Portland-style: keeping a bird on it. Funny, with Gabriel Rucker's Pigeon and Little Bird, Roost, and Pok Pok (oh, wait... that just sounds like a bird's cluck), Aviary fits right into the scene. At least an in name. And in cuisine, it shares its philosophy with such marvels as Smallwares and Expatriate with an Asian-bent, but at its heart, Aviary pulses around the glories of the Pacific Northwest. I was intrigued, too, by its chef, Sarah Pliner, that spent time at Aldea, Aquavit and Alain Ducasse: she seems to be keeping up her A-game with Aviary, on every level.
You'll pass through a small veranda with outdoor seating, far enough off of Alberta and enclosed by the walls of the courtyard to avoid any vehicular nuisance. Still, we chose an inside table, just next to the kitchen pass which is high enough to protect trade secrets but open enough to see busy, toqued heads bustling about their work.
Our waiter was patriotically Portland: mustachioed and tattoed, easy-going and amicable, dashing, and most importantly, super knowledgeable and helpful. He was well-versed in wines and coaxed us toward a local blend from the Columbia Gorge which was slightly pricier than the Txakoli we were intending, but a great bottle- strikingly voluptuous for a white, perfumed of melon and citrus, still dry but with a residual sweetness. He kept it on ice for us, refilling without a lapse, but never hovering. And as soon as our food order begin to arrive we didn't any assistance: this food speaks for itself.
Even with such a seasonal menu that changes frequently, there were a few additions to capitalize on some market treasure of the day. From these, we chose a tempura maitake which was big enough to share amongst the three of us: Aviary is intended to be small-plate style, but you can do the app/entree thing too. We probably overdid it on tempura, as our green beans were prepared the same way, which made for a bit too much deep-fry mid-August. The crispy sleeves slid easily off the beans, however, a little lighter that way. Gently imbued with green curry and spritzed with a ruddy sesame salt, they are decidedly flavorful enough in their own right. The tempura of the maitake was clingier, the craggy, porous texture of the mushroom gripping
its golden crust like it just knew how good it tasted inside of it. Slathered in lemon cream, it was no Jenny Craig mushroom, but the balance of chewy, crispy and creamy, the contrast of rich and earthy in the mushroom, and the lightness of lemon in the decadent cream made an ace combination.
Another vegetable was one of my favorite dishes of the night: two beautifully halved Japanese eggplants were coated in tiny beads of crispy puffed millet and splayed over a tomato-miso puree (double-umami!!) spiked with aji amarillo. Not only was it original, it was over-the-top delicious and visually arresting.
The Elm, sadly no longer with us. Here, tiny little gems of produce in a salty fennel-fragrant broth, much more rustic than Liebrandt's, and bulked out with a moist, fluffy black olive cake, spongy like a dense mousse, a dollopo of thick goat cheese and a crisp honey tuile. The elements had the artistic compostion of a dessert, but ate like a garden party celebrating summer's finest.
As the menu progressed, portion size definitely expanded but the prices remain moderate, peaking at $22. The short ribs was short of nothing: a full plate of deliciousness, gravy included. A generous hunk of spoon-tender meat
topped with chunky shiitakes lolled in its miso-enhanced juices, a thick puree of taro root alongside. A fresh slaw seasoned with zesty yuzukosho kept things from getting to heavy, summery as it was. Petrale sole furled the delicate filet around itself and a firm shrimp mousse, creating a thick plank crusted with golden brioche. It's friends, wads of steamed nettle and lilliputian chanterelles, were so far on the opposite side of the plate that the fish would've missed them had it not been for a delicate sauce flavored with xiao xing (a little alcohol can assuage many problems). And then
there was the charred octopus, which may have looked a little scant compared to the short ribs, but packed so much flavor and chutzpah into those vinous blackened tentacles it more than made up for its stature. The thick "shoulders" of the arms were tender and meaty, but it was the crispy tips, chewy and savory as a seafaring bacon, that won me over. They tangled around perfectly cooked, gently bitter stems of broccoli raab flecked with red pepper flakes. A molten ricotta pudding tamed any latent heat, oozing out of its semi-solid state with the prod of a fork to fuze with a rich red curry jus, spattered haphazardly over the plate. I am in love.
After all of the creativity, we kept things simple for dessert, although fancier options can be had. Brilliantly strawberry-y strawberries flecked with black pepper propped up a pair of thick, buttery shortbreads softened with freshly whipped cream. Between the three of us, it allowed for just a few pleasant bites of sweet to finish off a memorably excellent repast. Like the array of birds one might find in an aviary, Portland Aviary showcases the best characteristics of my favorite city.