What to Order, Thumper or Kermit?

Rarely does someone’s birthday exactly coincide with one of our dinners, and if it does, it often means that the person whose birthday it is has other “more personal” plans. IMG_1951By a weird quirk of fate (and a slight one week schedule adjustment) this year two out of the last three dinners have also functioned as birthday dinners. In October, it was that old hag, whatever her name is, and this time out it was frequently participant David having one of those milestone birthdays (you know those kind, you reach the milestone and fall off the edge.)

I asked David where he wanted to go, listened to his requests, then naturally decided to book our table elsewhere, as I often do. Hey, I even ignored my own request of where to have my birthday dinner, but luckily Andina was great, so I had to agree with me that it was a really good choice. As for David, he told me at the dinner that he wasn’t that excited about a French place for his birthday (thank Dieu that Glenda doesn’t read this thing, as that could do (dieu) her in) but that he thought the whole evening went well and the food was delicious, so it’s good that everyone bends to MY will.

Seriously though, I really would not have picked anyplace Mr. D. found truly appalling for his birthday, but I knew because of Gabriel Rucker’s reputation (Little Bird Bistro is the second restaurant from the Le Pigeon chef) that there would be some good eats coming out of the kitchen, even nine days after opening, so I was anxious to check it out before the hoarding masses came. And besides, David’s favorite, The Pink Feather, was just too scary a drive for the average person.
As was typical for a mid-December dinner, we weren’t a large group, especially after four cancelations, but we were a hearty, hungry, festive bunch, so five people seemed about right for a “intimate” holiday dining experience. IMG_1948New this time out, Sam’s friend Cora, a friendly woman totally into sharing. Cora seemed to know a whole lot about many of those specialty cuts they serve at both of Mr. Rucker’s establishments, things like marrow bones, pork belly and tongue. Believe me, this woman really knows her way around an animal, and it showed! Only through consumption, however, as she was very tastefully dressed, and not at all “farmish” (after all, I was the one seen carrying a dozen eggs and a chicken calendar. All I needed was a cow to milk.)

David, who arrived a bit earlier than the rest of us (a smart decision, as this place is a nightmare to park around, on the transit mall and close to Burnside) had the first cocktail of the evening, a cocktail so revolutionary he ended up naming it. As anyone who is familiar with David knows, his drink of choice is ALWAYS a Rusty Nail, unless we are going Mexican for the evening. This can be problematic, however, as many of the more modest sized bars don’t have one of the two main ingredients, Drambuie, although they all have the Scotch, needless to say (although this might not be true of Biwa.) Although they do lots of cocktails, Little Bird did not have Drambuie, but the bartender did offer to concoct something similar for David, but was worried because his invention had no name at this point. David, I suppose wanting to keep that Scottish traditional alive, suggested The Kilt, and a new drink was born.

I was in a mood where I wanted a drink that was more in tune with my mental functions this evening, so I decided on a cocktail called the Stone Mountain – gin, stone pine, lemon and sugar. It often seems to me that the more dinners we have, the more trouble I have figuring out the money at the end, and at the end of this dinner I literally felt like I had a noggin full of rock, so the drink was fitting.IMG_1927 What appeared a bit less fitting was the color, it was a delicate pink, so maybe it should have been called Poodle Mountain or something. Glenda, who has been in a more experimental boozing mood over the last year of so (in her beginning RR days she always started with some sparkling vino then moved on to regular wine) had a big, shockingly colored glass of Pernod with a water chaser, and later had a very unusual white wine that was the color of an amber ale. I’m not sure what Cora had, I know originally she mentioned a martini, and it might have been a martini in a plain glass. Sam was teetotalling it this evening, due to some early henna-ing or something else she had to do the following morn.

David, although he was the Birthday Boy, continued his always generous habit of buying a starter or two for everyone at that table to taste. On this evening he was in a ta’ ter mood (Billy Bob’s got nothing on this guy) so he bought us a couple of potato side dishes, the Fries with Marrow Butter and the Potato, Bacon, Raclette Cheese combo. IMG_1931One of the two things I read about Little Bird before they opened was that they would have the Le Pigeon Burger all the time (they only serve five a night at LP) and that they had two deep fryers so they could do a double frying on the frites, first a normal sizzling then a finishing dunk in the marrow fat. As I guess I had a Stone Mountain Head going already, I forgot to really analyze if the double-grease-doused fries were any better than average, but I did find them good, and festive as well in their little paper cone. Even better and more distracting was the tuber dish with Potato, Bacon and Raclette Cheese, umm, umm, it had that lovely bacon effect going, and was actually quite similar to some fingerling potatoes I had made a couple of months earlier with some Otto’s bacon and parmesan cheese (and which I made again this last week and ruined by going on a Kosher Salt Frenzy – what was I thinking?)

Glenda had been dancing a virtual Minuet ever since the moment I sent out the announcement that the next dinner would be at Gabriel Rucker’s new eatery (I’m surprised she doesn’t have a Le Pigeon shrine next to her Obama shrine) and she was also in an exceedingly generous mood, and even announced, “she would be sharing food!!!!” IMG_1930Not only that, but Glenda ordered a Charcuterie Plate for the table, and we all shared the little morsels of fancy sausage, rillette, and onion relish with excitement. Glenda had stated earlier she had been starving herself all day for this occasion, and with much more rich food (and cute little woodland animals) to follow, she seemed to have a hollow leg all night (better than my hollow head probably.)

There was certainly no lack of fat flowing around the table this evening, with all those intense French starters that just scream “heart attack on a plate”, and although it’s hard to believe, I actually had one of the more healthy starters to begin my dinner, the Butter Lettuce, Roquefort and Tomato salad.IMG_1933 I really never thought about it until a few days ago, but you hardly see Roquefort salad dressing in fine restaurants nowadays, it’s very 70s (or 80s?), it’s either blue cheese or gorgonzola or goat cheese dressing. Perhaps this has not been the case in France, maybe Roquefort is eternal there, but whatever the case, it was nice to once again experience a creamy, tangy, cheesy dressing for a change. I’m guessing Mr. Rucker might have a fondness for creamy white dressings, because I remember in the early days of Le Pigeon his buttermilk dressing was very popular there, and tasty too.

Sam also had a relatively health-conscious starter, the carafe of Roasted Mushrooms, which she shared with the table. IMG_1937I didn’t hear all of the fungi involved, but I know one of the prevalent species was Hedgehog Mushrooms, a mushroom I have noticed popping up all over the place recently (not an intended joke, but witty enough for someone with a head of stone.). One of those trends perhaps? Or maybe it’s just that previously people were calling them the same name as their relative mushroom, Chanterelles, as most people thought those were classy and expensive. Whatever, they were quite good for something wild and dirty (yes, I have heard of truffles and Lady Gaga.)

Of course our dear Glenda being our dear Glenda, she had to go all out ordering all those appalling, so French things, and contemplated the foie gras from the specials menu. IMG_1936She changed her mind, however, and instead went with the also PETA boycotted Froggie Legs (Frog Legs, brussels sprouts, orange, truffle vinaigrette.) I don’t know how unhealthy this combo was for Glenda, but it was certainly very unhealthy for one of our croaking little green friends (or in this case, croaked little green friends.) Luckily Glenda had stopped sharing by now, but she proclaimed it was delicious (with a frog in her throat.)

Cora was just loading up on food, mostly with the intentional of sharing everything, but by the time our evening was over, I don’t know how she ate it all. As she said her father was a big tongue man (okay) she had to try Little Bird’s Fried Beef Tongue with potato, onion sherry. IMG_1934She was quite impressed with the preparation, fried in something panko like rather than the big boiled mass she was used to. Awful collection of foods I do eat, there are certain parts I almost always avoid, brains, eyeballs, and tongues. I know tongue is very popular, especially in Mexican cooking, but I just cannot escape the image of this big, fleshy, juicy thing licking me while I’m licking it. That being said, she insisted I have a bite, and I did, and it tasted fine, nice and beefy, but nothing I would probably seek out (those frightening visions again!)

Cora also had a somewhat more daring salad than mine, the Frisee, crispy pork belly, dijon. and soft-boiled egg. I had brought my own eggs along, so I didn’t try that part, but I had a chunk of the crispy pork belly, and it was rich and yummy. Cora really was like our dinner-mother this evening (behavior-wise only, of course) arranging little bites of food and handing them out to everyone, she probably is an excellent hostess. As for my table distribution technique, if anyone wants to try what I’m eating, I generally just stab a hunk with my fork and try to fling it into their mouth when it looks like it’s open. It speeds up the whole meal that way.

Next up for Cora, Roasted Marrow Bones. I happen to know Glenda loves these, and I’m sure judging from the menu at Little Bird she wishes she could have brought along two mouths and three stomaches (perhaps a surrogate eater?) with all the items she would have liked to have ordered.IMG_1939 When Cora’s lovely marrow bones made it to the table (one of the nicest presentations I’ve seen for a plate of bones) I was about to tuck into entree, which had also arrived then, but Glenda forbade me, insisting I could not assault my palate with any other food until I had tasted Cora’s bones. She was so insistent, I tend to wonder if perhaps Glenda wasn’t a cannibal in a former life. Anyway, these marrow bones also had rich roasted onions on top, something no one at our table had seen before, and everyone agreed they were worth fighting the pooch over.

Sam had mentioned when she RSVPed yes that she thought the whole menu sounded delicious, but that if anyone ordered the Rabbit she might burst into tears (Sam has a sweet little pet bunny that shares her abode.)IMG_1941 Of course she sat next to Glenda, and naturally, of all those French specialties on the menu, Glenda just had to order the Rabbit Blanquette with egg noodles. Luckily no body parts were at all recognizable, in fact it was really hard to discern what kind of meat was intermingled with the pasta, so Sam was able to keep her emotions in check.

Also true for myself, who sat directly across from David, who naturally had chicken – Coq au Vin, potato puree, chicken liver toast. As many people in the group can’t help but know by now, I got chickens this summer, and now and then I get a bit chicken sensitive too, although it’s not so bad when the parts aren’t clearly recognizable. IMG_1942Luckily this time, most of the feathers had been removed, and I also had the distraction of Glenda gnawing on the bunny. At first David seemed a tad disappointed with his Coq au Vin, because he had thought it might have a white wine sauce rather than a red wine sauce (maybe he was using the white wine with poultry, red white with beef rule) but once he dug in he said it was really delicious, and thought the only possible improvement would have been to delete the red wine and instead use Drambuie and Scotch.

One of the entrees I had been contemplating in the days before we visited Little Bird was the item Cora selected for her entree, the Grilled Trout with leeks, fingerlings and sauce verte.IMG_1938 When Little Bird said sauce verte they weren’t kidding, the fish was covered in a blanket of chopped herbs resembling standard pesto, although basil did not appear to be one of the ingredients. The trout itself was all golden and crackly looking, and while it seemed like the whole presentation came together very well, this would not be the thing to order if you didn’t like a concentration of fresh herbs.

Sam, proclaiming herself not a burger person, but perhaps being influenced by all the fancy burger proselytizing that’s been going around P-town these days, decided she would give the famous Le Pigeon burger a whirl (Le Pigeon Burger, marrow butter fries or lettuces.) IMG_1943Previously, perhaps because they were hand-ground daily, Le Pigeon only served five per night. At Little Bird they are free-flowing all the time, and you have the option of salad, fries, or both for a small up-charge. The rather unusual thing about this particular burger, not alluded to on the menu description, is a big wad of slaw dumped over the top of the meat. I could tell that Sam had qualms about this, as I would too, since not only did it make the burger incredibly thick and hard to eat, but I personally would find the slaw/dressing flavor rather a distraction from the beef flavor that should be ultra present from freshly ground burger of a better quality than usual. Although Sam didn’t give the Le Pigeon Burger a thumbs down, she wasn’t overly enchanted, and said it was the one item of everything at the table that she probably would not recommend (I think she had forgotten about Thumper, which I m sure she would not recommend under any circumstances.)

Rather interestingly, or perhaps appallingly, this whole idea of what was edible got us on the subject of whether we would eat each other for survival (I don’t know, Glenda seems like she would not be that meaty.)IMG_1952 After some comment was made about Glenda ordering rabbit and Sam’s pet bunny, I think Glenda mentioned the fact that although she is not one to shrink from eating protested food types (fois gras, veal, frog legs) she would most likely choose dying from starvation rather than eating her Fluffy (to get this sentence back on a less dubious level, Fluffy is her cat.) All of us who have pets agreed they do not fall in the edible category, although our token male for this evening, who is petless, looks like he could be a secret pet muncher. Maybe that’s what determines who ultimately has pets, it’s largely the people not interested in eating them. Of course this led us to the charming subject of cannibalism, with about half of us for it and half of us against it.

All I can say is that it’s good I didn’t get that pet cow, as I might have a hard time not eating it, with my ongoing beef obsession. Because of this, naturally my entree choice was: Steak, marrow butter fries, garlic, parsley, bordelaise.IMG_1944 As might be a French tradition when you order something plainly called Steak or Steak Frites, I don’t think I ever heard what cut of beef this was, but it wasn’t bad, cooked just about rare enough, not tough, and with a red sauce not too wine-driven (I like to taste beefiness, not wineyness.) One slightly different variation, the steak was laid on top of the fries, and then the sauce was poured over everything, so it was really wasn’t possible to judge the flavor of the fries as a stand-alone item (I had only tried one or two of David’s, as I knew they were coming with my steak.) Not my favorite steak ever, but quite good.

As I suppose makes some sense, Lauren Fortgang is now splitting her pastry chef duties between Le Pigeon and Little Bird (her husband is also the floor manager at Little Bird.) In the early days I think Mr. Rucker handled his own dessert chores at LP, and one of the most infamous items on the Le Pigeon menu was always that weird cornbread, bacon, maple ice cream finisher. Not exactly the sort of creation that screams sophisticated French pastry.Perhaps because in some ways Little Bird is trying to come across as a bit more polished, now fancy French desserts are the rule here. As Glenda isn’t exactly known for bellowing out anything at the dinners, I didn’t hear what dessert she got, but my guess would be the Tarte Demoiselles Tatin with creme fraiche. I base this on the fact that the name contains the longest French word, and I’m sure Glenda was just dying to say it so she could show off her pronunciation.

Sam selected the Chocolate-Caramel Croquant with marmelade, which interestingly made it to the table quite a bit after the rest of the desserts. IMG_1954Although you might expect this from a hot dessert, it seemed odd that the chilled dessert would be the last to the table. Sam said the mousse-like layer was frozen like ice cream, so perhaps cutting it was a chore until it had a bit of thawing. Tardiness aside, it was a beautiful creation full of different layers of flavor, and Sam found it fantastic, only wishing that she had more appetite by this stage of our extensive meal to gobble it all up. All of were pretty trashed out by food consumption by now, and could not help her out much.

Of course being stuffed never thwarts me from living out my dessert passion, so I decided to have the Hazelnut-Milk Chocolate Financier, with kumquats and praline ice cream. The waitress described the Financier as a cake, so as it’s my favorite form of cake, I visualized a layer cake in my head with lots of chocolate and maybe some yummy frosting.IMG_1953 As it turns out, the Financier is actually an individual little cake with no frosting (okay, that part made me a bit sad), kind of yellow cakey, with kumquats all over the top (I think the chocolate was just dribbled around the plate so you could twirl your cake around in it.) The cake was quite dense, and tasted strongly of hazelnuts, the kumquats (an under used fruit in these parts) providing a tasty counterpoint, especially when dipped into the praline ice cream (which was a tad too melted, more like really softened gelato.) The whole thing was unusual and really good, even if it wasn’t what I had expected, and was lacking in frosting (sob.)

The Birthday Boy, with his usual sense of dessert loving excitement, decided on a cup of coffee to end his meal (yee haw, really let that hair down David!) IMG_1949We kept mentioning to the waitress that it was David’s birthday, in hopes Little Bird would take the iniative (like Andina did, giving me that beautiful birthday dessert on the house) and David even asked if he could have a candle in his cup of coffee, but Little Bird only took the bait in a minor fashion, bringing him a small chocolate cookie with a candle on top. Better than nothing though, and David didn’t really help his own cause by just ordering coffee. In true “I’m not a dessert person” fashion, however, David was still trying to share his 1.75″ cookie with the rest of the table, like an extra bite of cookie was going to do him in.

Although it’s a good enough restaurant, I’ve never been that inspired by the atmosphere in Le Pigeon, it’s cramped, a bit dark, sort of musty, and a bit on the ho-hum side for me. IMG_1946So aside from the fact that I never really enjoy looking at dead animal horns on the wall, I did find Little Bird a more attractive dining space, nice lively but soothing colors (Le Pigeon could really use some color besides bricks and cream) a more spacious bi-level eating area, interesting faux tin ceiling. The menu is larger too, which is nice. One interesting arrangement, from the street you can see inside the brightly lit kitchen space, which looks way too small and narrow, especially with everyone bustling around in the limited area (for now Gabriel Rucker is overseeing both restaurants, but Little Bird is actually Erik Van Klef’s “gig.”) This might be an area where Little Bird is less fun than Le Pigeon though, open kitchens can liven any dining experience, especially for people dining alone or in twos, interacting with the staff at places like Nuestra Cocina, Toro Bravo and Le Pigeon at their kitchen bars can be almost as enjoyable as the meal itself, and you actually might learn a sous trick or two along the way.

At least from our perspective this evening, the service at Little Bird was good too. The waitress was totally competent and relatively down to earth, and while Little Bird has a “hot new place” vibe going already, and the staff to match, the feeling at this point is still welcoming and not too intimidating for those of us over 35 who also lack tattoos and don’t look too great in those really skinny jeans. IMG_1957The food delivery was also well timed, except for the slightly delayed arrival of Sam’s dessert. All in all, we found Little Bird Bistro to be a fine restaurant, especially for one that had been publicly functioning for only nine days at the time of our visit. I mention all this with a grain of salt, however, because a new member to our group, who has not attended a dinner with us yet but by freakish coincidence happened to be dining at Little Bird with a group of four at exactly the same time our group was, emailed, telling me that their service was really slow, and three out of four entrees at their table were “stone cold.” Very disconcerting.  I told her that this was the complete opposite of our experience, and we agreed that our table must have gotten all the good service and hot food (Well, I should hope so.) Since everyone at our table was so happy, I can only attribute this to early day’s inconsistencies (or maybe the kitchen is really too small to pump out large amounts of food continuously?) A group of five should not overwhelm a restaurant this size, especially with one of Portland’s best regarded young chefs at the helm, so if they are having jitters and spurts, let’s hope they all get smoothed out soon, because this little birdie does have the potential to fly high.