Order Gabriel Rucker’s salt-rimmed chocolate tart and you’ll quickly dismiss any unsavory notions about the commonplace nature of pigeons.
The ambitious 25-year-old chef, who wears a tattooed flock of pigeons on his right forearm (and a less elaborate shark on his left), is pleasing diners at Le Pigeon with inventive combinations in a simple space.
Sure the tart’s oversalted crust just missed drawing deer to lick, and the dessert’s minty pesto was sadly tamed by a sweet dollop of whipped cream, but Napa Valley-born Rucker’s creativity doesn’t miss by much.
A onetime sous chef to Tommy Habetz of the now defunct Gotham Bldg. Tavern by way of a two-year stint at Paley’s, he is sending energy to all corners of this slightly shabby restaurant on East Burnside. He cooks, he brings his food to the table and he wants to make you happy.
Once home to the short-lived Colleen’s, the space reopened as Le Pigeon in early June under the same owner, Paul Brady. The restaurant serves dinner Wednesday through Sunday and one of the best brunches in town on the weekends.
Enough thrift-store tables to seat 25 and barstools to seat eight cluster around Rucker’s open kitchen, a perch he ventures from when he finishes off a dish with a fresh herb garnish and delivers it to your table. A chandelier knocks up against the venting and some of the chairs are designed only for the tough-rumped, but the mismatched china is charming and chip-free, the cutlery is silver and the servers – if there is more than one on duty – are on top of things. At busy times, they appear to work the zone system like basketball players, but they get the job done with a touch of sweetness. This is a restaurant that tries.
Rucker’s food shines bright, especially at weekend brunch when prices drop substantially from an average dinner entrée of $18. You can order interesting riffs on typical stuff, like hearty eggs Benedict with whole-grain mustard Hollandaise ($10) or a juicy chunk of maple-braised pork belly served with a half waffle and eggs sunny-side up ($10.50), but you’ll be even happier if you venture into the less familiar day fare with such dishes as duck confit hash topped with poached eggs ($10), a pretty caprese scramble of tomatoes, mozzarella, green salad and potatoes ($7.50), or the best of the bunch—a chile relleno ($9). The mild Anaheim pepper oozes with chipotle-flavored goat cheese. It’s served over red potatoes, hit when hot, with cheddar cheese and cilantro. You’ll eat every bite.
The dinner menu shifts with Rucker’s whims – he visits the farmers market three times a week. And though he tries some outrageous stuff, like foie gras with peanut butter sandwiches (yuck), rest assured that a Strawberry Mountain grass-fed, free-range, house-ground beef burger snuggled between two halves of a square Grand Central ciabetta bun $9) – the chef’s joke on Wendy’s square-shaped burger – will win you over. Rucker likes to pickle things including the burgers’ onions, and recently, the melon topping his velvety cucumber-and-avocado “gazpacho.” He douses the cold soup with rice vinegar and olive oil and garnishes it with lemon cukes, blending the English variety into the soup. A sprinkling of grilled prawns tops it off.
The dish proves a testament to Rucker’s ability to combine sweet and sour components with more originality and agility than he does sweet and salty.
A few pretentious and trendy items – -a nod to Portland’s current organ-meat fascination – are on the menu, like bone marrow and caramelized-onion sandwiches ($9) and a lamb tongue-and-potato salad. A spiced bacon-wrapped squab ($19), paying tribute to Le Pigeon’s name and to Rucker’s tattoo, also turns up. Those little birds are tough to roast, and when I asked for a redo (it was raw), I graciously got one. The squab came from Nicky’s, the best of the local wild-things purveyors, but I’d sub the flatiron steak ($19) trimmed with a spoonful of creamed spinach tossed with white truffle butter. The plate’s semolina-crusted onion rings were perfectly crisped.
The risotto, often on the menu, is a sure bet at $16. We tried one prepared with tomato water, curried squash and buttery mascarpone, and another with spinach, goat cheese and marinated cherry tomatoes, where once again, Rucker got the acid just right.
Once you add up the tab with $7 desserts and starters, you’ll be surprised at how much you can spend at a plain-looking place like Le Pigeon, where nothing is fancy but Rucker’s imagination. He’s made a good start. Let’s see where the hardworking urban bird lets his menu fly next.