Le Pigeon is Portland. It's the image in my head when somebody asks what a "Portland" restaurant is and what it can be—not twee or self-indulgent, but personal in a way places in bigger cities can rarely manage.
Gabe Rucker's punky decade-old nook on East Burnside Street is experimental and loose in mood but exacting in every detail, animated by a tossed-off majesty that's hard not to call genius. It's a point of pride, maybe, that the finest restaurant in Portland feels almost casual. The brick walls are exposed, the tables are shared and a menagerie of pots and pans wreathe the open kitchen. Domestic shelving shows off esoteric booze the way your mom shows off her thimble collection, from yuzu-accented Danish beers to obscure quince cider from the Swiss alps.
Rucker is the finest chef of his generation in Portland, and has been outthinking everyone else since his spot opened on a once-crusty stretch then populated by prostitutes and now home to the city's most impressive new architecture. Without being showy, the menu can sometimes read as deadpan wit, taking whatever everyone is talking about in the Portland foodosphere and making tweaks that elevate it from interesting to transcendent.
Le Pigeon wasn't the first or 15th to put watermelon and tuna together in a tartare and dress it up with lime aioli and pepper spice, but Rucker's version was deepened into ecstasy by a watermelon dashi, a fruity summer version of the bonito fish stock in Japanese soup. Then he dropped out the bottom with the unlikely addition of Parmesan, a detail not even mentioned on the menu.
An avocado-garnished vadouvan curry fried chicken plays with the same Bollywood-via-Nashville hot chix as new Indian spot Tiffin Asha or just-closed Taylor Railworks, except Rucker balances that fattiness and earthiness with bright honeydew and the slight sour tang of a lime-and-melon-rind raita that's like a light switch flipping on the flavor.
As with most things that look easy, it's not. The unhurried open kitchen hides a much bigger basement kitchen, where the staff does the grunting prep on laborious dishes like the beef-cheek bourguignon that first made the restaurant famous.
The relaxed intimacy and grace at Le Pigeon is the kind you earn over years of pushing, building an arsenal of weapons like that stacked-up burger that's routinely named one of the best in the country. That burger is thought through down to the finest detail: the onions both grilled and pickled, the ketchup housemade, the aioli distributed evenly on shredded iceberg. A recent maple-dripped smoked-foie gras eggs-and-bacon dish is treated like an old family hash because it is. Rucker honed it in the trenches when his restaurant was young, serving brunch to keep his restaurant alive.
Day after day, week after week, Rucker is still juicing the curve, unafraid to make mistakes while making very few mistakes. Le Pigeon makes me proud to be a Portlander. And when people ask us for the best restaurant in Portland, we're proud to tell them it's Le Pigeon.
Pro tip: The left side of the menu is usually composed of specials, the right side standbys. Always order from both columns. On the right side, the beef-cheek bourguignon ($35) and burger ($17) remain world-beaters. On the left side, look for a seasonal plate that resembles your favorite dish elsewhere: It'll be that, but better.