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Rostra rating: 4.9
It took me several years to write a review of Le Pigeon because: 1) I could wrangle more visits from my French cuisine-averse bride by claiming the need for more research so as to pen a balanced review (whatever that is); and 2) how could it possibly matter given the overwhelming magnitude of digital ink devoted to Gabriel Rucker’s flagship restaurant? But all good things must come to an end, and it is time to figure out what could possibly be said that has not already been said about Portland’s most famous chef and his French inspired, PNW sourced, elevated comfort/junk food cuisine.
One good thing, at least, about playing Mago-come-lately is that I need not wax rhapsodic about Le Pigeon’s intimate space, its beautifully mismatched plates, how Chef Rucker (along with another chef frustratingly named Ricker) put the City of Roses on the culinary map, etc. I can just settle back into my arm chair and pontificate about food that I am almost certainly unworthy of ingesting.
Rucker’s genius as well as his Achilles heel come from the same source: his instinct for risk taking and culinary disruption as opposed to consistency in quality across a menu and over the life of a restaurant. I tend to favor consistency of food as the fundamental backdrop to social behavior dating back to the discovery of fire — preferring the perfection of, say, Pierre Koffmann’s stuffed pig’s trotter to just about anything Grant Achatz might dream up, but what the fuck do I know? The view these days seems to be that all great modern chefs are inherent risk takers and culinary innovators, but I wonder if Chef Rucker leans hardest on antiquity for inspiration. The Romans in particular thought the apex of cuisine was serving something that looked a lot like something else, say a fish shaped pastry crust stuffed with coxcombs, pig’s vulvae (yep, you can look it up), silphium (you can look this up too but you can’t eat it), and garum (fish sauce).
The Apicius reveal certainly seems to have informed Rucker’s signature dish of foie gras profiteroles with caramel sauce and sea salt. Although relegated to the dessert menu, this dish would also work as a starter, especially if each profiterole is topped with some seared foie (the dish can actually be ordered this way). As to the foie ice cream at the center of this amazing, delicious, and playful take on cream puffs? Oh sweet mystery of life at last I’ve found thee!
A recent special of swordfish schnitzel served on a bed of fregola spiked with pickled onions and celery, topped with grilled raab and preserved lemon, and dressed with a caper and olive oil based vinaigrette also made use of culinary misdirection. From the schnitzel up, this dish rocked, but I thought the choice of fregola for pasta was playing it too safe and in any event should have been cooked in such a way as to add some badly needed heat to the dish.
Buffalo sweetbreads turned out to be a tricksy Rucker surf and turf offering. The use of buttery smoked sturgeon and trout pop rocks really elevated the dish, while the Buffalo wings inspired sauce added a richness that was tangy and refreshing at the same time. Unfortunately, execution marred this dish in the form of way over breaded and slightly overcooked sweetbreads. Correctly cleaned sweetbreads can and ought to be cooked like testicles, with minimal breading and fried just long enough to partially liquify the interior while a delicate crust forms on the outside. The dish did need a crunchy component for its texture profile, but giving the job to the sweetbreads destroyed them in order to save the dish.
A final example of Rucker’s gastro-prestidigitation is a hamachi and geoduck crudo wherein these two famous proteins are relegated to a supporting and largely textural role as platforms for a potent one two punch from a strawberry horseradish sorbet and a spritely piquillo crema. Cold heat spikes and intriguingly sweet notes complete this clever flavor inversion.
One of the consequences of Chef Rucker developing a vertically integrated culinary aviary made up of Le Pigeon, Little Bird, and Canard is that the maestro now sits on top of a studio with numerous collaborators who were not present during Le Pigeon’s solo halcyon days. In some cases, this inevitable evolution has resulted in otherwise very good dishes that contain a single glaring flaw.
Exhibit one: I have yet to eat a satisfying braised lamb shoulder at Le Pigeon. The meat is simply under-braised, denying the eager diner a low and slow masterpiece requiring only a spoon to eat. I know that the kitchen can produce a braise of this quality because I have had a superbly braised lamb belly paired with the overly chewy shoulder that I felt marred an otherwise excellent treatment involving walnut and feta pasta salad, curried apricot ketchup, and spring onions.
I think I spied one of the problems from my perch at Le Pigeon’s excellent chefs counter where the braise was finished quickly on the stove top. A classic lamb shoulder braise should be finished in an open pan in a hot oven via frequent basting. It takes a lot longer, but the ends justify the means. This technique would have rewarded the care and creativity that went into the most recent lamb shoulder I tried, which was accompanied by orange carrot cream, perfectly executed fried potato gnocchi, hazelnuts, and the best damn candied carrots I have ever eaten. If only the lamb had possessed a mahogany crust that gave way to soft and unctuous flesh beneath, this would have been a delightful deep winter braise. But it didn’t.
Exhibit two: A pineapple rum baba wherein the cake was not soaked with rum syrup and thus extremely dry. The dish was saved by an amazing passionfruit sherbet that was packed with intense acidity and utterly delicious. But as with the lamb, the desert suffered from a culinary matter and antimatter fratricide due to an unexplainable gaff concerning the headline ingredient.
Exhibit three: Butter lettuce salad with blue cheese dressing, chives, and radish. There was nothing wrong with this excellent little salad, but it pisses me off because Le Pigeon charges thirteen samolians for four ingredients that constitute the only salad on the menu. Really? Chef Rucker needs to quit delegating the salad, or start as the case may be, but this dish verges on being insulting.
But just when I feel like Rucker’s commitment to culinary risk is doing significant harm to his brand, an amazing dish of variable complexity is laid before me and all is forgiven.
Za’atar crusted quail, grilled shrimp, hummus, orange-coriander honey, and avocado was French only by way of Lebanon and that not very directly — demonstrating Rucker’s mastery of global flavors. The semi-boneless quail were perfectly cooked and a joy to eat, but they were eclipsed by Rucker’s take on hummus (talk about culinary shock and awe!). The richness of immaculately grilled shrimp was enhanced by the honey and even the avocado played a role in the dish’s deep and unusual flavor profile. This is the food that people come to Le Pigeon to eat.
Chef Rucker’s approach to gastro-standards tends toward Platonic forms. Imagine serving eggs Benedict for a dinner starter, then add a prosciutto and prawn duo with harissa hollandaise, all atop a bespoke garlic-parmesan muffin. Bottom line: Le Pigeon serves the best brunch that is not a brunch.
I used to think that the best fried chicken in this yard bird obsessed town was served at the now defunct Taylor Railworks (helmed by Rucker’s long-time sous chef Erik Van Kley). Then I had the original at Le Pigeon (sorry Chef Van Kley, sorry Chef Adams, sorry Chef Lovelace, sorry David Mouton, sorry…).
And what about the Le Pigeon burger? According to MagoGuide’s very own Patti, Chef Rucker makes the best burger in Rip City. This is high praise indeed coming from the woman who has eaten every chef’s burger in town while claiming that she can’t find anything else on these culinary superstars’ menus that she could possibly eat. Somehow I suspect that, just as I used my omnivorous gluttony to justify repeated visits to Le Pigeon, her underlying motive is to eat as many killer burgers and sliders as she possibly can, regardless of what else is on offer. In any event, upon trying the burger that started it all, Patti declared it better than those at St. Jack, La Moule, Little Bird, or OK Omens. Me? I think we need to go back and try it again (and again).
In the end, however, Chef Rucker’s proclivity for risk has made his food hostage to a culinary VIX of sorts, where the demands of three very popular restaurants and a “move fast and break things” approach to culinary experimentation results in Le Pigeon falling short of MagoGuide’s coveted (at least by your humble scribe and his mother) five rostra rating. Tellingly, this is true for Rucker’s other restaurants as well. But I have not given up hope. If anyone can somehow combine continuous innovation with flawless consistency over time, it is Gabriel Rucker.
Mago Tip: unless you want to stand in line, you should make reservations for Le Pigeon. However, if you arrive early or late enough that the chefs counter is not full, the staff is usually happy to gain a table and seat your party at the chefs counter (usually “reserved” for walk-ins) where you will experience the greatest gastro-agony of all: you must choose between eating or watching the line dance. Enjoy.