Judging food used to be such a simple affair. How a chef roasted a chicken or braised a duck had always been the reliable standard. But now, with farm-to-table food becoming the norm, a chef’s refinement can be discerned more by how they present a carrot than how they cook a steak. Nowhere is this more true than at the trattoria-inspired, but Portland refined, Ava Gene’s.
Opened by Stumptown Coffee Roasters kingpin Duane Sorensen, this starkly cool and warmly delicious establishment celebrated its two year anniversary this past January. Named after his 10 year-old daughter, Sorensen wanted Ava Gene’s to express the same welcoming warmth that a family looks for in a quality Italian restaurant.
Sorenson calls himself a born risk taker and bears that out through his obvious creative compulsions. His Stumptown Coffee empire has allowed him to become the unofficial culinary king of southeast Portland. Ava Gene’s is his realization of a dream to “create one of the best restaurants on the West Coast.”
Ava Gene’s wasn’t his first attempt to reach that goal, however. His inaugural foray from coffee to food came in the form of the Woodsman Tavern, which mixes masculine booths with hipster approval and celebrates Portland’s cocktail-obsessed culture. And while the Woodsman earns its chops as an essential cocktail destination, the kitchen didn’t have quite the breadth that Sorensen was looking for. His new goal was to make sure Ava Gene’s laid out a truly compelling culinary vision.
Upon entering Ava Gene’s, you’ll immediately notice the simplistically beautiful design. It quietly shouts refinement without being boastful. Sorensen wanted the aesthetic to have an Italian flair with Roman minimalism, and succeeded in doing so.
New York rustic Italian vet Joshua McFadden mans the helm in the kitchen, bringing with him a variety of skills. Between working at the groundbreaking raw-vegan restaurant Roxanne’s in San Francisco, and the storied Four Seasons Farm in Maine, McFadden knows his way around a plate.
With this much experience on tap, don’t expect the menu at Ava Gene’s to offer up Portland’s by-the-numbers and often bland Italian fare. This is food that’s channeled through a focused and creative imagination, offering up an edgy nostalgia covered in warm deliciousness. The menu is broken up into eight sections, each presenting a kitchen obsession.
You’ll start off the evening with an eye-catching piece of wood-charred bread, atop which rests crumbles of soft-boiled egg, cracked pepper and sliced bottarga, which is an extravagantly salty cured fish roe that sits between caviar and tuna bacon on the flavor scale. At Ava Gene’s, a simple pre-dinner bread course is elevated with true acuity of intention.
Move from bread to soup with a Roman tripe stew. Just when you think it sounds simple, you’ll discover succulent morsels of pork and tender broccoli leaves nestled inside delicate orecchiette shells.
Or perhaps you’re in the mood to meet the unexpected offspring of Italy and Thailand: crisp heads of blackened Brussel sprouts assertively baptized in a pool of fiery fish sauce.
As you make your way from bread to soup to entrée, it won’t be hard to see what really stands out. Although McFadden earned his stripes working in some seriously progressive restaurants, it was his time in Maine that turned his focus to the real star of his dishes: vegetables. Even the most carnivorous among you will yearn for the perfectly cooked, bright red carrots with fresh-ground pistachio nut butter resting beneath rich stripes of Sardinian pecorino.
Senses rejoice as the evening proceeds. The Sagna riccia with lamb ragù is a pasta dish that just yells to be eaten. The meaty lamb shreds burst with tomato essence. Bitter chicory notes cling to the noodles like embers to a dying flame.
Meals of this caliber are enhanced by top-notch ingredients. With Sorensen’s okay, McFadden has embraced the Portland farm-to-table culture. Wherever possible, you’ll find meats and vegetables that boast organic and sustainable labels. The pasta is hand-cut and imported from Italy. It’s of a kind rarely seen on this side of the country and is full of wheaty notes and rustic flavors.
Dessert might arrive in one of many delectable variations. The simple, but lovely panna cotta is light, airy and full of distinctive flavor and epicurean precision. The cannoli is pitch-perfect and the gelato comes alive with jumbo, water-blanched peanuts.
As you proceed through a meal to remember, you might be delighting in a bar that takes its cocktails seriously. Not only would the Campari cocktail make Caesar himself proud, there’s enough little-known and underappreciated grappas and amaros to make any wayward Italian tourist feel right at home. The end of your meal will be capped off with a hand-pulled post-dinner espresso, its rich velvety texture and subtle kick providing your metabolism just the oomph it needs after such a hearty and delicious meal.
From the luxurious Ann Sacks tile covering the walls to the locally sourced food, Sorenson has cut no corners, and yet most of your meal options will ring in under $18. Although Sorenson insists he’s not looking to be the king of Portland’s food scene, he shouldn’t be underestimated in his ambitions. One night at Ava Gene’s will have you convinced he’s playing for keeps.
Ava Gene’s is located at 3377 SE Division St in Portland, Oregon, 97202 and is open daily from 5pm to 11pm. For more information visit their website at www.avagenes.com or give them a call at (971)229-0571.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is an author, journalist and blogger who’s been writing professionally for over eleven years. When he isn’t writing or eating, then writing about eating, expect him to be outside enjoying the natural splendors of his home in the great Pacific Northwest.