Elites are under siege throughout the length and breadth of the Great Republic this year. In a thinly disguised effort to bonus off this populist trend, MagoGuide’s review of Little Bird symbolically mounts the culinary barricades in support of the gastronomic hoi polloi.
The two best French bistro/bouchon restaurants in Portland, Little Bird and St. Jack, are owned by acclaimed chefs who have never set foot in la belle France. Furthermore, their Gallo-comfort food delivers much the same price inelasticity as the city’s gourmet temples (on a relative scale of course, see below). Impartial observers might argue that our rhapsodic reviews of St. Jack (St. Jack: Un Véritable Bouchon) might make it difficult for Team Mago to scrutinize Little Bird objectively. Like St. Jack’s chef/owner Aaron Barnett, I was later to learn, we were indeed a bit skeptical on MagoGuide’s first visit to Little Bird. But just like Barnett, we were very pleasantly surprised by the restaurant’s high antique tin ceiling, bifurcated upper and lower eating spaces, bright and cheerful painting scheme, and welcoming copper-topped bar.
Telephone: (503) 688-5952
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Rostra rating: 4.5
Then there was the food. Patrician foodies cite creativity as their excuse for constant restaurant churn, whereas plebian gourmands prize consistency as the hallmark of culinary expertise in selecting a core list of repeat venues. Multiple visits to Chef Gabe Rucker’s “second” restaurant, Little Bird, added up to a tour de force of culinary expertise manifested as kitchen consistency. Chef Rucker has been splitting his time for the last year between his humble (albeit upscale) bistro and Le Pigeon, Portland’s iconic destination restaurant. This division of labor allows the multi-award winning chef to revive a bunch of Le Pigeon faves that have been sacrificed to the hyper-evolutionary demands of the foodieverse, while simultaneously taking advantage of seasonal flexibility denied by the exigencies of “creative” cuisine demanded by the acolytes of his gastronomic temple.
The upshot is that diners not only tap into serious VFM (at least in comparison to Le Pigeon prices) at Little Bird, but they also get to sample some of Rucker’s greatest hits from bygone days at Le Pigeon. Most importantly, however, my Gallic cuisine-averse spouse really likes Little Bird’s food. This translates into my shot at the entire menu in an effort to match recursive reviews with Chef Rucker’s culinary consistency. The descriptions below are a mere amuse-œil, so watch this space.
Arugula salad with grapefruit vinaigrette, marinated shaved fennel, and slivered castel vetrano olives. An excellent use of bitter and sour layers with a hint of buttery sweet fruit from the olives. A truly stand-alone salad.
Radicchio salad with orange-poppy dressing, pistachios, and aged gouda. Another triumphant take on a bitter salad enlivened by a nutty/crunchy dressing offset by sweet and succulent orange supremes. The shaved cheese was also a nice touch, adding soapy/salty notes to the dish.
Little Bird’s chicken liver pate was a silky superlative on a plate, amped with crunchy, partially caramelized onions and superb pickled zucchini. The dish cries out for comparison with St. Jack’s version. MagoGuide would award a tie to chefs Rucker and Barnett on this one, unless you sit in the bar at St. Jack and order your pate served atop those acromegaliac pork rinds, in which case zinc trumps copper.
Roasted marrowbones served with roast beef, horseradish-créme fraîche, and pickled onion: waaaaay good. This time Little Bird steals a march on St. Jack, where the marrowbones always strike Team Mago as a bit small and skimpy from an otherwise generous portion establishment.
Seared foie gras “Montreal” accompanied by glazed trotters, hashbrown, squash, maple, and smoke. One could forgive MagoGuide for speculating that Rucker has embarked on a reconnaissance in force of Barnett’s gastrospace with this dish. The foie is seared crunchy/salty on the outside but remains unctuous and creamy on the inside. The real star of the show, however, is the glazed trotters. In fact, the liver is pretty much superfluous. Pig’s feet are par cooked and then all bones and gristle removed, the remaining meat shaped into a rectangle, and fried for a textural product similar to the foie, but unmistakably pig candy in taste and mouth feel. There should be an entire dish devoted to this prep, which would lower the dish’s cost of food while spreading more pig candy goodness throughout the Portland gastrosphere. I’m just sayin’, what could be more Ruckeresque than a post-modern take on a classic dish of fried pig’s feet and béarnaise sauce?
BBQ lamb ribs with black currant BBQ sauce, pickled pepper, and mushroom: this is the way to do lamb. Most restaurants in the US are afflicted with flyover lamb syndrome, i.e., the way this princeling of meat is cooked in the American heartland. You either get it roasted or braised, with precious little variation in between. Rucker’s ribs are carefully selected, prepared, and plated. The rich lamb is enhanced by the sweetness of the sauce, offset by the crunchy acidity of the peppers, and given depth and sophistication via the mushrooms. Bravo, now perhaps the way is open for complete use of very young (and humanely raised of course) lamb the way they do in L’hexagone.
Oyster Mushrooms sautéed with black garlic vinaigrette and hazelnuts: thyme out of mind. This is the way to show off Oregon fungus. The black garlic vinaigrette plays perfectly with the mushrooms sautéed at high heat to drive out their liquid and intensify their earthy, woodsy flavor. My only quibble was that the dish could use more black pepper, and lo, it was provided at tableside. How nice that chef Rucker continues what is otherwise a vanishing tradition of letting diners determine the final seasoning for their dishes.
The double brie burger (served with spiced ketchup, onion, pickles, and fries) comes up short compared to the Platonic form of a Wendy’s burger (you know that such things are predicted by superstring theory, right?) served at Le Pigeon. Perfectly cooked, little Bird’s version is a very decent burger that needs a hit of bitter acid and more condiment crunch. The otherwise excellent bun is somehow difficult to eat by hand. One wonders why the best burger in Portland isn’t also available at Le Pigeon’s squab, since so many other alumni dishes are.
Pomme purée with raclette: a nice variant on the classic approach utilizing less butter and more raclette for substance and flavor. But it is basically puree lite when compared to those whipped up for oxtail bourguignon at St. Jack.
Frites and béarnaise aioli were barely edged out by St. Jack’s fries, which are just a micron or two smaller but you can tell the difference with respect to the inside/outside texture differential. Still Team Mago could and did try to eat their collective body weights in these fries.
Green Garlic Soup with goat cheese croutons and red pepper relish: a rare mediocre dish. The mild, semi-sweet soup base was enlivened by the goat cheese croutons in terms of mouth feel and texture, but the pepper relish got lost in the mix. More goat cheese croutons or more aggressive seasoning, or both, would have helped dramatically.
One of the many reasons that my wife likes Little Bird is that they serve Ken’s Artisan Bread. One of the great intra-Mago disputes involves the best bread in Portland. Is it surprising that I lean toward Philippe’s Bread, which is owned by Barnett’s financial partners at Chefstable?
Despite great food and significant value in comparison to Chef Rucker’s flagship, Little Bird is not completely immune from over-the-top restaurant silliness. The wait staff insists on crumbing the humble butcher paper affixed atop the tablecloths (in a freakin’ bistro?). This out of place fastidiousness should not, however, obscure the consistency and otherwise excellence of service at Little Bird. The staff is hyper-knowledgeable and unfailingly Portland-nice. Missteps are as infrequent as car horns on the city’s streets. MagoGuide will be back right after our next St. Jack fix, and Rucker’s bistro fare even has me jonesing for a flutter with the punters at Le Pigeon.
Update: So what would you rather have, good food or good information? Our most recent visit to Little Bird confirmed the raves that Team Mago has been hearing about the charcuterie plate, and the ham and cheese baguette is one of the best sandwiches in Portland (although the razor clam po’ boy at St. Jack will give it a run for its money). But we also discovered that MagoGuide had been given some misleading information by Little Bird’s wait staff on previous occasions. We already knew that our waitress had mis-sourced the gouda in the radicchio salad, citing Switzerland instead of the Netherlands. For this revelation Team Mago thanks Nico, our roving anonymous fact checker. However, we were also told that Little Bird derives its staff of life from Ken’s Artisan Bread. While we waited to be seated this time, however, Team Mago noticed that there was a large sack from Grand Central Bakery affixed to the wall prominently at the kitchen entrance. HMMMMM. We confirmed that Little Bird does indeed get its bread from Grand Central. I can’t help but believe that crumbing that damn butcher paper impairs cognitive functions in the front of the house. Fortunately, that weird behavior does not seem to have damaged any skill sets in Little Bird’s kitchen.