Tuesday, August 20, 2013


Gabriel Rucker isn't in the kitchen tonight.  And he wasn't at Little Bird when I was there, either, just a couple months ago.  But not to worry: this was simply unfortunate timing on my part, because when he's not at one, he's prepping at the other.  Plus, his capable squadron at either/or are keeping things quite up to snuff.  Rucker runs a tight operation- not only in terms of food quality, but the quarters are pretty tight, as well.  Every team member announces "Corner!" as they swing to and from the kitchen and into the dining room. Ironically, that of Le Pigeon (the big sister of the two) is comparatively smaller, size-wise, though somewhat pricer, and allegedly more formal.  Both feel typical Portland, however, in the best possible way.  They've mismatched china and silverware,  unclothed communal tables and the eclectic, rustic paraphernalia scattered throughout.  Here continues the
Portlandia-esque avian them, of course.  And formality is the farthest thing from the mind.  As a couple of abandoned bottles on an upturned
wine barrel outside illustrate, Le Pigeon is as ideal for a late afternoon beer with a friend as it is for a destination repast.
Service, too, can be a little lackadaisical, although extremely accommodating (when they get to you) and then welcoming, affable and genuine.  There may have been lapses between courses and delays even to receive our menus at all, but such nitpicking feels like dissing a friend who arrives five minutes late to a picnic.

Butter Lettuce with Blue Cheese, Radish and Chive
The menu descriptions don't always convey the most precise account of what will arrive on your plate, but so the element of surprise (one of the greatest aspects of restaurant dining) remains intact.  And wise you are to trust Rucker with his food, as we experienced nary a misstep, even without his immediate oversight in the kitchen.  Remembering the great, bountiful butter leaf salad from Little Bird, we ordered the Le Pigeon version, featuring a robust blue cheese buttermilk dressing, translucent discs of radish and a scattering of fresh, zippy minced chives.  A panzanella salad was more esoteric- virtually a study of its elements: a prawn; slices of chorizo; a crouton; sweet, tart wedges of plum, plated strategically
Spot Prawn and Chorizo Panzanella
Paris Mushroom Carpaccio
aside a thick smudge of a piquant puree.  Similarly elegant was the Paris mushroom carpaccio.   I'm not sure why it was called this, but it lived up to its glamorous, Francophilic nomenclature.  Slippery thin discs of raw oyster mushroom spanned the plate beneath a melange of fat chunks of lobster meat, juicy tidbits of orange, and plump corn kernels, all swathed in a rich, nutty flurry of shaved fois gras, and topped playfully with crunchy, savory spiced popped corn.  It was like a delicious mash-up of Ecuadorian ceviche surf 'n turf, deconstructed, and laid out flat.  I didn't know quite what to expect when I ordered it, but I sure was happy in the end that I did.

For entrees, a simple gnocchi celebrated peak-season cherry tomatoes in gold and ruby, nuzzling tender pillows of the potato dumpling under a frilly veil of queso garroxta.  It simply sang of summer.  With Portland summers, however, you can get away with, like we did,  a rich beef stew in the thick of August, with temperatures that were topping out at a crisp, comfortable eighty degrees.  That said, this dish could shine even more brightly come mid-November, when tender, slow-braised beef cheeks melting into salty, buttery mashed potatoes would cut through even the dankest rainy Oregon chill.  There are no side dishes to order, but this Bourgignon is accompanied with a little bonus crock of baked carrots, cooked to retain a bit of bite at their core, with a sprightly garnish of fresh parsley.
Beef Cheeks Bourgignon
The menu makes no note of this, but it's an appreciated addition.  The only other thing not described on the menu is the daily fish, but I'm voraciously glad I made that inquiry.  With this, I lost all regret for showing up on the one day Rucker does not (Wednesdays he's at Little Bird), because had I awaited his presence, I might have missed the sturgeon special, which was easily the night's standout dish.  A lustrous, meaty cut sauteed bronze and slathered in a decadent slurry of mushroom duxelles, hunkered on a plate bedazzled with plump blueberries, warm like pie.  They glistened like beads of onyx in an intense, soulful beef jus studded with tiny cipollini onions.  
Sturgeon with Blueberries and Beef Jus
 Hulking cross-sections of chewy, caramelized garlic were profoundly crisp-edged, and ate like thick-cut home fries: an umami triumph.  That plate got licked clean like nobody's business, and maybe had a little influence in our decision to bypass dessert.  But moreso, with a font of seasonal Pacific Northwest seasonal fruit literally dropping from the trees and vines, dessert options tended chocolatey and cakey, which is less my style.  Even a plum tart boasted a chocolate crust.  Although as we rose to leave, I noted the quaint little shot glass of espresso creme brulee and regretted my decision to abstain: with such diminutive portions I could've handled-nay, even reveled in, some chocolate.  But fois gras profiteroles would have had to have been guinea-pigged before I would've ordered it.  Aside from having topped out my fois quotient with the carpaccio, on an exquisite summer night, it just seemed excessive- but gauging from the flawless execution of everything else, something tells me, counterintuitively, that these too would have worked.  Instead, a final swig of our fine Greco di Tufo sufficed to finish our meal (and this was hard-sought after bottle, as the wine list tends towards the pricey side and our brilliantly gracious waitress babysat us through a painfully extended hem-hawing to arrive upon it).  

In a recent interview bu the Portland Tribune, Rucker was asked about expanding, given the vigorous success of both his restaurants.  His response was such a rarity in today's star chef-driven world:  "There's always this need in this business for people to open more, open more. Then you stretch yourself too thin. I already feel like I’m stretched too thin, doing what I’m doing. ... Portland already has enough restaurants, why not make the ones we have as good as we can?"  Which is precisely what Rucker has done.  Now if only I could manage a reservation that coincides with his schedule, so I could tell him so in person.  

 738 E Burnside St
(503) 546 - 8796

Saturday, August 3, 2013


Betony is a beautiful restaurant.  It is an unlikely oasis for this stretch of midtown, where reputable dining destinations are few and far between.  The address used to be Pushkin, a spinoff of the Muscovite original and decorated with a typical Russian decadence and flair.  Betony retains the gorgeous fundamentals of its predecessor, trimming the excess and spiffing them up, offering a New American menu full of locavore whimsy.  The high-ceilinged room looks like a cross between a cathedral and a barn, and the sophisticated elegance of the
former and the soulful rusticity of the latter are also evident in the menu.  It is named after the botanical betony, a flowering herb that claims healing properties, and it also folklorically purported to fend of evil spirits and bad luck.  Fortunately, any demons jinxing the location seemed to have picked up and run when Eleven Madison alums Eamon Rockey and Executive Chef Bryce Shuman took over, and thus Betony itself is up and running, too, but in a graceful, eloquent cadence.

Fine dining this is, inarguably, but there is a relaxed conviviality here.  The cuisine makes good use of modern tweaks and techniques, but the heart of the food lies in impeccable ingredients and an artful composition of ingredients.   We began with a generous bowl of tempura fried pickled peppers (I'm not how much a peck is, but there were a LOT of peppers here) with an unctuous yogurt dip flavored with cucumber
and fennel.  The first section of the menu from which these came is designated finger food, but these crispy little morsels will demand a lot from napkin, given their greasiness.  A tasty greasiness it is, but messy without utensils, and a little voluminous for my appetite.   Even sharing, this dish could be halved.  I wonder if chef Shuman must have some nostalgic reason for these, because they don't quite seem in keeping with the sophistication of the rest of the menu.  Which works for me, since one each a red and green pepper were enough, and I was happy getting to
subsequent courses.   In perfect proportion, contrarily, are delicate sandwich-ettes of crushed zucchini, balancing precariously on the edges of their crisp gruyere wafers.  The shredded squash is dense and salty, tinged with mint, and makes for impeccable little mouthfuls.   Similarly, diaphanous puffed rice crackers (horizontal, these) cup a dollop of creamy yogurt underneath a tiny curlicue of cucumber and a dab of mild trout roe,  sporting jaunty sprigs of fennel like Yankee Doodle's feather.

A small palais nettoyant arrived in a shallow earthenware bowl, remarkably potent for its diminutive size.  Fresh, crisp orbs of watermelon float within a clear puddle of gelatinous cucumber, saline enough to keep things savory but with a fresh, aqueous sweetness perfect to prepare the palate for courses ahead.

Cucumber salad before......
.....and during.
These that followed were similarly cool and light: a cucumber salad began simply as thin ribbons of myriad varietals of cuke, furled into a mounded labyrinth.  But here was a glimmer of that transformative alchemny, as a flurry of buttermilk "snow" was sprinkled atop tableside, creating a wispy fog that dissolved into a pearly glaze, the infused caraway contributing a pickly flavor more than the nutty rye of the seed itself.  A lilliputian pickled cucumber from Farmer Lee Jones himself garnishes the plate: Betony celebrates the immaculate quality of his precious produce as well as anyone possibly could.

A grain salad might have toed the line of hippie food with its bountiful flourish of sprouts, were it not for a luxuriously rich and creamy labne that rendered intensely flavorful barley and groats to come together tasting emphatically more decadent than its prudish ingredients might
insinuate. The opposite effect came into play with the potato gnocchi, a dish normally tending towards to heavy side, but these pillowy dumplings were light as clouds, pooled in a thin, summery corn puree studded with fat kernels, tiny
 plugs of baby corn chopped through the cob, and

 thin slips of the same sliced lengthwise.  Sprigs of succulent purslane decorated the dish, adding freshness and fancy, and flecks of chili powder added just a kiss of heat.  

An entree of poached black bass arrived skin-on, it silvery scales edged in black made me wish you could use fish skin for boots.  Its flesh was just as luxurious, mild and tender as it sloped into a pool infused with tomatillos, bedecked with gossamer sliced of summer squash, and one, fat roasted plank that tasted as nutty as the toasted pignoli suspended in the broth.    The roasted chicken, the test of a true chef, boasted that rich, pure flavor one strives for in such a simple dish, paired with humble turnips and fancy chanterelles in lashings of savory gravy I wish they could
 bottle and sell by the quart.   The chicken comes with a bonus side- hearty farrow with shredded dandelion greens and confit breast meat, a silky quail egg oozing to anoint the grains, warm and nourishing as a grandma's hug. 

Another palate cleanser is bequeathed, this one even more wonderful: a thin disc of compressed honeydew infused with spearmint floats in a cool buttermilk cream with a frosty melon sorbet.  It's an absolutely perfect  pause to begin desserts, exhilaratingly fresh and inspired.  

 Although I was slightly less impressed with the desserts.  The plating seemed a bit forced, while the flavors weren't much more than as expected.  A "blueberry parfait" was splayed onto a plate, the plump berries teamed with a fruity mousse and scoop of gelato.  A poppy seed wafer was crumbled atop, its unique flavor coming across a somewhat pasty and stale (which it might not have had the disparate elements actually been layered, parfait-like).  A roasted apricot nestled up against apricot sorbet, bedded in granola and topped with a crisp shard of almond tuile.  They were both pleasant, but lacked the wow-factor of the rest of the menu.  And the rest of the menu certainly does have wow in it.

Betony could hold its own in any neighborhood, but its particularly welcome here on the upper cusp of midtown.  Its novel, inspired cocktail menu makes it as perfect a destination for drinks after work as it is for a special dinner, reasonable enough for everyday and fancy enough for occasions.  So I think they can keep the betony to use for tabletop posies:  there doesn't seem to be any jinx left to ward off.

     41 West 57th Street                                                                              +   1.212.465.2400