The July 6, 2011, issue of Willamette Week hit the streets with a glowing review of a new Northeast Alberta Street restaurant. The food was “cerebral” and “playful.” It “surprises and delights” and “sets taste buds—and imaginations—aflutter.”
Just one problem: The restaurant was a pile of ashes, having burned down after our press deadline.
Less than a year-and-a-half later—and only 10 months after it reopened for business—Aviary is our 2012 Restaurant of the Year. This guide went to print nearly three weeks before publication, so this time we’re keeping our fingers crossed and a fire extinguisher handy.
But Aviary’s impressive phoenixlike rise from the ashes is not the reason we love it. We love Aviary for the way it would take that phoenix, pan-fry it in soy sauce, and serve it over pureed bok choy, pickled lime and creme fraiche. And because it would be delicious.
Portland has built its newfound gastronomic fame on a very dependable brand of comforting, uncomplicated farm-to-table food. The accolades are absolutely warranted, and the restaurants and chefs that have put this city on the map—resulting in newspaper and magazine articles from across the country—deserve their due. Meanwhile, despite being overwhelmingly Anglo, the city has come a long way in embracing and seeking out “authentic” cuisines from places like Thailand, Vietnam and Mexico.
if the city’s restaurant scene is to evolve, it’s time to push the
conversation forward—to encourage restaurants that excite and innovate
rather than just satisfy and replicate. There are a handful of places
doing this in Portland, but we feel Aviary is turning out some of the
most interesting and delicious dishes in the city, while delivering a
product and price point that are accessible to a broad strata of eaters.
Aviary stands out from much of the city’s dining scene in more ways than one. A minimalist, white-walled, concrete-heavy space, it exists in stark contrast to neighboring Barista, where serious young men in waistcoats brew pour-over single-origin coffees in what looks like a 19th-century hunting den, or the bike co-op and paint-your-own-pottery studio across Alberta Street.
But it’s the food that really sets Aviary apart. Roughly built around the idea of pairing Asian flavors with European techniques, the restaurant’s signature dish is a wok of coconut rice mixed with Chinese sausage and crispy chips of pig ear (pictured on the previous page). A salad mingles crackly pieces of fried chicken skin and cubes of watermelon with greens and a smear of baba ghanoush. A silky chilled zucchini soup is punctuated by green grapes and delicate orbs of almond milk that dissolve in the mouth. Strip steak, one of the more conservative items on the menu, is glazed with caramel and matched with kimchee and pureed duck fat potatoes.
It’s ambitious, creative, challenging and fun. It’s also not for everybody. We think it is exactly what Portland’s dining scene needs.
But convincing Portland of that hasn’t been easy for the restaurant’s three owners: chefs Sarah Pliner, Jasper Shen and Kat Whitehead.
“People would come and look at our menu and just walk away, like, ‘I don’t know what any of that shit is, I’m not ordering it,’” Pliner says. “We used to joke that we would put a menu in the window with five different burgers and three charcuterie plates and just have our real menu inside and see how many people got up and walked out.”
It was an unlikely setup to begin with: For a start, it was three chefs, all cooking together. The trio has an impressive résumé of New York kitchens to their names—Aquavit, Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, Jean Georges, Tabla and Aldea, to name a few—but Shen and Whitehead had never even visited Portland before moving here to open Aviary in 2011, and Pliner—who had attended Reed College and cooked in local restaurants—had been away for a decade.
While you can get away with just a name and a decent Manhattan address in New York, they soon learned that Portlanders like their restaurants to come with a neat, one-line concept (“Nuevo Alpine,” “Neopolitan wood-fired pizza,” “Korean tacos”).
“When we opened, everyone would ask, ‘What’s your food?’” Shen says. “We have no idea what our food is. We don’t have a six-word bite that describes what our food is.”
The early elevator pitch for Aviary became “Asian-influenced small plates”—matching Eastern flavors and ingredients with Western techniques—but that soon had people attaching the dirty word of “fusion” to it, and also had the chefs straining to make each dish conform to their own advertised concept.
“We were more self-conscious in trying to stick to the description of what we were going to be and ‘Oh, this has to have something Asian in it,’” Pliner says.
Diners also struggled with the lack of distinct entrees and the smaller, shared-plates concept. “We took a lot of heat for portion sizes, prices, small plates, menu design,” Shen says.
And then, five months in, the restaurant burned down.
An illegal Fourth of July firework took out the restaurant and its neighbors, leaving the three owners in insurance purgatory for another five months.
“We were just starting to kick in when the fire happened,” Pliner says. “We’d been told the way it works is: You open, you struggle, you get reviewed, if the reviews are good then people come, then you have summer and you build your regular customers during that time. We opened, we struggled, we got reviewed, the reviews were good, summer started and then we just stopped.”
But if there can be a silver lining to literally seeing your dreams go up in flames, it was found in the strength of Portland’s close-knit culinary community.
“We were all amazed, coming from New York where it’s so cutthroat,” Shen says of the local restaurants that hosted benefits and pop-up dinners for Aviary’s chefs while they waited to rebuild. “We were 5 months [old] and a bunch of people who really never worked in Portland, and restaurants were coming out of the woodwork, chefs and owners we’d never met before were coming to us and [saying], ‘Can we help you guys out?’”
Although it was a blow to lose the new-restaurant buzz and momentum from positive reviews, Aviary hit the ground running when it reopened last December, and the chefs have managed to tweak the formula enough to suit customers better without compromising creativity or integrity.
For one thing, they aren’t all trying to cook the same broth. “We had this grand, utopian idea of three people working together in this amazing kitchen that would be this melting pot of ideas,” Shen says. “That honestly just doesn’t work.”
Pliner now acts as head chef, Whitehead takes care of pastries, and Shen mostly works the front of the house as restaurant manager.
They have increased portion sizes and prices slightly—dishes now run $8 for a serving of tempura-fried green beans in a spicy green curry sauce (about the closest thing you’ll find to a side of fries anywhere on the menu) to $22 for an entree-sized serving of halibut with potato noodles, pickled cherries and squid ink, though most dishes are in the $10 to $18 range.
And, most important, the chefs say they are more relaxed (because, really, how much worse could it get than a fire?) and have stopped trying to confine themselves to the “Asian” label—though it is still the dominant influence—bringing elements like Middle Eastern and Mediterranean spices and ingredients into the mix. This new outlook has resulted in the menu really hitting its stride, allowing the dishes to be more produce- than concept-driven, and offering more consistency and creativity.
“It’s not enough that it’s just tasty,” Pliner says. “There’s got to be something that catches my attention.... There’s going out where you just want a pile of food, but sometimes you want to think, ‘What is that? How does that work? How did it get that way?’”
Portland, the chefs say, is starting to catch on.
“Over time, I’ve seen a lot more people more open to what we’re doing,” Shen says. “I still get a lot of questions about the pig ear, ‘Is it really a pig’s ear? Is it like the pig ears my dog eats? How big is it?’ But generally, if they ask questions like that, they’re going to try it.”
Inside the kitchen at Aviary:
Video by Emilee Booher
Aviary, 1733 NE Alberta St., 287-2400, aviarypdx.com. 5-10 pm Monday-Thursday, 5-11 pm Friday-Saturday. $$$.