Ava Gene's could have rested very comfortably on its laurels. A breakout hit from its first weekend, the avant-Italian follow-up to Duane Sorenson's first restaurant, the Woodsman Tavern, opened mostly to raves from critics and customers.
Despite the warm greetings, we found the restaurant far from perfect in its early days. The menu could be confusing, the flavors in salads didn't always work, and large meat entrees were sometimes unevenly cooked. Almost a year later, though, Ava Gene's is damned near perfect—which is why we're naming it runner-up to our 2013 Restaurant of the Year, Roe.
It's not hard to see why people fell for Ava from the start. The restaurant manages the difficult feat of delivering a hearty and comforting meal that nonetheless brings some surprises to fare that was demystified on these shores generations ago. On my first visit, we ordered six courses and didn't encounter a single tomato. Even with a glossary of terms, the menu remains a bit of a mystery. The pasta called sedani turns out to be, essentially, rigatoni, and the topping of pomodorini is bright cherry tomatoes. So, yes, in a way Ava Gene's is merely giving rigatoni and red sauce sexy names—but the result proves extraordinary.
There's a very The Godfather Part II idea of sophistication about the room, bathed in the warmth of a hand-cranked, wood-fired oven and decked out with red banquettes and a wall of tightly packed oil paintings. It looks something like a hipstered-out version of Sellwood's Gino's or the nicest bar in a wealthy New Jersey suburb, the kind of place you might expect to run into a retired New York ballplayer or a politician from Little Falls. The soundtrack forgoes exotica in favor of familiar tunes from Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac. If "Don't Stop Believin'" comes on, you turn toward the door.
The drink menu is tight and welcoming. Cocktails like "Love Makes You Feel 10 Feet Tall" (gin, pisco, aperol; $9) fall short of the Woodsman's Goldrush—a young legend— but two nice spumantes and a nearly perfect survey of European beers (Peroni lager, McChouffe brown, Weihenstephaner hefe) help close the gap. Service at the bar or kitchen bar is nearly as good as service at a table—Ava is well-staffed with young, confident workers well-versed in the menu and happy to provide tips—so don't despair if you show up without a reservation and no other options.
The menu starts rolling with meat and cheese plates—nothing out of the ordinary, but always a nice way to ease into a meal—and begins swerving with bruschetta-style slices of grilled toast loaded with meat, cheese or beans. A long, wheaty slice topped with extravagantly rich sheep's milk cheese, mildly bitter kale in a bittersweet agrodolce sauce and toasted walnuts is one of the best things I've eaten all year. From there, order deeply from the seasonal giardi, getting whatever seasonal vegetable dish most appeals, along with Tuscan Cavalry salad ($12) made with crisp, thinly sliced kale topped with bread crumbs and umami-intense grated Parmesan. On the late-summer menu, we also had great luck with beets and melons.
Get at least one pasta course per person: Ravioli in beef and tomato sauce is elegantly simple, and the orecchiette with pork sausage features a doughy rustic pasta with crumbles of herbed sausage and grilled onions in a rich, buttery sauce. Early on, Ava's entrees seemed like Woodsman B-sides, sometimes over- or under-cooked big cuts of pork or beef. The cooks have since tamed the quirks of their oven, now churning out wagyu culottes that are kissed with char outside and perfectly pink within. Desserts are very nice, but no match for Lauretta Jean's pies across the street. There's no pressure to order a sweet finisher at Ava Gene's—after all, someone else desperately wants your table.
Ava Gene's, 3377 SE Division St., 971-229-0571, avagenes.com. $$$.