The Rise of the Phoenix and the Return of the Honking Loon

IMG_2765As many people who follow Portland dining know, Aviary opened on NE Alberta early in 2011, most noteworthy because it featured the vision of not one, but three, classically trained French chefs from NYC, Kat Whitehead, Jasper Shen, and Sarah Pliner. When they first opened, a few people mentioned that the portions were relatively small and the prices were somewhat high, something that always scares me away, since if I’m going to plunk down $40-$50 for a decent meal, I want to be pleasantly full at the end. Shortly after, however, people started to rave about the quality of the French/Asian fusion cuisine being produced at Aviary, Food Dude at Portland Food and Drink being incredibly enthusiastic about the items he tried, and the Oregonian also adding a very favorable review. I still wasn’t too sure about adding it to the roster though, because as I’ve said time and time again, fusion and experimental cooking techniques are not my favorites (and I am the restaurant-deciding despot!!!)

It was very hard not to feel bad, however, when some bozo with July 4th fireworks caused major fire damage to the roof of their nice new building, putting Aviary and at least one other popular new business out of commission for at least a month or two (which turned into five months.) IMG_2776This is the same scenario that put an end to Sel Gris, but perhaps because their building was nice and new, or perhaps had better ownership, a new and improved Aviary did finally reopen a few months ago, after much support from various Portland restaurants (who let Aviary host pop-up dinners in their eateries to keep themselves viable during their long closure.) The new Aviary not only has their original modernist space, but now has an interesting, light filled bar area and a small private dining area beyond that (which so far opens out onto a field of unruly grass, but I’m sure they’ll do something nice with it eventually.)

Anyway, I have plenty of French food lovers in this group, and I’ve been reading even more positive comments on Aviary since they reopened in December, so when Tracy asked if I would consider doing a dinner there, lacking any other firm plan for the next dinner up, Aviary became the latest spin of the Restaurant Roulette wheel. As good/bad timing would have it, I also contracted a virus and sinus infection during this general time frame, so as my appetite was slightly off, I didn’t worry too much whether the portions at Aviary would fill my usual insatiable appetite!

 I’d read that the decor in Aviary was very stark and modern, but I liked the atmosphere, although I didn’t really spend enough time in the main dining area to get a complete feel of the place. IMG_2762I was told Glenda and David were in the bar, which is a new area that just opened New Years Eve, as well as the 16 seat private dining area beyond it. I read these two areas used to be part of an adjoining building, which was a church (???) but it’s hard to imagine this scenario without seeing the back of the building (as it happens, there was lots of street parking right in front of Aviary, a rare and wonderful occurrence in the Alberta Arts district, so I only saw the very modern front area. This building has a really nice courtyard area out in front, the original location for the now very famous Salt & Straw ice cream cart, and I’m sure Aviary has some primo summer dining outside when it’s warm (if such a crazy thing happens this year.)

I liked the bar area, because of all the warm, natural light, and it seemed like other people were enjoying it too, as I noticed several people at the big bench area along the wall that were there practically as long as we were, never an easy feat with the duration of some of our dinners.IMG_2775 The private dining area, mostly just wood and concrete with another long bench along the wall, was pretty simple, with just the glass door at the end and grass patch outside, but it was pleasant here, and good for our group (towards the beginning of the dinner David mentioned how much he liked the area.) A couple of days before the dinner Jasper Shen had called me and asked me if it was okay if he moved our group to the private room, as he thought it might be better for us from a noise standpoint, and although originally I had a bit of trepidation, I figured that on a Friday night it might help an up-and-coming restaurant to fit in as many patrons as they could, so I said okay. The only reason I was dubious is that I’ve heard some of the private rooms at Andina are quite lifeless, and when they moved us to the wine laden private room at Tabla many years ago, a couple of our group did noting but complain. This was fine though, especially on a rare sunny spring evening with the setting sun streaming in the glass door from the west. My only complaint, the music all night was too loud, and some sort of syrupy soft rock (this place could get away with Asian music, or experimental, or even classical.)

As I’ve mentioned countless times before, one of the hardest things for me is always figuring out reservation size at least 2 weeks in advance, when I start trying to get an appropriate table. IMG_2769Eight is typically a good size to begin with, but if a restaurant is usually packed, I know I better start high and work down, as I probably won’t be able to expand my body count. Although I was pretty sure people on a tight budget would not be doing Aviary, I was confident I would manage at least six, so left breathing room and made a reservation for ten. This worked out just perfect, as the three Halle’s RSVPed before the cut-off and filled the table. Unfortunately, one of our esteemed regulars, Cora, who I know would have loved Aviary, was on an emergency trip to Boston, or I probably would have managed Eleven. This would have been fine though, as the table here holds 16. I also sighed with great relief when I saw the big bench along the wall, because unlike the stool balancing, floor tossing act that we had to perform at Via Tribunali, we would actually have a place to lay our belongings (in my case 2 dozen eggs.)

We also had a new face at this dinner, Sylvie, who with her husband Harvey has tried to attend several dinners, things never working out at the end. Harvey was out of town, but Sylvie decided to plunge in without him, as her friends Tracy and Peter were joining us.IMG_2754 Although we had a nice large table to work with this night, there seemed to be much uncertainty about who should sit where. It worked out relatively well, however, as Sylvie, originally from France, ended up sitting next to Glenda, major Francophile, but she was still within earshod of John Halle, raised in Switzerland, an area she had a reasonable familiarity with as well. So there was much European chit chat this dinner. The two attendees who had not been to Europe yet, Liz and David, talked about escaping there together, me pointing out that they could go undercover as a father and daughter act, fooling everyone in the process.

Anyway, it was great having Sylvie join us, as she knows lots about food and appreciates good restaurants, and I didn’t quite feel as bad hacking and gulping my way through every conversation with her, since it turns out she had earlier been sick for many months with a respiratory issue, and had learned a great deal herself about trying to carry on every conversation through a screen of coughing and gasping.

I was impressed by the waitress not long after we arrived, friendly, informative, and providing good service throughout the evening. She even got bonus points for asking me about our group, which I could only expound upon in a minor way, between coughing fits and nose blows.IMG_2758 I was a bit surprised at the end of the meal, however, to discover that when she asked us how many ways we would like our check split, and we replied that we would all like separate checks except for the couple and family, it turned out she had to do this all manually, both writing out the checks and doing the math, as she didn’t have a fancy computer entry system like all the other restaurants who volunteer to split your check as many ways as you want it. This made me feel really bad for her, what a lot of work when you are also trying to wait tables, and the fact that the bills took a long time to come and had a couple of minor errors seemed totally forgivable.

I had remembered seeing an earlier glowing review of Aviary somewhere, which I thought was on the Portland Food and Drink blog, so I decided to look at some archives to see what his comments had been as far as what was good before I came, as the menu can come off as a bit alien in these fusion sort of places, especially those with an Asian influence.IMG_2755 Food Dude actually mentioned lots of foods that weren’t on the online menu, so I thought there might be lots of specials every evening, but it turns out the menu this evening was just as posted on Aviary’s website. One thing Mr. Dude had mentioned was how delicious the simple complimentary plate of bread with anchovy butter was, so I looked forward to this, as I look forward to this in any restaurant that gives you bread, or even offers to let you buy inexpensive bread.

It probably says sad things about my palate (or maybe it’s just an indication that my sense of taste was wonked this dinner) but this bread with melted anchovy butter was probably my favorite thing at the table this night, so rich and yummy. Often, anchovy anything is too salty, but this seemed just right, so tasty, and had the couple of people who asked for regular butter not known it contained anchovy, I have the feeling they would have adored it too (the dreaded anchovy stigma!) The bread was also really good, so I would give the complimentary bread plate a 20 thumbs up.

As I mentioned slightly above, the menus at some of these fusion places can be a tad alien and off-putting. To give you an idea, here is the Aviary menu.IMG_2756 I must say that although many of the ingredients are very unfamiliar, and even in many cases made up, at least French and Asian ingredients work in harmony relatively well together, not like those places that try to mix Chinese and Mexican or Italian and Vietnamese to come up with scary Frankensteins of the food world, things I don’t want to touch with a 10 foot pole. Some foods are not meant to work in taste conjunction with each other (for example, liver-covered bananas, or salmon with a chocolate glaze.) Here’s the menu, with the things I know we ordered highlighted.

Kusshi Oysters – tomato granite and horseradish – $11

Ox Tail Croquettes – tomato jam – $9

Spiced Duck Leg and Broth – slow poached egg, daikon and dates, brioche persillade – $9

Chestnut Soup – creme fraiche, brussels sprouts, bottarge – $9

Fried Chicken Skin Salad – watermelon, bitter greens, baba ganoush – $8

Hamachi Tartare – scallion, fuji apple, mentalko – $13

Muscovy Duck Roulade – persimmon, watercress, lime pickle vinaigrette – $13

Tempura Pumpkin – red curry, scallions, thai basil – $8

Zucchini Charlotte – green beans, oil-cured olives, smoked tomato consomme – $9

Smoked Artichoke – quinoa creme fraiche, radishes, grapes – $10

Sea Scallops – kabocha squash, asian pear, nori, buerre noisette – $16

Pan Seared Salmon – fennel, blood orange, beluga lentils, sea urchin butter – $15

NY Strip Steak – serrano ham, bone marrow emulsion, olive jus, onion rings – 16

Four Cup Chicken – taro root, dried apricot and truffle, wood ear mushrooms – $12

Crispy Pig Ear – coconut rice, Chinese sausage, avocado – $12

Hoisin Glazed Short Rib – farro and turnips, yuza pickles – $14

I guess I’m just a food goober, but I didn’t know what a brioche persillade, bottage, mentalko, or a buerre noisette was, and I cannot tell a beluga lentil from the lower income lentils you find in the bulk bin at Winco. I don’t think I was the only one though, David had told me before the dinner that although he thought the menu was interesting, he didn’t have any idea what he would order. I told him I was probably going to play it safe and have the steak, and in the end we ended up having the same two items, the raw tuna and the steak, although neither of us knew this until our food arrived.

I was trying not to do much sharing this evening, because although I had been sick long enough that I was relatively confident I wasn’t contagious, who really wants to share too much with someone oozing illness? IMG_2753This being Restaurant Roulette though, full of generous people, I did have some slurps and tastes (a slurp of Melissa’s drink, which was a bit on the furniture polish side, a bite of chicken skin salad – yum, fried chicken skin! , maybe some scallop,  some of the crispy pig ear, which John shared with all takers, and a bite of Liz’s dessert.) Most of the food was really rich and flavorful, so if you got one of the smaller plates (those things above the scallops) and one of the more substantial things, that was probably enough food for the average appetite, especially if you had some dessert and grabbed all the free pieces from the bread plate that you reasonably could.

Here’s bits and pieces of what I remember through by infected brain (brain, sinus, whatever.) The Hamachi Tartare recipe was very unusual for a fish tartare presentation, as the tuna was all hacked up into little pieces and sort of molded with the other ingredients. IMG_2771I’ve now had mentalko, but I still don’t know what it is or what it tasted like (Rather weirdly, even the almightly Google can’t give info, it just mentions a Japanese restaurant in So.CA that serves Japanese delicacies. I sure hope it’s not a sumo wrestler’s ingrown toenail pureed, or something like that.) I didn’t notice the scallions, which are generally hard to miss, but the whole thing struck me as very genteel tasting for a raw fish concoction. I guess David liked his, I think the right side of my head was rather deceased this evening, so I didn’t hear too many of his remarks, although I know that Tracy said his onion rings were a substandard size to the ones both she and I later were delivered (seems fair to me.)

Glenda’s Ox Tail Croquettes were rather orange looking (yes, next time she should wear less revealing clothing and not eat so many carrots before the dinner) all crispy and rather golden (golden orange, not golden brown) and she made her happy noise a lot and gobbled them up. IMG_2760I think they are supposed to be one of the tastiest things on Aviary’s menu. Glenda also had the Pan Seared Salmon with the fennel, blood orange, beluga lentils, and sea urchin butter, a combo that strikes me as “SO Aviary.” Although not a gigantic amount of fish, totally adequate after having a mess of fried bull tails before, and I could not help but notice that Aviary did a fine job on Glenda’s request to make her salmon on the “rare side” (it was still translucent in the middle.) I didn’t hear what Glenda thought of her salmon over all my coughing and nose blowing, but I think she really enjoyed Aviary, although maybe this was just because she was sitting next to a genuine French person all night.

IMG_2763When Peter’s Zucchini Charlotte arrived everyone said “ooh, what’s that?”, as it was another pretty molded dish, and very green. I didn’t hear what he thought of it, but it seemed like he liked Aviary quite a bit, and since it was pretty, does it really matter what it tasted like? He also had the Chestnut Soup, which was very striking, as it was very creamy and had a handful of something dark thrown in the bowl (it looked like acorns, but perhaps it was roasted chestnuts or really browned brussel sprouts.) Actually, reading this over, it reminds me that I did ask what Bottarge was, and was told it was a sort of fish roe, although it looks like the common name is Bottarga. Peter was delighted with the Chestnut Soup, as he said it was incredibly silky,  rich and wonderful.

Sylvie started off with the Sea Scallops, which were very pretty as well, and she enjoyed the fusion of flavors. She later had the Spiced Duck Leg and Broth, which came with a perfectly poached egg, which was a hen egg, not an Ostrich egg (that would really give you your money’s worth, and fill you up for a week.)IMG_2772I wonder why restaurants here don’t serve big honkin’ ostrich eggs (maybe because of the abundance of ostriches around here?) Have one of those babies and a side of bacon (maybe a side of wild boar?) and you would not need another meal for the foreseeable future. We need an African Safari restaurant that serves this kind of food, rather than just featuring it on the wall. Just joshing, I like my safari animals running around on the savannah, not on my plate. I barely go beyond moo, piggie, and cluck cluck, and even those make me feel evil. Ostrich eggs would be okay though, those are just eggs.

IMG_2761Leaving my weird wildlife mental escapades aside, and getting back to the Aviary dinner (must I) Sylvie said the Spiced Duck Leg, broth, and egg were incredibly wonderful, such great flavors, and although it was amongst the smaller items on the menu, it was incredibly filling (probably the rich broth) and she was totally stuffed after the scallops and the duck leg. I think I might be confused though, as viewing the picture sequence it looks like she had the duck leg then the scallops.

I sat next to Barbara Halle, and close to Melissa, but I really have no idea what their group ordered, except for John’s Crispy Pig Ear (okay, I could make a joke about John’s Crispy Pig Ear ala Glenda’s Oxtail Croquettes, but that family is full of high powered attorneys, and I don’t want to get sued.) The Crispy Pig Ear had an amazing range of unusual flavors though, and Barbara said she liked the contrast between everything and the flavor of the rice below. It could be that the Halle’s had the Smoked Artichoke, as Melissa tends to prefer the formerly growing to the formerly living. (No Safari dinner for her.)

Liz had an interesting combo, starting with the Fried Chicken Skin Salad  with watermelon, bitter greens, baba ganoush and finishing with the Hoisin Glazed Short Rib with farro, turnips and yuza pickles.IMG_2768 I did have a bit of the Fried Chicken Skin Salad , heavy on chicken skin, light on everything else (I didn’t notice the watermelon or baba ganoush, which might have been a good thing, as the combo does not sound completely appealing) but I must applaud a classy place like Aviary for putting a weird thing like fried chicken skin in a salad, of all things (let’s see how we can wreck the healthiness of salad!) Actually, although Tracy was gungho for Aviary, she even seemed a bit baffled by the rather obscure menu, as I heard he say that she really wanted to start with a salad, but the only one Aviary had to offer came with fried chicken skin. (In lieu of salad, Tracy might have had a starter, but I don’t remember what it was. Maybe she and Peter shared.)

IMG_2770Anyway, getting back to Liz, who put up with tons of my hacking all night, as she was seated to my right, I didn’t hear her talk too much about her food, except for her dessert, but it seemed like the Short Rib might have been on the small side (it might have literally been one short rib) but I guess if you start out with a chicken skin salad (although she did lots of sharing) you might get by with just one rich rib (hoisin is usually pretty intense.) She also gave Melissa a little plate of her yuza pickles, remembering Melissa likes to pucker (hey, she’s an accountant, not a lawyer, I feel slightly safer.)

As I already mentioned, David and I had the NY Strip Steak, and Tracy did too. When I think of NY Strip, I always think of a strip of meat not too thick and about 4 inches wide, but both Oba! and Aviary serve NY Strip as slices off a larger hunk of meat, the difference being at Oba! the NY was not overly chewable but came as four pieces, and here you only got two pieces, but it was tender.IMG_2774 The actual menu description is NY Strip Steak – serrano ham, bone marrow emulsion, olive jus, onion rings. I don’t know where the serrano ham was supposed to come in (do you really need ham with steak?) and I assume the bone marrow emulsion was on the top, but it all just tasted like beef to me. I thought it was kind of peculiar that Aviary would serve onion rings, not especially French or Asian, and I expected some weird aberration on onion rings, but they were just normal onion rings, and really crispy and brown to boot. Actually, Aviary is very shrewd to serve onion rings with their steak (there were three decent sized onion rings) as what is really more filling than an onion ring? That way you can serve three onion rings and two pieces of steak, and it’s plenty. I’m not a person who goes overboard for onion rings, but they were really good, and I ate every bite of them, and thought the steak was decent too (as we all know by now, I’ve had my share of steak, and it has to be really outstanding to blow my whistle.)

Naturally there were several interesting desserts, including an intense chocolate cake, a gooey looking stout cake, the lemon tart, which both Barbara and I ordered, and a panna cotta, which was butter-something (I think it was buttermilk, but there’s a small chance it was butterscotch.IMG_2783) Liz had the panna cotta and wanted to share it with everyone, but something in my somewhat challenged tastebuds was not in tune with this dessert this night, and I was glad I only had one bite. Barbara and I both agreed the lemon tart was really tasty (they were nice individual tartlets) particularly the light, rich, and buttery pastry shell.

The Halle family, always people on the go (basically I’m a person on the stop) were the first to attempt to leave the dinner, and got a couple of the first round of hand-done checks. Even though this was true, they lingered a bit, as Melissa had heard or read somewhere that Aviary gave its guests fresh little cookies to take home (man, if I had known this, we all know I would have had a dinner here much sooner!) IMG_2781They finally gave up and left, and then the cookies arrived! (Maybe the poor girl adding up the checks was baking the cookies too.) Anyway, they were prettily wrapped little ginger cakes, in cellophane and ribbon, and although I am not the world’s biggest ginger fan, when I had mine for breakfast the next day I thought, wow, delicious. I think I enjoyed it more than the average ginger cookie because it was soft. Why do ginger cookies tend to be so hard and snappy all the time???

Earlier this year I read an interview with the three Aviary chefs (see, I am a foodie, I actually read things like this!) where they were being interviewed and discussed subjects like what it was like to be in business one year in (they stressed the fact that because of their five month long “accidental closure” they have really only been operating for closer to half a year.) IMG_2777They talked about the fact that they are still fighting the perception that Aviary is a fancy, trendy eatery and that they are three high-end food snobs. I admit, when I originally read about the development of Aviary and the three classically trained New York chefs, each with their own vision, opening a Portland restaurant with small plates of fancily crafted food, I wasn’t exactly doing handstands and trying to figure out how fast I could get there. It sounded rather pretentious and intimidating, and I’m really not overly thrilled by really fancy places with really fussy food (does anyone even remember Lucier like two years later? I never even wanted to go there.) Anyway, according to the Aviary interview and Jasper Shen, they are just normal folk who never go anywhere, and who sit around at home in their underwear swilling cheap beer in front of the TV (okay, that was him, not the girls.)

I know when I originally called Aviary to find out how well our group would work there, I talked to Kat Whitehead, and she seemed really nice and informative, and was happy that our group wanted to check them out (I’ll never get over that time I called June and was told they had no interest in, or room for, our group.Pfeeeew!) IMG_2759I also talked to Jasper on the phone a couple of times about the reservation, and I saw him buzzing around the restaurant and our table lots the evening we were there, so it does seem like the Aviary chefs take a very hands on approach and want to make sure things go well for their patrons. My observation was that everyone in our group enjoyed Aviary, and while the menu isn’t exactly run of the mill or comfort food, there are adventurous combinations and intriguing flavors to be had there, and if you don’t get too carried away, it isn’t distressingly expensive. (Incidently, although I didn’t mention this previously, they also had a really interesting specialty drink list with wonderful names and inventive cocktails. Mine was some sort of gin and tonic with tarragon, which I selected because I wanted to save money and it only cost $7. I admit, I took a big slurp and said, eeew, this tastes like cough medicine, but this could have been because the last thing I consumed, about 20 minutes before, was a mouthful of cough syrup. Less ill types gave their drinks better reviews.)

Anyway, the Honking Loon in the title refers to me, and the fact that I think this is about my third RR dinner where I’ve had some major respiratory virus and spent all night coughing and gasping through conversation (the other two were Andina, on my birthday a couple BDs ago, and Gilda’s, which I think was early last spring.) IMG_2766Considering this group will have been around six years this July, and that for the first couple of years the dinners were every two weeks (compared to the current every three weeks) and the fact that I’ve attended every dinner, I guess this means my sickie record isn’t too bad. Sadly, when I get one of these viri, I’m always sick a minimum of three weeks, so if I’ve had one of these things, I’ve certainly shared it with my group (although it’s always when I’ve been sick long enough that I’m non-contagious, so I don’t share the illness part, only the enchanting after effects. )

IMG_2784If you want an evening of really interesting food, sincere service, and pleasant atmosphere check out Aviary. You might not know exactly what it is you are eating, but chances are, whatever it’s combined with was well thought out, and it  will likely be a food fusion you will never taste again (okay, maybe not steak and onion rings, but most of the rest of the menu.) Unless of course you become an Aviary regular, in which case Fried Chicken Skin Salad  with watermelon, bitter greens, and baba ganoush could become old hat for you (and you might be some kind of weirdo.)