The food was considered cerebral and playful. It was said to set one’s taste buds aflutter with an intricately complex layering of flavor. This was the kind of food that would make your mouth delight. The room was simple, well apportioned and welcoming. Then, in 2011, it all burned down.
Aviary, a boisterously refined urban and industrially designed restaurant that invited with communal tables and locally crafted lighting, would take two years to re-open. Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, the Aviary, northeast Portland’s restaurant extraordinaire, would live again.
It’s rare to come across an establishment that hosts three world-class chefs without any one or another letting their egos interrupt the delicate process of making truly memorable fare. This rarity is a reality at Aviary, where Sarah Pliner, Kat Whitehead, and Jasper Shen have built a gastronomic wunderkind of uncomplicated farm-to-table food.
All three chefs came from New York, honing their culinary chops at restaurants like Ducasse and Aquavit. Coming to Portland, they were amazed at the change in atmosphere. New York can be a cutthroat environment for any chef, and yet upon arrival to Portland, these three had locals coming to them asking what they could do to help out. It was unpretentious and refreshing.
It wasn’t destined to be utopia, however. Their original plan was to have three people working together in the kitchen of their dreams, conjuring up food that would be talked about through the ages. Alas, humans aren’t quite at that point yet. Pliner acts as the head chef, Whitehead is on pastry duty, and Shen runs the show as front of house restaurant manager.
Following in the tradition of so many other innovative Portland eateries, Aviary’s seating arrangement is communal and a seasonal patio sits out back. The food combines the best of Europe and Asia presented on aesthetically appealing and mouth-watering small plates.
Upon entering Aviary, expect the new décor to be as understated as the last. This is an establishment that wants to let the food do the talking while assuring you it’s still there. Its minimalist beauty is marked by an abundance of concrete and white walls. Yet the art makes it striking in its complexity.
The beginning of a meal at Aviary might be marked with a humble bagna càuda dipping sauce, comprised of Piedmontese, butter, anchovies, olive oil and garlic. This is brought to you as soon as you sit down, accompanied by thin slices of crusty Pearl Bakery baguette and olive bread.
You’ll marvel at the unusual ways a salad is presented at Aviary. It might have strips of Asian pear, celery root and watermelon radish draped over lightly dressed arugula. Atop that ridiculous creation they might sprinkle tiny granules of candied cumin.
Though it may seem a simple dish, soups are always a true test of a chef’s skill and creativity. Aviary answers that test by producing a cauliflower velouté, its creaminess bordering on decadence. You’ll be surprised at the sweetness and texture you’ll discover from the chestnuts lurking within.
Not to be outdone, the oxtail croquettes will gush with deep, earthy flavors as you bite down into their crunchy deliciousness. The sauce that accompanies them sings in a harmony of herbs, with just a hint of spice to give it a kick.
For the main course, a New York strip steak may sound simple and pedestrian, and when it arrives, certainly looks so. Then you cut a succulent slice and dip it into the Serrano ham marmalade. You scoop it up with a bit of braised endive. You nudge a piece of grape onto your fork. Then you are transported into a world of flavor and texture.
Once the main courses are done delighting you with their exquisite presentation and inviting flavor, dessert arrives. These are fairly priced and fantastic works of art. For six dollars, you can rejoice in pana cotta making itself at home next to a passion fruit sorbet.
If that doesn’t sound appealing, how about a simple, creamy and moist coconut bread pudding? There’s no mushiness here. The bread remains firm, while the coconut cream infuses it with an almost irresistible flavor. This is comfort food at its finest.
For the beer lover in you, Aviary reduces beer by freezing it, then discards the ice while saving the beer concentrate. This reduction is then mixed into a vanilla ice cream base. It’s a bizarrely delicious concoction that rests in a dark pool of coffee set in gelatin. Just in case you forgot where you are, salty morsels of pretzel are sprinkled across the top to give that added bit of crunch.
Could you think of a better way to complete an evening of harmonious flavor and unbridled exuberance? This is food that’s meant to be tasted with your eyes closed. You should linger over it, toss the flavors around in your mouth. It shouldn’t be merely consumed. It should be pondered over.
Aviary is open Monday through Thursday from 5:00pm – 10:00pm, and to 11:00pm on Friday and Saturday. They are closed on Sunday. They are located at 1733 NE Alberta Street in Portland, Oregon. Find out more about them or view their menu at AviaryPDX.com or give them a call at (503)287-2400.
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.