Le Pigeon Doesn’t Really Take Wing

Regina and I went to Le Pigeon in Portland on the advice of a good friend, a friend who knows food and restaurants well. This was our first meal out as “man-and-wife” and we wanted something interesting, fun, perhaps quirky. Directed toward Le Pigeon, we went with few preconceptions and very little information. Oh, I’d heard of Gabriel Rucker sort of peripherally, having read about his recent honor for Rising Star Chef from the James Beard Foundation. I’d heard that he was inventive, youthful, approachable, humble, and enthusiastic about what he does. I think I’d read about his foie gras profiterole dessert, which sounded just delish! Supposedly Le Pigeon was a place that hewed its own path and aimed high.

Perhaps they overshoot?

Cute logo, huh? The dining room is cute too.

The space is cute, in a corner location on Burnside. Tables are communal and with a counter that L’s around the tiny kitchen (sushi-bar style) Le Pigeon seats about 30 in somewhat cramped, urban-style quarters, which meshes with the hipsterish, slightly ramshackle Portlandia vibe that seems so pervasive in this marvelous city. The host was friendly when we entered, seating us immediately at the counter despite having no rezzie. The cooks gave us a cordial “how are ya?” when we sat.  Our server took his damn sweet time getting around to us for our initial beverage, but when he finally did he was attentive and friendly and knowledgeable. Despite that lag in the beginning he was great, and we ended up tipping very generously.

The mustachioed fella (Andrew) was a very cordial guy. Damn good cook too.

The menu was interesting for sure: pigeon crudo, ivory salmon, beef cheeks, sweetbreads — it reads like a love-letter to foodies and Regina and I were hooked fo’ shiz. Was there any way I was going to pass on foie gras? Sweetbreads? Hell no.

I love that the pigeon leg came intact with the foot which, incidentally, was crunchily delicious.

We started with the pigeon crudo, a dish which distills (to unfortunate effect) the chef’s ethos on a single, small plate. Exotic local ingredient, superb presentation, brilliant technique, but too many elements striving for attention, conflicting instead of contrasting. Damn, if that raw (perhaps just barely poached) sliced pigeon breast wasn’t excellent, tender, sweet, and yummy. And the sticks of cucumber lightly pickled with white wine and white pepper is a lovely foil for the crudo. But the paprika-rich guacamole seems imported from another dish. The absolutely fantastic crispy fried pigeon leg is so great I wanted about ten more just to gnaw on, garnished as it was only with a flake salt; the tiny foot was crunchy and delicious bones and all, although my new wife barely gave me a toe to taste(!). But tell me why the creamy blue cheese (not sure which) was there at all? Or the lovely but unnecessary roasted onion puree whipped with schmaltz? Every element on the plate was delicious, and yet the dish as a whole lacked cohesion. It simply didn’t work.

These pictures of Regina eating animal feet are getting way too commonplace.

The foie gras was next and the liver was absolutely stunning, seared crisp and fantastically unctuous, fatty, and appealing. The citrus sauce (a bit like a loose, minced marmalade) balanced the foie gras with sweetness and acidity. The brioche croutons provided a welcome crunch, and the minced parsley and celery leaf added a pleasant herbaceous note. The two preparations of artichoke were not entirely successful. The warm artichoke atop the large brioche crouton tasted like canned artichoke dip and the lovely artichoke salad was delicious in its own right but made no sense for the dish as a whole.

Foie, artichoke, green peppercorn, brioche. The artichoke added little to the dish except confusion.

The foie gras was expertly cooked. 

Up next was the gnocchi with a sauce of creme fraiche, broccoli, and trout roe. I loved this dish. The gnocchi were tender and delicious. The sauce was creamy and luscious. And the trout roe was a clever touch — it added “pop” and tiny bursts of salt on the palate. It was the simplest savory dish we ate, and the most perfectly realized.

The most prefectly realized dish we ate. Gnocchi with broccoli, creme fraiche, trout roe.

Next we got the sweetbreads with veal and bread pudding. Wow, I really wanted to like the dish and ate quite a bit of it, but I must say it disappointed on virtually every level. The sweetbreads (veal thymus glands) were chewy, tasty but very much overcooked, and glazed with something overly sweet. The bread pudding was lovely and nicely seasoned. The braised veal breast that accompanied it was tender, pull-apart, and delightful like the best damn pulled pork you ever had, except for some reason (oversight, perhaps) I found a strip of the inedible, almost plasticine membrane that lines a veal breast and is normally removed during the cooking process. Not cool at all. If it was an oversight, it was truly sloppy cooking, but if it wasn’t a mistake, then what…? And finally, the dish was topped with a gloopy cole slaw with chunks of halved cherries. It’s cherry season right now, so why drown them in some kind of mayo-based slaw. Bizarre, frankly. This dish was a mess and the picture below shows that. Too much going on!

Sweetbreads and veal with bread pudding. Not a fan.

Next up was the excellent lamb shoulder. They braise the lamb overnight in a slow-and-low oven, slice it when it’s cool, and then crisp it in oil (a lot like carnitas) just before service. It’s served over eggplant puree with red bell pepper and a slather of cumin oil. Over the top went blanched and sauteed strips of zucchini. The lamb was excellent — great flavor, great texture, just fantastic. The eggplant was pleasant, as were the peppers. The zucchini was perhaps too plentiful, but it tasted great. This dish was well-executed, well-realized in every way. I loved it.

I loved the lamb.

We were just about stuffed to burst at this point, but Andrew, the awesome line cook, suggested we have a pairing of two small desserts. So we ordered one foie gras profiterole and a tiny piece of the bacon-aproicot-honey cornbread with maple ice cream. Both were fantastic! The profiterole is halved and stuffed with foie gras ice cream. Andrew explained that the profiterole and the caramel sauce were made with foie fat. Yummers! Also, the cornbread was excellent, a perfect balance of sweet and savory. Just dynamite.

Bacon-apricot-honey cornbread with maple ice cream!
Foie gras profiterole. Holy shit it was good!

We ended the meal with a lovely digestif that was a bit like fernet branca. A nice note to end the meal on. Wines overall were excellent. Regina loved her Riesling. I had a White Burgandy, a Chenin Blanc, and a Pinot Noir — all good and relatively cheap.

A lovely digestive.

Iconic chocolates with the check are a nice, tasty touch.

In the final analysis Le Pigeon, for my tastes anyway, tries too hard. The technique is expert, the product is excellent, but many dishes were marred by a showiness that upends many younger chefs. While I understand the urge to be inventive, to strive for new flavors, if a dish is unbalanced it shows. And what it shows is ego, not craft.

Le Pigeon
738 E Burnside St
Portland, OR 97214
(503) 546-8796

5 thoughts on “Le Pigeon Doesn’t Really Take Wing

  1. i'm still digesting this whole read…but i like a whole lot of it. the whole "trying too hard bit" bothers me a lot also. sometimes less is more and chefs w/egos don't get that..they get too carried away w/their foam & sh*t.more later

  2. This place is not molecular-gastro at all, just a little (deliberately) challenging. But still, a single dish can be a revelation with only one new twist or tweak or whatever…piling it on doesn't necessarily make it better. Just create confusion on the palate. I really wanted to like it more. : (

  3. ..the m-gastro reference was just to get make a dramatic point of when chef egos run away and leave the guest sad w/a crappy plate. again, less is more :(p.s. – now i want to research that foie profiterole 🙂

  4. I opted for the classic beef bourguignon and simply prepared PNW white salmon as entrees and would have to say they were perfect. Some of the menu is heavy handed but I'm a fan overall and glad the place exists. And Gabe is adorable if that lends credence. Ha!!Glad you tried the place out. Your review is really right on, fair and astute albeit me wanting to be a cheerleader.

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