Damn you Pigeon. I wanted to hate you, but instead I ended up loving you.
– Me, drunk sexting Le Pigeon at 2 am.
After 30 years on the front lines of many restaurant kitchens I can smell bullshit and phoniness in overhyped dining spots 100 miles away. I am an opinionated diner, OK a very opinionated diner. I know exactly what I like and exactly what I hate. I have a hard time with cutesy food lacking flavor and soul, needlessly decked out with puree swirls and edible flowers. Done right it can be fantastic. Done wrong it is just another horrid food fad I wish would disappear. I saw the same phenomena occur when molecular cuisine arrived on our shores. Soon every chef had a larder full of chemicals and syringes. Incanting Ferran’s magic spells while attempting to transform ordinary food into flights of whimsy. Diners were awash in egg shaped mango spheres and bacon foams. At the same time arose the proliferation of social media. The cyberworld became cluttered with too many yelpers lacking a firm foundation of culinary knowledge and an independent perspective. The adherents of popular restaurants began to sound more like reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Moonies.
Le Pigeon PDX
I first heard of Le Pigeon shortly before moving north to the Portland area. It was hard not to, they were everywhere in the social media stratosphere. Many of my chef buddies had drank the kool aid and were expounding the virtues of chef/owner Gabriel Rucker and his cooking. Online reviews spoke glowingly of the magic occurring nightly. I resisted eating there. You see I am a purist Francophile possibly to a fault. Despite some claims and an obviously French name, Le Pigeon does not serve French food. I had a hard time letting that concept go. It took me a while to say that’s ok, be who you are not who I want you to be. I was thrilled to find what Le Pigeon does is seriously imaginative food crafted by a very passionate chef who is not bound by rules and conventions. And he actually has the talent to pull it off.
My good friend and fellow gourmand Walter ate at Le Pigeon first. I think he found it by a divine calling. Walter was wandering aimlessly down Portland’s streets. Like a beacon on a stormy night Le Pigeon shone a light that guided him safely there. So taken by the menu he immediately plunked down on the bench out front and waited for them to open. Reservations are so hard to get that when your child is born you just automatically add his name to the list with hopes you will get in by their 18th birthday. Smartly they have ten seats at the bar that are first come, first serve. Walter got in. Born again to a new religion he feverishly called his friend and told her to meet him there, right now for dinner. Le Pigeon had two new disciples feverishly spreading the gospel.
Still on the le Pigeon high, he stopped by our house with a copy of their amazing cookbook tucked under his arm. He looked wide eyed and sounded like a Jehovah Witness high on a caffeine buzz hellbent to convert everyone in sight. Walter kept telling us in glorious detail about all the food he experienced. We had to eat there he exclaimed. He would drag us in kicking and screaming if necessary. Like it or not we were going to the river to be converted.
A few months passed when Walter called to say he was coming back to PDX for a few days. Within seconds he reminded us we were going to Le Pigeon. I halfway expected to see him show up in a black robe with a pigeon tattoo carved on his forehead. To be honest, it didn’t take that much arm twisting on his part. Lisa and I love eating out and we are always ready for the next culinary adventure.
We took our seat on the holy bench and waited to enter the cult of Rucker. Lisa, easily converted, had blurted out we were having the seven course tasting menu. Possibly fearing dehydration, Walter pulled two beautiful bottles of wine out of his bag and set them on the bar counter as we sat. Before I could say anything, a half bottle of Krug Rose popped to whet our whistles. I knew I was in for a great night.
The first course was a beef crudo cut from teres major with tiny briny clams flavored by a broccoli pesto and dusted with leek powder. The purple Peruvian potatoes added the perfect foil to the dish. The kool aid started to work its magic.
We started drinking the Premier Cru Domaine du Duc de Magenta Puligny Montrachet Walter had brought in. The straw colored wine danced magnificently with the cedar planked trout and morels. The saline pop of trout roe vinaigrette coupled with the rich Hollandaise-like sauce married well with the cedar planked trout.
By the third course, Lisa and I started to sound more like brother Walter, the Pigeon monk. Lisa, who normally never posts pictures during a meal, was feverishly hammering away on her android making sure everyone would be converted to the Le Pigeon religion. I soon lost track of perspective and just focused on the amazing plate of smoked foie gras with sable fish, sweet potato jojo topped with poppy seed whip cream in front of me. I understood Walter’s ecclesiastic tone and started to speak in tongues.
Somewhere amidst the rolling of eyes in ecstasy and foie my glass was filled with Chateau Palmer. I should mention the front of house staff at Le Pigeon is second to none. In a city where you are expected to leave a gratuity in self service restaurants this was refreshing. Our waiter was on point all night without a shadow of a fault. The service was not harried and they allowed us to linger for five full hours watching a minimum of three sets of customers come and go.
I rarely eat bread in restaurants as I hate to fill up on needless calories but theirs was great. The fourth course rolled out with scallops and calamari in a citrus aioli. Delicious. The citrusy notes played well with the seafoods. My only complaint was the scallops were a tad over cooked for my tastes. At this point my recollections deceive me. I seem to remember another course but I was lost in the moment watching the kitchen crew dance the highly coordinate nightly ballet.
I am not so much into the community tables they seat you at if you are lucky enough to get reservations. I like to eat great food at a slow pace uninterrupted by needless conversations and people needing me to get up because they have to pee. The bar seats are infinitely better. You can watch the magic occur a mere two feet away in the super clean open kitchen.
Here is where I descended into a slight blur from too much delicious food and alcohol and events are hard to exactly remember. Walter looked like he was ascending to heaven as he tucked into his beef cheek Bourguignon. The spoon tender meat melted in our mouths lifting the Margaux to higher heights. Even the carrot was insanely good and left me wishing for more. As quick as the cheek appeared, it disappeared. I got the hair brained idea to add an eighth course and flagged the waiter down. I ordered the infamous burger as Walter grabbed the wine list.
The burger and the 1996 Calon Segur showed up roughly at the same time. Time stopped as we were at that rarefied moment where iconic visions would likely soon occur. As I genuflected, I began pontificating on the merits of why you HAVE to order the burger in a restaurant like this. Perhaps a vision of Jesus would appear in the delicious sauce and onions that covered the square burger. It reminded me of the time I went to Georges Blanc’s temple of gastronomy in France and ate two ten-course tasting menus simultaneously because I wanted to sample everything. By the twentieth course and several bottles of wine later I had an older French couple salute me for efforts. Georges actually came to the table and gave me a glass of Black Truffle Eau de Vie.
I am not sure if we were still bound by the rules of the seven course tasting menu but a plate of pigeon confit churro appeared with a glass of sherry. I was lost in rapture ready to meet the end of times fortified and buoyed by great food and drink.
The waiters keep bringing food out. Next was the cheese course of a triple cream cheese from France served over a warm Danish pastry dusted with Espelette pepper. The cheese was great. The Danish was great. As an avowed cheese fanatic and purist, I enjoyed the creativity but was less a fan of the combination. Undeterred with fork in hand we kept going forward. The final course was something appley that eludes me now. Not that it was not exceptional but more that I was too busy fawning over Chef Rucker to pay too much attention.
We did manage to order three magnificent Madeiras to face the end of the world with, a 1908 Boal D’Oliveiras Reserva, 1922 Boal D’Oliveiras Reserve and a 1968 Boal D’Oliveiras. The 1908 was slightly faded and the 1968 too youthful. The 1922 was absolutely frigging amazing and perhaps one of the best liquids to whet my gullet.
In the end, I too am now a convert to the religion of the pigeon and am expounding the virtues of Rucker to anyone that will listen. If you love food, are coming to the Pacific Northwest and want a great meal I strongly suggest taking your spot on the bench and wait for the baptism to begin. Le Pigeon is an epic Portland restaurant that I will dine at many more times in my life! http://lepigeon.com/