Special Review – Le Pigeon

Is That A Bird On The End Of The Table?


At least three people in the group have badgered me over the last few months, desperately wanting to go to Le Pigeon. I went to Le Pigeon almost a year ago, and thought it a fine restaurant. A fine restaurant, but a very small restaurant, a place where taking a large group was nearly unthinkable. Since I had been there the first time though, Le Pigeon had changed slightly, and while it is even more acclaimed these days, and even harder to get into, they at least take reservations at the communal tables, I think for groups of four or more. Sounds easier, but it’s not.


Good luck actually getting a reservation for a group over four, especially if you want to dine between the hours of 6:00 pm and 8:00 pm, when reservations are also prohibited. So you can kind of get a reservation, provided you plan far in advance and don’t mind eating really early or really late. Initially we were going to make a reservation for six, and include a couple of other people who might want to join us at this dinner, but that plan became all shot to hell in a hurry, as we could barely even come up with a reservation for four, and to do even that, we had to reserve at 5:45 pm. So sorry to all of you who we had to leave out, Le Pigeon is a great place, but I would guess, probably the hardest fine dining restaurant to get into in Portland at this time. Lauro is always busy, when I was at Lolo that joint was jumping, and Toro Bravo always has them lined up down the street. But those are decent sized restaurants. The main issue is that not only is Le Pigeon some of the finest cuisine Portland has to offer, it’s tiny (size and popularity wise, it’s hard not to compare with Pambiche, although the food and atmosphere are 180% different. And at least Pambiche does lunch, allowing more people to pass through its doors and sample the vittles there.)


One thing to keep in mind though,  if there is a restaurant in Portland you have really wanted to go to, but it seems inappropriate for a large group or we’ve already been there, let me know. This is the second time I’ve done one of these special smaller dinners in the last couple of months (the first one was Toro Bravo in October,) so send me an email on your special place, and I might be able to get a dinner going. After all, I certainly like eating out (if only I could find that gold mine to pay for all these dinners.)


Anyway, it was an extremely lousy Wednesday evening when the four of us met at Le Pigeon, pelting pouring rain and actual globs of wet snowflakes on the trip home. For once the reservation was not under my name, as Adele took the reigns on this one for me and went through all the arduous reservation rigamarole that is necessary to get a table at Le Pigeon (she was the main instigator on this dinner, a former French styled professional chef, she’s been wanting to check out Le Pigeon for a very long time.)


When I had visited Le Pigeon last December, it was a more normally styled restaurant, small tables, maybe one larger table, and fun seating at the food bar, watching master chef Gabriel Rucker ply his trade in his over-sized baseball hat (luckily on this winter evening his light pink cap had been replaced by a less deranged looking brown model.) Nowadays, Le Pigeon is almost all communal tables and bar seating, something to do with squeezing in as many reservations as possible I suppose, but i’ve heard the communal tables have gotten mixed reviews, and certainly have to be less than romantic for young couples who want a cozy French dinner for two.


At 5:45 Le Pigeon was only 1/2 full, so it was easy to spot my three dining companions. I could tell they had been there for a few minutes, as they were already acquainted with the waiter and were just waiting for me to arrive to kick things into high gear. Glenda, as is her ilk, was enjoying her pre-dinner glass of the bubbly. and Michael was deciding between various glasses of good quality red wine. Adele and I were both undecided, but the relatively high prices of the wine, the lack of glasses of white that appealed to me, and my two day old headache convinced me to forgo the vino in favor of a glass of imported sparkling lemon soda.


The waiter, a very professional and personable sort, seemed dying to answer any menu questions we might have, but we seemed more interested in eating then playing 20 questions, and whipped into our ordering. Soon a plate of excellent sliced baguette from Ken’s Artisan Bakery was brought, with a nice dab of superior quality butter.  Styrofoam baguette from Safeway this was not, it was crispy and delicious (and at free, one of the things at Le Pigeon that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. So I tried to eat as much as humanly possible.) 


Le Pigeon doesn’t exactly overwhelm you with choices, only six starters and seven entrees gracing the ever changing menu. From the beginning, Le Pigeon has been pushing the envelope as far as what you can expect to find on your plate, and what flavors go with what other flavors, a good example of this being the starter I chose, “Cauliflower Soup with fish sticks.” The cup of cauliflower soup was certainly good enough, creamy and silky smooth, and sure enough, two tiny fish sticks were laying on the folded napkin beside my soup cup. To be honest, I didn’t really taste much more flavor from these fishy bites than I would get from the Gorton’s Fisherman. It was all fine, but is it really necessary to charge $11 for a cup of soup and two minnow sized fish sticks? Basically, I guess whatever you can get away with charging is what you charge in the majority of upscale Portland restaurants these days (Toro Bravo being the only exception I can think of off the top of my head.) Did they grow the cauliflower themselves or something? Why are all Portland starters getting to be the same price as entrees were a year or two ago?


Adele decided to try the fascinating sounding “Bone Marrow Gnocchi with snails, garlic, and parsley.” Now that just sounds expensive, don’t you think? (And at $14 was probably a better bargain than the other $14 pasta starter, “Egg noodles, truffles, and parmesan.”) I was a bit alarmed when I saw the color of this particular gnocchi, as everything in the bowl was bright green, but the colorization was the result of the sauce, which was a parsley pesto affair. Adele was in heaven with each bite, and  I think was already trying to figure out how soon she could wrangle another reservation. Glenda, who always makes intriguing choices, went for the “Veal tongue with tonnato and potato salad.” (Oh god, that that old veal tongue and potato salad combo again.) It seemed a bargain at $10, and while veal is the one meat I used to love that I gave up years ago for health reasons (the health of the baby bovine, that is,) Glenda said the preparation was excellent, and the potato salad was so pretty and refined looking, I forgot what it was and had to ask her what that was on top of her meat. Michael had wisely had a late lunch salad, so that way he could just pile on the booze instead (two glasses of excellent wine.) Had he wanted a starter, however, he could have also had “Bitter greens, squash croutons, and dry jack” for $9 ( I had wanted a salad, but somehow something bitter and dry just didn’t appeal to me. Why would I need bitter and dry, with my personality); or Foie Gras, beets and brioche,” tipping the extravagance scale at $15.


By the end of starters, Le Pigeon was totally filed up with excited dinners, as well as a line of people at the door hoping to miraculously find a table. The first time I had visited last year, I got on the waiting list, was told what time to come back, and was directed towards one the bars in the area. Doug Fir is a block or so East, and the at that time brand new Rontoms was slightly West. My friend and I had went to Rontoms, a large, casual, homely sort of space, had a drink, and returned about 15 minutes before we were directed to. We then found out that our table had emptied earlier than planned, and had just been given to a young couple. This sweet young couple, if you can actually believe this, got up and insisted we take the table, that it was rightfully ours. How often does that happen? They then waited out the next two open places, seats at the food bar.


Sorry, I know I digress as always, but I just now remembered how that couple had given up the table for us, and as it seemed so extraordinary, I felt I wanted to mention it. People I know who have migrated from out of the state occasionally remark to me that they find people in Portland just too nice and courteous on occasion. If this is the kind of situation they are referring to, all I can say is “alright P-town!”


The signature entree at Le Pigeon, from the beginning, has always been “Beef Cheek Bourguignon” and I’m not certain if it’s ever left the menu, as it’s extremely in demand. It was certainly impossible for both Adele and Michael to resist ordering. Basically it’s just a hunk of beef cheek (a cut of beef you never ran across in Portland restaurants until recently, extremely tender and flavorful,) slow cooked in an intensely rich red wine sauce with a smattering of fingerling potatoes and mini carrots. Adele was certainly experiencing spasms of french food loving joy, and was joking (one would hope) about forgoing her upcoming winter vacation in favor of a nightly visit to Le Pigeon, with perhaps a trip or two to Toro Bravo thrown in. Michael seemed really happy with his cheek too, and kindly offered me a bite. It was certainly tasty, and like having a sip of fine wine with every bite, but as a person who never particularly enjoys stewed beef (although chicken and pork are fine) it’s not something I would select for myself. For $21 the portion wasn’t exactly huge either, but as is typical of much stewed cattle, the taste was extremely rich and it seemed amply filling for Michael and Adele, although neither managed leftovers (Michael is the king of leftovers, and usually takes a bag home for a snack or meal later.)


Glenda had selected the “Cod, Leeks, and Lobster Balls” as her entree, and I think the kitchen had thrown in a large shrimp too. It was a pretty plate of food, the lobster balls seemingly fritter like, (and not at all similar to those squirrel balls from Olea,) and she enjoyed every single morsel, another rich but moderately sized portion ($27). Other entrees on the menu this night included: “Pork stuffed pork, roasted veg, salsa verde” ($20); Venison, truffles, yams and mushrooms ($29); “Squab au Vin with liver crostini” ($29); and the reasonably priced “Strawberry Mountain Farms Burger with potatoes ($9) or mixed greens” ($11).


I had decided earlier in the day, after viewing the internet menu, that unless some wonderful special presented itself, I would most likely order the “Onion Goat Cheese Tart with orzo salad,” actually one of the cheaper things on the entree menu at $18. Since there were no specials, and a good onion goat cheese tart can be delightful, this was my entree. About two months ago I had ordered an onion goat cheese tart at Pix for around $5-$6, and although somewhat small (what else would it have been for that price?) it was really good, a rich little tartlet with flaky crust and extremely mild cheese. I suppose I was expecting a similar presentation here, or a slice of a large quiche-like pie, but I laughed when I saw the presentation, as it looked much like an apple turnover or “Hot Pocket.” (By the way, to clear my reputation, let me explain that I don’t spend a great amount of time thinking about “Hot Pockets”, but on Thanksgiving Adele had sent me a crazy video of comedian Jim Gaffigan basically equating “Hot Pockets” to laxatives. The guy is funny, check him out sometime.)


More than a tart, my entree reminded me of a goat cheese foldover, goat cheese wrapped in light puff pastry then baked. It looked a bit odd there, sitting on a bed of orzo, certainly an unorthodox combination, stuffed pastry on top of small pasta pellets. Both items were good enough, although neither was exceptional, and having had them together, I still don’t think I would pair them, they really didn’t meld flavors or improve each other in any way. My food certainly wasn’t lacking in any fashion, but I must say, none of the items I ordered seemed exceptional in the least, unlike those dishes relished by my eating companions. I probably should have had the burger (although I always feel embarrassed if I order the cheapest thing at a fancy restaurant,) I’m sure it was probably really tasty. Everyone else at the table practically reveled in their selections though, so I think I just did not select wisely on this evening, although with such a limited menu, sometimes you feel like you have settled on something you would not normally select.


As I said though, everyone around me seemed to find their food wonderful. Here’s what Adele had to say, and she knows her Frenchie cuisine:


“I loved the food – this guy can really cook.  The flavours are complex and prefectly balanced; the menu shows great imagination and uniqueness.  It is rather expensive – however with such a small space I suppose he has to make his overheads. The wine by the glass is very expensive, and a very small amount!”


When it comes to uniqueness and innovation, one would almost have to say uniqueness almost entirely to be unique, one only has to take a gander at the Le Pigeon dessert specials, written nightly on the mirror on the East wall next to the cheese specials. From that fateful day they opened, the other dish Le Pigeon has been known for, besides those beef cheeks, is the “Apricot cornbread with maple ice cream and bacon.” It’s alleged to be just weird enough to be wonderful, although I’ve avoided having it during my two visits to Le Pigeon, as maple is one of those things I can barely stand (except, sadly, on a maple bar, where it tastes just fine to me.) The dessert special that seemed totally over the top to me was “Foie Gras Profitteroles.”  Call me narrow minded, but please keep goose liver completely away from my cookies, too too extravagant. Hasn’t young Mr. Rucker heard that butter makes some really nice cookies?


I really wanted dessert though, as last time the lemon curd pastry I had eaten here was really good, so once again I decided to settle somewhat, on something I might not normally order, but the least overwhelming of the four desserts available (I can’t remember the fourth, but I think is was something like pumpkin creme brulee, and I had eaten almost an entire homemade pumpkin pie by myself over the last week.) All the desserts were $7 (a very average dessert price in Portland these days,) so I plunked down my seven buckaroos for the “flourless chocolate cake with homemade graham cracker and smoked marshmallow.” Flourless chocolate cake is really one dessert I’m pretty neutral about, I don’t seek it out as a general rule, but every once in a while you come across one that is much better than others when you do try it. It’s also one of those things that many, many restaurants have on their menu, and something that varies incredibly from place to place, some being somewhat dry,  like a souffle, and usually sprinkled with powdered sugar, others very dense and fudge-like. This little wedge was of the fudgey variety, perched alongside the homemade graham cracker (I like the ones at Trader Joe’s better) and next to my burnt up marshmallow (also homemade I’m sure.) I guess the entire thing was meant to resemble a high end S’more, but I must admit I found the smoked marshmallow rather off-putting, it was not merely charred or caramelized, it really did have a smoked flavor. Weirdness for weirdness sake. I actually insisted everyone in our party sample it, as when is the next time they are going to be offered a smoked marshmallow? I suppose this entire dessert was a clever idea, but for taste and cohesiveness of ingredients, I would probably give it about a 6. It was in no way outstanding.


As a final note, I’m not sure during what part of the dinner it was, but there was a point in time when I looked down at the long wood table in front of Glenda (as we were thankfully at the end,) and remarked that the weird looking knothole in the table looked like a pigeon. Michael seemed to think my headache was making me delusional then, but sure enough, there on the corner of one of the farmhouse tables, three subtle little pigeons are stenciled. I’m guessing the other tables probably have pigeons too. This is the sort of thing that makes Le Pigeon what it is, attention to those little details, the pigeons etched on the tables, the folded cloth napkin under my cup of soup, in-house preparation of almost everything, the selection of fresh locally produced ingredients, and an unorthodox menu that dazzles because of extremely skilled execution. There are quite a few of these places in town now placing wild and unusual food items on their plates, The Rocket just down the street an example of all the things that can go wrong when you decide on too much originality, Carlyle in NW Portland supposedly doing it these days relatively well (and at even higher prices than these, after all, that place is fancy!) What sets Le Pigeon apart is, Gabriel Rucker has a keen sense of food, he knows how to pair the unusual, he triumphs in using those cuts of meat that used to be discarded, and he does so without creating a disaster on the plate. It’s true, I didn’t enjoy my food as much as my previous meal at Le Pigeon, on that visit I had totally savored my salad with homemade buttermilk blue cheese dressing and the rich tender steak that was on the menu that night, but on this evening not many items appealed to what I was craving. Oh well, you win some, you lose some, but you still know fine food lurks at this little corner outpost at 8th and NE Burnside.