Le Pigeon –
You can’t talk about Portland’s top restaurants without putting Le Pigeon somewhere near – or at – the top. The story of this impeccable restaurant and its James Beard award-winning owner Gabriel Rucker stands testament to hard work and dedication making the dream real.
Many star chefs say that from a young age, they always wanted to cook. They trace their rise through slaving away in a myriad of high-end restaurants, getting yelled at by world-class chefs as they hone their culinary skills. Rucker’s story is a bit different.
Rucker started cooking later in life, compared to other chefs of his caliber. He rarely consults cookbooks, but rather relies on his own creativity, building recipes from such disparate sources as a joke he heard or a meal he ate at a friend’s house. It is truly personal cooking that germinates only in his mind. These aren’t recipes you’re likely to find anywhere else.
When he won the James Beard award, he was described as “a chef aged 30 or younger who displays an impressive talent and who is likely to make a significant impact on the industry in years to come.” He is now one of the “expert panelists” casting a vote for future winners.
Those close to Rucker admit his winning the award was a surreal moment. Rucker himself accidentally packed two left dress shoes for the ceremony.
Although Rucker grew up in Napa Valley, he assuredly wasn’t a part of the limousine wine country tour culture. His father was a civilian machinist at Travis Air Force Base and his mother was an elementary school teacher.
In high school, Rucker preferred the music and drug culture of the Bay Area’s booming rave scene. After finishing high school in 1999, and only because his mom forced him to, Rucker enrolled in Santa Rosa Junior College. Not even one week in, he approached an advisor bemoaning his major. The advisor showed him a list of vocational programs and he picked cooking because “it sounded like good, blue-collar work,” he says.
He would end up leaving the program after just one year to take a job at Napa’s Silverado Resort & Spa. He was described by a former colleague as a “recovering roller-blader with baggie jeans who listened to techno music.”
After moving to Portland in 2003, Rucker went from Paley’s Place to North Portland’s Gotham Building Tavern. Former Gotham co-chef and Mario Batali understudy Tommy Habetz calls Rucker “naturally gifted and gutsy.”
By 2006, Rucker landed his first head chef position at Colleen’s Bistro, a small restaurant that was struggling to earn a profit. He was given two months to turn it around. Named for a flock of birds tattoo on his right arm, Le Pigeon broke even within two months.
The restaurant is made up of a large open kitchen and seven communal style tables. Watch the action unfold with a clear view of the chef’s counter. The vintage chairs and chandeliers give Le Pigeon a quaint and charming feel.
You wouldn’t immediately guess at the talent within from the décor alone. It is as understated as its chef. Whether you’re looking to have a fun night out with friends or impress a romantic date, Le Pigeon provides equal comfort for both.
Once seated, you’ll be met with a dizzying array of menu choices, some of which may seem a bit off putting at first. After all, barbecued eel toast and foie gras profiteroles don’t exactly have an appetizing ring. But you’ll be surprised. These dishes marry sweet, salt, and acid – with food both cooked and raw – in unexpected ways.
You might start with the refreshing green cucumber gazpacho. A single perfectly cooked prawn rests appealingly in
the center of the bowl. It’s a dish that sings summer.
Move on to the rich squab. The flavor profile is so intense that you might think it’s a duck. Then you realize it’s paired with duck-fat poached potatoes and marrow crostini. The dish is so alluringly elegant, you’ll forget how mildly annoying it is to dig through the tiny bones.
Rucker prides himself on using locally-sourced, seasonal and organic ingredients. The quality of the food shines through in the flavor. A free-range fennel chicken arrives perched atop a delicious sweet onion confit. The carrots surrounding it take you right back to grandmother’s kitchen.
A normally boring flat iron steak is elevated to perfection when it’s gently laid on a bed of truffle flavored greens. Top it with semolina-crusted onion rings for the ultimate finish.
If you are feeling adventurous, you may want to try the lamb’s tongue potato salad or calf hearts. Although at first blush they may not sound appetizing, they are a lesson in flavor and texture balance.
Finish your night by choosing from a stunning selection of mouth-watering desserts. It may sound bizarre, but the sweet cornbread with apricots, crispy bacon, honey, and maple ice cream is absolutely delicious.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Rucker opened the downtown bistro Little Bird in 2012. He’s also published a cookbook and is ruminating on his next adventure. Whatever it may be, we are quite sure it will serve as another ambassador to unique flavors and world-class cuisine.
If you’re looking for an amazing night out, check out Le Pigeon. They are located at 738 E Burnside Street, Portland, Oregon, 97214. They are open every night from 5:00pm to 10:00pm. For menu information visit their website or give them a call at 503.546.8796.
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.