Note: After this review went to press, an illegal firework caused a fire on Aviary's roof. The restaurant is temporarily closed, but we'll let you know on wweek.com as soon as it reopens its doors. (Trust us, you'll want to know!)
While there's usually little trouble corralling customers into a tapas bar or dim sum hall, asking them to commit to a proper sit-down dinner composed of small plates can be a hard sell. The fact that Aviary, the newish industri-cozy eatery on Northeast Alberta Street, sports an Asian-influenced menu that looks suspiciously fusion doesn't help. Add in the lack of homegrown talent in the back of the house (only one of the three New York chefs in this collaboration have worked in this city before, gasp!) and good luck persuading the average locavore groupie to dine with you. No worry, that leaves more room for people willing to take a chance on food that surprises and delights.
Aviary is a mini-collective of chefs Sarah Pliner, Jasper Shen and Kat Whitehead, and it's obvious the menu reflects their years of experience in different kitchens. Nary a spice or technique goes unexplored, from simple sears to molecular gastronomy. There is a sense of pride in the assemblage of each dish, and while not all of the offerings are home runs, it's not due to any sloppiness from the kitchen. In some cases, it may be for lack of proper instruction on how to enjoy the food. A cardinal rule at Aviary seems to be that anything served in a bite-sized portion should be eaten whole, enveloped with whatever accompanies it. This held true not only for the oxtail croquettes ($9) but the brioche-encrusted halibut ($16). Exploratory nibbles of the exterior portion of each dish seemed underseasoned or flat. But popping each one into your mouth whole rewarded the eater with big, complex flavors that bloom and expand in the mouth: beefy, crunchy and tangy-sweet for the oxtail; briny and savory for the fish.
Navigating the menu at Aviary is not unlike a day at the amusement park, with each dish a different ride. For more cerebral types, the warm snap pea and barley salad ($9) offers up something for both visual and analytic thinkers. Right brainers can try and identify all the components of the salad nestled beneath the huge barley crisp, like shimeji mushrooms or lily bulbs. The logic-inclined can try to figure out what additive was used to make those semi-solid balls of orange juice, rose water and yogurt for the dressing. (Hint: sodium alginate and calcium lactate.) For a more simple display of sheer skill, take Aviary's glazed black cod ($16). It was cooked with such precision—the exterior all crusty and caramelized and the interior a uniform doneness with no hint of flaking—that it could easily be mistaken for a sous-vide preparation. Not so, according to the staff, just a deft hand at the grill.
As you approach the bottom of the menu, the dishes get more substantial. And somewhat more alarming. Most people don't consider pig's ears fine dining, but this team's rendition, the crispy, salty ears counterbalanced with a coconut rice redolent with sweet Chinese sausage ($12), is a refined treat.
There are instances when creativity doesn't save a poorly conceived dish. The slow-poached egg ($9) sounds better on paper, "served with yuzu cream, morels and radishes." In practice, the whole thing falls apart into a soupy mess once the egg is pierced, the flavors failing to mingle. The Shao-xing chicken ($14) is a perfectly cooked torpedo of poultry served over a dreadfully boring asparagus purée. A fellow diner referred to it as "elevated wedding food.â Luckily, Aviaryâs missteps tend to land in mediocre territory, not awful.
A warning: The Aviary space is loud, so much so that sound-deadening foam has been installed under the tables. Then again, regardless of its location, Aviary would be loud, as it's impossible not to discuss what you're eating with your dining companions in a boisterous, enthusiastic fashion. Like so many of the restaurant's playful dishes, perhaps the space was designed to elicit just the right effect after all.
EAT: Aviary, 1733 NE Alberta St., 287-2400, aviarypdx.com. Dinner 5-10 pm Monday-Thursday, 5-11 pm Friday-Saturday. $$-$$$.