Portland Delight: Le Pigeon
Welcome to Portland, Oregon. Land of tattoos and bikes, rivers and bridges, a full city block of books (Powells!), a leader in the movement of eating locally and having a relationship with your food, 30 minutes outside of one of the best wine regions in the world, rain, rain and MORE rain AND home to some of the best restaurants and chefs around.
I feel pretty lucky to be a foodie in Portland. There is so much to choose from and there seems to be more everyday to explore and enjoy. The chefs here are just so passionate about what they do and how they do it. It’s an exciting world to be a part of, even as just a regular customer! But, I’m also lucky, both because of my business (fine wines) and my absolute passionate love of food and its creation, to have cultivated personal friendships and relationships with some of the best chefs in town.
I remember back in early 2007 hearing the “buzz” about Le Pigeon. The restaurant is tiny and resides in a somewhat “sketchy” area of Portland (East Burnside). I heard the buzz about “using the whole animal” and “don’t be afraid to order the brains” and “the pigs foot terrine is the best thing I’ve ever had in my life!”. Well, sign me up!
I called several times that summer to get a reservation and was always out of luck. GRRR. It would be several months before I could hit it at the right time. The restaurant IS very small with just 3 long, communal tables and the chefs counter which overlooks the tiny and open kitchen. It’s quite adorable and cozy, with exposed brick walls and pictures of pigeons and other fowl. There are mason jars of preserved and pickled veggies and fruits and antique mirrors sitting on high shelves. You can observe the action in the kitchen from pretty much everywhere you sit but I do quite prefer the counter. It’s tough to get if you have more than 2 people though but 3 out of 5 times, I get it. It’s all the spin of the wheel and what the evening brings but I like to think a little bit is due the relationship I’ve cultivated with Gabe and his dining room manager, Andy Fortgang. This relationship was developed simply by my being a very excited, passionate and enthusiastic customer and bringing all of my out of town visitors to the restaurant. At some point, we (Gabe, Andy and I) talked about what I did for a living (with wine) and then Gabe & I ended up at the same Food & Wine magazine event in Pebble Beach one year and chatted some more and our casual friendship was born. These guys are great: super talented in both their fields (wine/management and cooking) and just good people all around. I love going in to dine and getting a warm hug from Gabe in addition to getting an amazing and, often, game-changing meal. Score!
A little bit about wonderkid, Gabe Rucker: Gabriel Rucker began his culinary career by dropping out of Santa Rosa Junior College’s culinary program when he was eighteen. He then held several jobs in the Napa Valley, where he is from, and in Santa Cruz. In Gabriel’s words he, “made salads for banquets, asked lots of questions, and learned lots of stuff,” and found enough freedom in the kitchen to develop his own style infused with creativity and honesty. In 2003 Gabriel moved to Portland and landed a job at Paley’s Place where he worked for two years. In 2005 he was hired as the sous chef at The Gotham Building Tavern. In June of 2006 Gabriel started Le Pigeon. This petite bistro brings Pacific Northwest fresh ingredients and a little Parisian joie de vivre to Portland.
Since then Gabriel has been named Portland Monthly’s Chef of the Year 2006, The Oregonian’s Rising Star Chef 2006, Restaurant and Hospitality Magazine’s Rising Star of 2007, Food and Wine Magazine named him among the Best New Chefs of 2007, and Le Pigeon was named The Oregonian’s 2008 restaurant of the year. Rucker stars in this year’s Oregon culinary tourism online campaign on the Travel Oregon/Oregon bounty web site. In his new role as Oregon’s food ambassador, Rucker traveled around the state, where he logged time with a cheesemaker, rancher, chocolate-maker, a brewer, a wine-maker and charterboat skipper.
So, here I bring to you my most FANTASTIC meal during my last visit to Le Pigeon in early September. I need to get back there STAT!!
My friends, Scott and Michelle Shanks, very cool and fun friends from years and years (we all worked together in Tucson, Arizona) were doing a vacation of a culinary, wine, beer and cocktail tour of the Pacific Northwest and shot me a great email that said: We are coming for a visit. The Pigeon??
But of course! 2 years ago they made their first visit to Portland and we dined at Le Pigeon and it was just awesome. They loved, I loved taking them and we got a great picture with Gabe in addition to some amazing food and wine. Perfection!
We were all so excited when I picked them up at their hotel and headed off for dinner.
Greeted at the door by Andy, our table was not quite ready so we opted for a half bottle of bubbles and a seat out on the park bench out front. There is nowhere to wait inside so luckily for us it was a warm, summery, non-rain evening in Portland and pleasant to be out in the elements. The restaurant was jamming busy but still, when I went in, Gabe came out from behind the counter and gave me a great hug. LOVE IT!
We were seated in one of the best areas in the restaurant, if you’re not at the bar, the corner table by the window. Cozy but roomy and with a view of all the action on the street and inside (much better, I say!). Scott is a very talented Sommelier at the Wynn in Vegas, so I thought I should let him choose the wine but I needed to chime in. We decided to start off with an absolute delicious bottle of Gruner Veltliner. I have had some of the best wines I’ve ever tasted at Le Pigeon. Andy is a master with his wine list and most times I go I just let him pick and surprise me. Both Andy and Scott agreed that this Gruner was pretty special and Michelle and I were delighted to let them lead us.
A little about Gruner Veltliner. I get so sad when wine directors tell me they don’t keep it on their lists much because people won’t order it because they don’t know what it is. It is one of my favorite white wine varietals and typically quite reasonable in price (under $20) in addition to being delish. Win-win!
Gruner Veltliner: is a variety of white wine grape variety grown primarily in Austria and in the Czech Republic. It has a reputation of being a particularly food-friendly wine. It is made into wines of many different styles – much is intended for drinking young in the Heuriger (bars serving new wine) of Vienna, a little is made into sparkling wine, but some is capable of long aging. The steep, Rhine-like vineyards of the Danube west of Vienna produce very pure, minerally Grüner Veltliners intended for laying down. Down in the plains, citrus and peach flavours are more apparent, with spicy notes of pepper and sometimes tobacco.
Once we were happily sipping wine, we dug into the menu. We were fully committed to a complete dining experience: appetizers, main courses and dessert. And probably more wine….
Gabe changes the menu weekly, nightly…he is very creative and I have been there when they have just finished roasting a whole goat downstairs (I declined to “see it” when Gabe asked if I wanted to go check it out. Um, yeah.) and putting the succulent pieces into a gnocchi ragu. Amazing! Amazing….
So, everything is very fresh and seasonal. Once I saw there was pigeon on the appetizer choices, that was it. I love squab! And the restaurant is Le Pigeon. So, there you go. Also, the fish special that night was Barramundi. I also am a huge fan of Barramundi and rarely see it on a menu SO that was easy! We would get to dessert later.
Gabe came out to the table and said hello to Scott and Michelle and chatted with us for a few minutes. I really appreciate this personal touch (I also saw him serving several other guests later) and think it makes the experience that much more authentic. He made some recommendations and, you know, its hard to ignore the chef!
Now, Michelle and Scott also ordered some amazing food but what I’m remembering most is Scott’s Watermelon Salad with shredded Pigs Foot-a Gabe recommend. Yes, pig’s FOOT. It was one of the most wonderful dishes I have ever tasted. The flavors of the pork and the watermelon and sweet onion and greens and cheese….Oh, so delightful. Luckily, we are all old friends and have no qualms about eating off each others plates.
My pigeon was not only delish but presented oh, so lovely as well. The pigeon was a breast and thigh/wing with the foot slightly bent and in the air and it laid on some foie gras, grapes and reisling. The skin was crispy and the meat succulent and the richness of the foie gras combined with the tartness of the grapes was just heaven. It was also a great pairing with the Gruner Veltliner. YUM! As you can see here, I cleaned my plate and left only the foot….
Onto the main course, my barramundi was done to perfection with a crisy skin and laid over tomatoes and some lovely local beans. Barramundi is a flaky, white fish with some really nice fat to give it some weight and LOTS of flavor. Really stellar and not too filling because we were definitely having dessert.
But first, more wine, of course! It was time to move on to red and I requested a Chinon. I had my first bottle of Chinon at Le Pigeon at Andy’s recommendation and I’m just in love with it. Soft and smoky, I find I can drink with both meat, fish and veggies alike and also, with dessert, so it was a good choice for this portion of the meal, as I mentioned above, we were DEFINITELY getting dessert……
A little about Chinon wine: It comes from the vineyards around the town of Chinon in Touraine. the reds and rosés are made from Cabernet Franc (known locally as Cabernet Breton), with an allowance of 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. They are typically dry and light to medium bodied and go well with food. In good vintages the red wines can be cellared for 10 years or more. Cabernet Franc grown on the stony terraces of the area tends to be a young wine with dominant notes of blackcurrant and anise. The wines from the steeper rockier areas along the hills that separate the Loire from the Vienne tend to produce wines that are more tannic and express the more austere terroir in a range of alkaloid flavors that give the wines a mineral, gamey complexity and a strong tannic backbone. These wines also tend to develop a velvety depth of spice flavors as they age. Though typically thought of as lighter wines, reds from good producers and strong vintages can be full bodied and well structured for aging.
Now, I’ve eaten at Le Pigeon at least a dozen times. I’ve brought close friends and business acquaintances to the restaurant and we ALWAYS get dessert. And I ALWAYS INSIST ON THIS ONE:
Foie Gras Profiteroles
They are, quite simply, to die for. FOIE GRAS ICE CREAM. FLAKY PROFITEROLES, CARAMEL SAUCE, POWDERED SUGAR AND SEA SALT. Need I say more?
These are just so freaking incredible delicious. Savory and sweet. I literally lick the plate every time. Throw in some more Chinon, a French press of Stumptown coffee and we are good to go, baby!!
A perfect evening, in a perfect place with great people, incredible wine and thoughtful, exciting, ground breaking food. Oh, yeah and some tattoos and, sometimes, most times, rain. Perfect Portland.