Why Le Pigeon Is My Favorite Asian Fusion Restaurant

au·dac·i·ty

ôˈdasədē/
noun
  1. the willingness to take bold risks.
  2. rude or disrespectful behavior; impudence.

On the corner of E Burnside and SE 8th Ave in Portland, Oregon, the city’s most lauded restaurant is producing interesting, inventive and delicious dishes.  While Le Pigeon has a pseudo-French name (the le is French, the pigeon is English) and features French techniques, it’s definitely not strictly bound by French ingredients.  Although it’s not known for it, the items on the menu using ingredients like shizo, yuzu, and fish sauce are so unique and well-executed, I believe it’s the best Asian fusion restaurant in town.  Hopefully, this statement is not seen as a diss on Departure or Wares (and its lovely kale), both of which deserve our love and admiration.

 

The Staples

Le Pigeon has a few dishes that never leave its menu.  While they don’t fall into the category I’m examining in this post, I briefly want to highlight these outstanding items one should definitely try at some point:

Butter Lettuce: Served with blue cheese, chives, and radishes, this salad is a solid choice to start your meal.

Beef Cheek Bourguignon: Seasonally tweaked, this classic French dish swaps chuck with beef cheeks, which really push its richness into another stratosphere.

Burger: Willamette Week proclaimed the LP burger (with Tillamook extra sharp white cheddar, crisp iceberg lettuce, pickled and grilled onions on ciabatta) one of the 12 Wonders of Portland Food, with good reason.  It’s undeniably delicious.

Foie Gras Profiteroles: The real reason I am still talking about these dishes is the profiteroles.  Pastry dough that uses foie gras butter, foie gras ice cream, foie gras caramel, and foie gras powdered sugar has me literally licking the plate at the end of the meal.  This is not a fabrication, and no, I’m not ashamed.  It’s my favorite dessert of all time.

The Audacity

The willingness to take risks is the hallmark of chef Gabriel Rucker’s cuisine.  On a visit to the restaurant last fall, a friend and I had the opportunity to sit next to the Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern.  We happened to enjoy Tom Kha Foie Gras, easily one of the most interesting things I’ve ever tasted, and I remarked to Mr. Zimmern, “Who does this?!”  AZ replied, “Gabriel Rucker does!  That’s who.”  It’s hard for me to argue with that.  Combining the richness of seared fatty duck liver, sourness and umami of tom kha broth, and the sweetness and acidity of a tropical salad, it had both me and a famous tv travel host absolutely floored.  That dish exposed both risk-taking and a blatant disrespect for staying within any boundaries.  This is when I decided to use the word “audacity” to describe Mr. Rucker.

Recent Menu Items

In our last couple of visits, we found a few dishes on the menu that took a lot of inspiration from the East.  Here are a few that we had the opportunity to enjoy:

 

Teriyaki Salmon Pie, maple bacon creamed seaweed avocado, furikake, toasted rice ice cream, teriyaki caramel

Adding avocado, radish, seaweed and sesame seeds to an elevated savory meat pie a la mode, and topping it with teriyaki as a caramel sauce is not only genius, it was easily one of the most delicious things we’ve tasted in recent memory.

 

Foie Gras Wonton Soup, ginger-duck consommé, pork, pigeon & foie wonton, seared foie gras, enoki mushroom

If one were to imagine what a Le Pigeon wonton soup would be, this would be it.  Foie gras and pigeon are two of the most commonly used ingredients at the restaurant.  The consommé, ginger-flavored duck broth was the perfect pairing for these extremely flavorful dumplings.

 

General Tso’s Short Rib Rigatoni, cilantro pesto, toasted peanut

General Tso’s chicken is famously not Chinese but mostly American.  The playfulness of using this Asian-American sweet and savory sauce with a substantial meat like short rib and pouring that over pasta was so much fun.  The best part is when sauce, meat, and peanuts gather inside the rigatoni creating the accidentally on-purpose perfect bite.

 

Rack of Lamb, fish sauce glazed lamb belly, cucumber, cara cara orange, lime raita, Vietnamese harissa

No doubt drawing influence from Southeast Portland’s Vietnamese community, the sturdiness of lamb stands up easily to the strength of fish sauce, but it also paired with citrus.

 

Total Recall Noodlesdry ramen, dungeness crab, chili garlic, sweet soy, fried shrimp

This dish is a callback to the chef’s childhood.  Recalling a particularly memorable meal his father prepared: “I can’t exactly put my finger on it, but I remember he fired up jumbo, breaded prawns and made a sweet, glazed, stir-fried concoction using Top Ramen. At age 9, it was the best thing I’d ever eaten.”

 

Many of these dishes sound ridiculous, but the knack for bending genres displays both daring and a very high level of skill.  The balance of savory, sweet, spicy, and acidic flavors is so well executed, one often wonders why these ingredients aren’t put together more frequently.

 

Notes from the Cookbook

Released in 2013, a handful of recipes from the Le Pigeon cookbook also show Asian influence:

BBQ beef tongue, fried rice – In the blurb before the recipe, it says, “we’re so smitten with [Asian] influence in our dishes that we actually plan to decorate the whole restaurant as a Chinese food joint called the Broccoli Knuckle and create a new menu, complete with dishes like this one right here.”  I wonder if this ever happened!

Pheasant, shiitake, umami, mizuna – Shiitake mushrooms, soy sauce, fish sauce, and sriracha are among the ingredients that make up an umami bomb dressing used to season pheasant.

Geoduck, portobello, yuzu – This large Pacific Northwest mollusk is blanched then treated with white soy sauce, Japanese yuzu lemon juice, fish sauce, and sriracha.

Hanger, broccolini, oyster mayo – This is sort of a play on broccoli and beef.  A hanger steak marinated with soy, fish sauce, sriracha, ginger and garlic served with roasted broccolini and fried oysters.

 

Truly American Cuisine

I’m fully aware that Le Pigeon is not an Asian fusion restaurant, but despite being considered “French-inspired”, I believe it’s uniquely American because of Gabriel Rucker’s ability to blend a full array of flavors representing the melting pot of the United States.  Perhaps that’s why his food speaks so loudly to me (a California-native, Oregon transplant of Chinese heritage with a Central Texas Barbecue obsession).  Certainly, he’s willing to take risks, but he has absolutely no regard for staying within cultural culinary boundaries.  

Oh, the audacity!


 


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