastry. It was paired with a sweet foie gras mousse that was thicker and denser then any pastry cream I've had. Charlie's dessert similarly paired sweet and savory: cornbread with bacon and maple ice cream. Weird! Fun! Clashing and complimentary flavors! Excitement! Adventure! Trying something new! What's the worst that happens? You have an interesting culinary experience and you're out a few bucks. What's the best that happens? You eat something new and freakin' awesome.

And in the case, it was freakin' awesome.

Le Pigeon. An interesting, innovative, fun, and uncompromising restaurant. And it's being rewarded for it. Kowtowing Bay Area restaurants, take note.

Le Pigeon
738 E. Burnside St.
Portland, OR 97214
Reservations: 503-546-8706

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