“No reservation?” No, we don’t have a reservation.
“Hmmm, it’ll be about an hour and a half, but there is a cool bar just down the street where you can wait,” the host said. He took our number, promising to call if a table opened up earlier. It didn’t.
Turns out, the chef’s girlfriend is a bartender at the cool bar. Also turns out, after just one meal at Portland’s Le Pigeon, I’d likely wait an eternity for another shot at Chef Gabriel Rucker’s riff on American bistro cuisine.
In a town known for quirky, independent restaurants, Le Pigeon could easily be the mascot. The space is tight, maybe less than 10 tables, plus front-row seating for 10 at the L-shaped bar overlooking Rucker’s exhibition kitchen.
It is here where Rucker and his band of cooks (a trio, counting Rucker) perform nightly for an adoring public, including a visiting chef the night we scored coveted bar stools.
The menu changes frequently, reflecting what’s fresh at area farmers’ markets. If Rucker is playful with guests at the foot of his stage — and he does banter back-and-forth — he’s laser-serious when it comes to putting food on the plate, tasting here and there, correcting flavors with a pinch of this or a splash of that. Just six starters and seven entrees populate the wisp of a menu.
The visiting chef tastes the foie gras topped jelly donut ($16), proclaiming the foie gras “excellent” even if he wasn’t thrilled with the donut.
He should have ordered the sashimi-quality sliced scallops, dusted with minced tarragon and orange zest, paired with a fennel and radish confit and a dollop of flying roe dotted butter ($15).
With choices like beef cheek bourguignon ($21) and veal blanquette ($25), the Strawberry Mountain Farms burger ($9) might seem pedestrian, but it’s quite the opposite, paired with duck-fat fried chunks of potatoes. The charred, square bun soaks up beefy juices and drippy, aioli-dressed iceberg.
How can you not order pigeon ($27) when, after all, the place is named for the bird? Would I have ordered it if it had merely said “squab?” Probably not.
A bed of butter-soaked greens mixed with shiitakes propped up a square of toasted brioche smeared with liver pate.
Which in turn, held tender medallions of dark-meat bird with a sweet and tangy red pepper jam. Poor thing — its legs and feet precariously balanced on the bowl’s lip.
Edgy, fun and utterly delicious.
But perhaps the biggest showstopper of the evening was the signature dessert: apricot-studded cornbread, topped with maple ice cream, chewy bacon nuggets and a drizzle of viscous maple syrup.
The cornbread, coarsely textured and caramelized on top, might be the best dessert I’ve tasted all year (and as the dessert columnist for PHOENIX Magazine, I’ve had my share of desserts.)
Rightly so, Le Pigeon attracts foodies from near and far. And seven nights a week, Chef Rucker tends to his faithful flock. No, not the tattoos on his right forearm — his guests, the ones who gather at his stoop, for just another bite with the show.
738 East Burnside