I hate going out to dinner in this town. Rarely am I surprised or even incredibly impressed. More often than not, I get let down. I had a rule for a while wherein there were only about six “fancy” restaurants that we were allowed to eat at. I won’t mention what they were.
But then one of them let me down terribly. I had taken a bunch of cooks there for dinner and everything was sub-par, but I gave it another chance. This time I wasn’t with restaurant people and that was, in some ways, worse. Worse because they weren’t tasting the mistakes and foibles of execution and recognizing exactly what went wrong where, they were simply underwhelmed. Especially because the chef in question has gotten so much press. I think Food and Wine called him, “The Prince of Modern Gastronomy” and the New York Times raved, “The Prometheus of Portland”. I think they overstated the case.
To be perfectly fair I had only eaten at Le Pigeon once before and the food was good. The atmosphere was good too. So it really had no place in my little canon. But I really believed in the place for its seeming lack of pretension and its willingness to experiment. We had a linguine with pickled pig’s ears and I appreciated the playfulness. This time the menu seemed a little more straightforward, but there were some things that grabbed my attention.
So we started with a grilled romaine salad with salt cod, pine nuts and sherry vinegar marinated red onions. This would have been great, the lettuce was nicely grilled, the pine nuts well toasted, the onions sweet and tart (although I didn’t really get the sherry, maybe too much sugar?), and the salt cod nonexistent. I literally don’t think there was any salt cod. But there were other things on the table and I got too caught up in the moment to think to send it back. Who needs salt cod when you have sweetbreads and lamb trio?
The sweetbreads were great. Fried crisp and served up with quartered, slightly sauteéd grapes, some pancetta, a little friseé and red onion salad and some nice big slices of Oregon black truffle. I only wished it were bigger. But good critics don’t complain about portion sizes, so I won’t here either. I just miss the way it was in Donostia in Spain, where sweetbreads came sliced thin, fried crisp, and piled high on a grease-paper lined basket with lemon and aioli. That’s living.
The lamb was where things really started to go downhill for me. The dish was advertised as ribs, belly and tongue. The ribs were dry and over-salted, not to mention bland. The belly came in the form of rillete, which was also over-seasoned yet bland, not to mention fatty even by the standards of belly rillete. And the tongue, which drew my eye to the dish in the first place, failed to satisfy not only on the above scores (bland, salty,) but also by virtue of it’s long experience as a disembodied organ. Offal can be cured or pickled and be great, this was neither. Maybe somebody forgot the pink salt.
For dinner I got braised pork (shoulder, jowl?) served atop a mound of excellent polenta, coated with sauce naturelle and covered with a nice flurry of Parmegiano. The pork was burnt. Not over-carmelized. It wasn’t just the fond. The meat itself was bitter as a coffee bean with that aroma that comes if you’ve ever tried to toast a tortilla on an electric burner. I couldn’t finish it, and I was hungry. So I moved over to Leona’s plate, rabbit with English peas, pancetta and Raclette.
This one was pretty good. The peas were delicious. Who doesn’t like Raclette? Pancetta is a food group in my house (or it would be if anybody in this town would proffer a decent log, besides Todd, who doesn’t make enough). The rabbit itself was a little, je ne sais quoi; plain, dry? But after my encounter with the pork, Leona was lucky I left the bones. Sauce would have helped this one, the Raclette was unfortunately just a semi-melted chunk in the bottom of the earthenware dish. But the aesthetic was true, a rustic ensemble of simple, hearty lapin garni.
We had some great wines including a Refosco from Vigne de Zamo, 2006 I think. The price, $40.00, not too bad. This one was a little dense and chewy but still with those nice refined Italian tannins that make it go so well with food or, for that matter, drunken revelry.
I don’t want to say that I don’t recommend this restaurant. The atmosphere is nice, the prices right, and the food playful and sometimes spot on. I just hate having my expectations shattered. It was probably just an off night. But I figure, if you got your picture on the cover of Food and Wine, the food should blow little-old-me away on a balls-to-the-wall shit night with no dishwasher and a new pantry cook.