The menu at Little Bird Bistro, the new French restaurant opened in December by Le Pigeon chef Gabe Rucker, takes a page from Larousse Gastronomique, the authoritative encyclopedia of Gallic eating. I mean that literally: The dinner menu has, printed on its backside, a photocopy of page 662 (beef offal, oxtail en hochepot to tripe), as if to proclaim, "Ere, we do singz by ze book!"
This is not entirely the case. Little Bird, with its faux tin-tile ceiling, copper bar, red leather booths and clichéd tourist-food offerings—escargot, frog legs, coq au vin—is a sort of Frenchy theme restaurant, heavy on liver and butter, with antlers and dead birds here and there to remind us where we're eating. (Portland, city of taxidermy!) But the cuisine is hardly textbook fare.
The restaurant opens at 11:30 am, and it's already the hottest power lunch downtown. The clubby decor suits the bankers and lawyers who fill the place the moment the doors are unlocked, but the suits swarm down from Big Pink less for atmosphere than for cheap foie gras ($11), $4 half-martinis and Rucker's wonderful mess of a burger. Coveted by customers of Le Pigeon, which serves only five a night, the 7-ounce patty is slathered in slaw and grilled onions and stuffed into a ciabatta roll from Ken's Artisan Bakery. It is an exceptional wad of beef, and, at $12, not a bad deal.
While the burger will hog the spotlight, it's not the best sandwich on the lunch menu. That honor goes to the fried cod sandwich ($12), which hides crisp, moist chunks of fish under a slaw of celery root, carrot and mayonnaise. If the slaw were available on its own, I would order it as an entree.
Lunchtime's boisterous bonhomie gives way to a less congenial atmosphere at dinner. The tables are a little too wide and the banquettes a little too deep for intimate conversation, and the dining room's tables are jammed so close together that elbowing one's neighbors is a real risk. The two-story space and hard ceiling add up to a lot of noise, forcing servers to shout. I felt badgered. Chef de cuisine Erik Van Kley's absolutely perfect duck confit ($20) goes a long way toward making up for the discomfort—as with Peking duck, the skin pulls away from the moist flesh, becoming crisp as a potato chip. It's almost too rich and salty to finish on one's own, but is saved by a bed of lentils, with parsley and charred green onion, which offers a bitter contrast to the duck.
The coq au vin ($17), served with big chunks of bacon and capped with a generous smear of chicken liver on toast, is also excellent. It's so juicy as to be almost creamy, a chickeny perfume practically gusting off the plate. Other hits include the mussels ($13) in a saffron-scented broth, the "crispy beef tongue" ($10)—essentially a beef McNugget with the texture of a 3 Musketeers and the flavor of a top-notch pot roast—and all of the sides. The potato puree with truffles and chives ($6) is a hedonist's take on mashed potatoes, and the fennel au gratin ($9) tastes like a greasy onion pizza in the best possible way.
While the kitchen's hits are flawless, the menu has its share of misses: the gnocchi parisienne is disappointingly chewy and overwhelmingly buttery, dotted with winey mushrooms and white cheese that add richness but not interest. The escargot ($12) are served with very good savory gougères—eggy pastry puffs—in a garlic cream sauce, with a coiffure of frisée in a spicy vinaigrette, but the snails themselves seem like a bland afterthought, and the dish does not make a coherent whole. Even more confusing are the frog legs ($11), breaded, fried and served along orange segments in a sweet-and-sour sauce like an amphibious version of General Tso. Even fried, they do not taste good, and their inclusion on the menu seems like a stunt.
It is possible to have an entirely satisfying dinner for two at Little Bird. Sit at the bar, which is quieter than the dining room, and order modestly: split the duck confit, the mussels and two or three sides. Have a couple of glasses of wine (there are several choices, most of them reasonably priced). Then go completely berserk on two, or maybe even three desserts. Pastry chef Lauren Fortgang, formerly of Paley's Place, has avoided the missteps of the dinner menu. The hazelnut-milk chocolate financier (essentially a large hazelnut chocolate-chip cookie with praline ice cream and candied kumquats, $8), croquant marmelade (alternately crisp and foamy layers of chocolate and caramel, served with bits of preserved orange, $8) and coconut cake with passionfruit sorbet (a winning combination of moist cake and shockingly bright fruit, $7) are all impressive enough to abruptly end conversation until the plates are clean. Forget Larousse; at Little Bird, Fortgang gets the last word.
- Order this: The heavenly duck confit, $20.
- Best deal: The enormous Le Pigeon burger, $12.
- Iâll pass: Sorry, vegetariansâyour only entree is gnocchi, and itâs not good.
EAT: Little Bird, 219 SW 6th Ave., 688-5952, littlebirdbistro.com. Lunch and dinner 11:30 am-midnight Monday-Friday, dinner 5 pm-midnight Saturday-Sunday. $$-$$$ Moderate-expensive.