Pittsburgh to Portland Series: The Bird’s the Word

Years ago, I was forced into becoming a professional foodie. My casual dining career suddenly upgraded with the launch of our new All-American bistro and, like most sales and marketing “experts”, I had to cram for finals, or in this case, our grand opening. With stacks upon stacks of Food & Wine issues to peruse, I learned two important facts: Coq Au Vin is French for “your entire day is f**ked” and Dana Cowin  is obsessed with Portland, Oregon.

Since then, I’ve finally “mastered” the preparation of Coq Au Vin simply by purchasing a Dutch oven and use of vacation days (the restaurant biz can be brutal). Also, several years and few boyfriends later, I hopped a plane from the Steel City to finally visit Rip City.

Portland is a small town with the brains and heart of a much bigger city. It’s my guess that the pioneering spirit of its ancestors makes it a much friendlier and less costly choice than the Big Apple and San Francisco combined. They really know their “shit”ake about food, beer and wine with over 7,000 restaurants (22.5 for every 10,000 residents) and…the FOOD CARTS!!!  Tasty Pad Thai for only $6 if you’re cool with standing and waiting a few minutes. (I’m from a city that hasn’t fully grasped this particular foodie joy, so, please, humor me). Ms. Cowin almost always includes Portland for any “Best” food or restaurant listings in Food & Wine (see recent Best Brunch Cities). Nicknamed “Beervana”, Portland has over 60 breweries, more than any city on the planet. I could go on and on about my love for Portland but I will save it for future posts. My current mission is to inform the people of Earth about Portland’s dirty little bird: Le Pigeon.

Photo: Randy L. Rasmussen, Oregonlive.com
Photo: Randy L. Rasmussen, Oregonlive.com

First off, I am in no way a food critic. Yes, my background includes over 15 years in hospitality, particularly restaurants. Yes, I’ve worked closely with chefs, servers, bartenders, dishwashers, managers, bussers, prep, line cooks, and basically any back or front of the house staff imaginable. But, this does NOT make me an expert in cuisine or dining perfection. My experience DOES give me bragging rights to recognize what’s good and f**kin’ ay awesome. Since this is my blog which denotes I rule, it is my sincere pleasure to deem Portland’s Le Pigeon as the latter.

Usually when a one-time experience knocks your socks off, one is overjoyed… but after a dozen? It just plain rocks. Out loud.

I like to watch. (How you doin'?
I like to watch. (How you doin’?”)

Le Pigeon is a French Restaurant located near Downtown Portland on East Burnside Street. If you are a visitor and happen to ask around for a great place to dine, Le Pigeon always makes the top five. It’s a small rustic, storefront of a restaurant with communal seating and chef’s counter adorned with tall chairs and copper finished hanging pot racks atop, overlooking the open kitchen. I’m totally okay with the group thing but I find sitting at the counter can be satisfying in countless shades — and perfect for foodie kinks who like to watch.

It’s tough to snag a reservation even on a Sunday or Monday night. So what’s the big deal?

Well on our way to our first visit, I figured this would be one of those “you’re welcome” uptight establishments with menu items meant to intimidate my unworthy palate, yet artfully plated. You know, like art. In a gallery. On a plate.

Beef Cheek Bourguignon ‘2015’ époisses risotto, oyster mushrooms, dijon pickled onion, sweet herbs
Beef Cheek Bourguignon ‘2015’
époisses risotto, oyster mushrooms,
dijon pickled onion, sweet herbs

And, I was RIGHT! But, as it turns out, I was the uptight one. Usually when a one-time experience knocks your socks off, one is overjoyed (as evident in my Yelp review…don’t hate me), but after a dozen? It just plain rocks. Out loud.

During recent visits when we finally score an Open Table reso (restaurant lingo for reservation…you’re welcome) with counter seating not on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday, I immediately get excited about their Beef Cheek Bourguignon. The prep tends to change seasonally but the beef cheek is always tender and mouthwatering flavorful. Totally worth avoiding carbs all day. I have ventured away from the norm a few times. This month I savored the Crispy Pork Shank with clams, heirloom bean salad, bacon, and gribiche and Pekin Duck Breast with blood orange bernaise, Brussels sprouts, and olive.

pigeon legs
Shave or wax?  (Photo: Le Pigeon)

My menu choices are pretty conservative compared to what my sweetheart (we’ll refer to as M) likes to explore which makes him the perfect Le Pigeon customer. You see, the dirty bird likes to get PRIT-tee adventurous in their cuisine makin’. For example, the dirty bird has THE dirty bird on the menu. During our last visit, they featured Pigeon with brown rice, hazelnut, green apple, and pork heart…to be exact. BT dubs, for shits and giggles, they sometimes like to garnish a dish with an actual pigeon leg…ewwwww! So M really enjoyed the pigeon starter and “forced” me to try it. It did NOT taste like chicken. But, I will view our local winged friends we often shoo away in Pittsburgh’s Market Square in a different light.

Crispy Pork Shank clams, heirloom bean salad, bacon, gribiche
Crispy Pork Shank clams, heirloom bean salad, bacon, gribiche

The menu reads like a J.K. Rowling fantasy novel with sweetbreads, escargot, rabbit, beef tongue, and an array of other animal parts, as vivid supporting characters. Foie gras serves as the protaganist and would be hero. You CAN not and SHOULD not EVER leave without the foie gras starter and/or the foie gras profiteroles dessert!

Sweetbreads, shrimp and scallop stuffed squid, sunchoke, truffle, rose vinegar
Sweetbreads, shrimp and scallop stuffed squid, sunchoke, truffle, rose vinegar

What completes the adventure is the wizardry of Le Pigeon’s fantastic servers and hosts who know their “shit”ake and are not afraid to challenge you to be dauntless with your menu choices i.e. egg noodles with pigeon confit or grilled bacon-rabbit meatloaf with sweet rabbit liver mustard. For pairing, the bird taps local beers and features an excellent wine list (lots of local Pinots plus our fave Saint-Emilion — Grand Cru — Château Haut-Segottes — ‘10 Bordeaux).

Seared Foie Gras crab rangoon, shiitake mushroom, lime marmalade
Seared Foie Gras, fully loaded potato skins, duck confit, taleggio, red pepper relish

The entire experience can be more of a thriller if you choose counter seating in advance (also available for all fortunate walk ins) to ooh and aah the proud, focused chefs. Wrapped in white-striped black aprons and sautee pans in hand, they welcome our voyeuristic peeks as they prep and plate starters and entrees. One by one. I think the dude with the glasses winked at me once. How you doin’?

IMG_3017
LOOK AT ME!!!!

So there you have it. Have I tempted you to fly and try? Would it help to know the Chef/Owner Gabriel Rucker is a James Beard Rising Star and Best Chef/Northwest? Listening to the venue’s assorted playlist (Bowie, Ashanti, The Stones, Notorious BIG) while chomping on the tower of Butter Lettuce starter may prove to be a favorable inducer. AND we did not have to pay a wing and a leg you’d traditionally fork out for creative cuisine in fancy, schmancier cities. Oh yeah, everything is local, free-range, yadda yadda yadda and Portlandia approved. Duh?

Chef Rucker hugs his would be stalker.
Chef Rucker hugs his would be stalker.

Seriously, Yelp if you have to but, take it from me, Ms. Cowin’s love for Portland and bestowment of Rucker as Best New Chef (2007) is down, dirty, and right on. You’re welcome.

-Colleen Coll

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