Crispy Pig Ear at Aviary
1733 NE Alberta St., 287-2400, aviarypdx.com.
New York chefs Sarah Pliner, Jasper Shen and Kat Whitehead came to Portland to follow their dream of starting a restaurant, all moving into the same house to plan their menu. The restaurant they finally built, Aviary, was a wonder of imaginative ingredients marrying European techniques and Asian influences. It promptly burned to the ground because of an errant firework on the Fourth of July.
But they rebuilt within the year, becoming our 2012 Restaurant of the Year in part on the strength of a dish made with the same pig's ears you give your dog to chew. The crispy pig's ear bowl is a hybrid beast: a concoction of refined and balanced herbal notes in a dish as salty, savory and fun as a bag of chips at the Super Bowl. But they'd first conceived their trademark dish out of desperation, when they were tired of everything else.
As told by Pliner…
"When we first moved here from New York, Jasper and Kat were living with me. We were trying to talk about what the restaurant would be and working on dishes, and really had a week of cooking nothing we were happy with.
We were tired of eating really complicated food. We just decided to make some leftovers and rice. What we made that day was steamed rice and a bunch of herbs and daikon with black vinegar and avocado, and that was it. Thai basil and cilantro, and tiato—it's a type of shiso—and rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), which is shaped like mint but it's a rounder leaf with some fishy things going on.
But it was really good, even missing a lot of the elements we ended up with. One of us said, 'This should be a dish at our restaurant.'
I took it from there and added pig's ear and coconut rice Chinese sausage to finish it. I felt like it was a pretty satisfying dish as it was, without any proteins, but if you're trying to get a menu together, it needs to be more than what you eat at home. I didn't want to do a really fatty protein—pig's ears are fatty the way that potato chips are, they don't sit in you like a brick.
Especially in the beginning, we were trying to be a less expensive restaurant, so I was working really hard to find things that were cheap but good that we could get out there at our price. Something fun that would function like a protein but be less serious to eat, and also be interesting. We wanted a menu that people would talk about."
Aviary's Crispy Pig Ear