Sunday, January 12, 2014

Diversion/PDX: AVA GENES

It may be the mark of a great restaurant that even after should've-known-better-ordering a wholly unsatisfying meal for one's self, that you can still soundly profess its competency of.  That,  a year full of raves from the press, and the glimpses and bites from neighboring plates.  Plus perhaps most telling of all, being seated at the counter overlooking the open kitchen, mesmerizing smells and swirls of sauces titillating every sense organ to the extreme, all but for my own, lowly, remorseful tongue.

Ava Gene's is warm, rustic, cabin-y in signature Duane Sorenson style.  He is the owner/restaurateur in charge of this place, Woodsman Tavern and the Stumptown Coffee Empire: in short, my idol.  Chef Josh McFadden wasn't in the kitchen that night, but his enormous talent beams through in the Pacific Northwest interpretation of classic Roman cuisine.  The menu isn't enormous, but it is formatted into a diverse sections that accomodate pretty much any desired dining approach, from alcohol-cushioning snackettes, picnicky salads and charcuterie, shareable family feasts or extravagant multi-course menus.  We began with a fennel, pear and apple salad, bright and fresh despite an excess of dressing, whose funky Roman condiment colatura  gave it enough zippy salinity that it needn't have been applied so profusely.  Crunchy pangrattato crowned the crisp produce, easily robust and voluminous enough to share, on both counts.   Alternatively, there are an array of pane, hulking toasts
The last quarter of borlotti bean pane
 with an array of toppings ranging from a mere drizzle of olive oil, to pork liver "a la Nashville", adorned with quince mostarda and chocolate.   A version with pudgy borlotti beans anchored themselves in a creamy, garlicky smear, the crostino easily big enough to quarter and share.

Salumi, Formaggi and Fritti round out the starters section of the menu, along with a myriad of Giardini, which are priced singularly or in combinations of three or four as samplers.  Contrary to what I expected, however, I think the selection is intended as a side or starter to share, as opposed to a type of vegetable main dish.  I would've enjoyed any of my choices immensely as salads, truly, but as a main course, in the thick of December, they translated as disappointingly rabbity.  They were served in a trio of individual wooden bowls, further emphasizing their individuality.  I limped through the chilled, blanched broccoli in a creamy sauce studded with hazelnuts and persimmons; a julienne of raw beets and carrots sweetened with golden raisins; and a rustic slaw of farro, shredded, raw brussels sprouts and some scant fronds of hedgehog mushrooms, all the while temped to reach through the pass and throw them on to the blazing wood burning grill, from which was emerging tantalizing roasts and steaks and juicy breasts of duck and goose, a Flinstonian T-Bone
Duck in Progress...
... and finished.
and worst of all, the succulent filet of black cod with chanterelles, which
god-only-knows-why I didn't order, except that I was lured by those damned brussels... those disappointingly unroasted crucifers that really only performed in an herb-like supporting role to the farro.  Alas.  Has I been dining with more patient co-eaters I might've gone ahead and ordered it midway, but with the company I was in, I sucked it up and pacified my chagrin with stolen bites of their exceptional pastas.

 Of these, fat mezzi rigatoni loomed about crumbles of succulent ground pork and salty ceci, cut with mild braised leaves of escarole, still gently bitter.   A savory lamb neck ragu sweetened with tender chunks of roasted butternut squash danced with chewy cavatelli under a saline shroud of crumbled ricotta salata. Perfectly wonderful plates of noodles.  Still... that cod haunts me.  I long to discover what were those unctuous dollops of tawny cream dispersed among the forest of golden mushrooms, perhaps sided it with the mysterious misticanza of sauteed greens, and experienced what a lady Ava Gene's really is.    

Instead, I have to rely on my intuition- and by the goodness of the restaurant that sort of seeps into your soul in an osmotic fashion.   Despite having experienced Ava far beneath her potential due to my own silly ordering, I would (and will) return here in a big, lusty, passionate, soulful heartbeat.

3377 SE DIVISION ST. PORTLAND971.229.0571

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