The three birds you see on Aviary's sign and menu are symbolic of the original triumvirate of chef-owners, who moved to Portland from New York with big ambitions and a lot of fun ideas about how to bring the city a new breed of Asian fusion cuisine.
Blazing trails is tough work. Aviary had a slow start, with chef Sarah Pliner once joking to us about hanging a fake menu "with five different burgers and three charcuterie plates" in the window to induce customers. And then there was the 2011 fire caused by a Fourth of July firework, which closed them for six of the busiest months of the year.
When Aviary rose from the ashes, we named it our 2012 Restaurant of the Year, recognizing the like-minded "inauthentic Asian" spot from fellow New York transplant Johanna Ware as our runner-up.
The original Aviary trio has since split up, with Jasper Shen moving on to open his excellent soup-dumpling spot, XLB, and his wife, Kat Whitehead, now helping develop flavors for Salt & Straw.
Sarah Pliner remains, as does the excellent food made with Asian flavors, European technique and creative flair. Many of the dishes that made us fall in love with the place are still there, too, such as the salad of watermelon, bitter greens and fried chicken skin; the tempura green beans with green curry dipping sauce; and the crispy pig ear made with sticky rice, avocado and Chinese sausage. But about half of the menu is constantly shifting, with fun and satisfying dishes like a flatiron smoked over Douglas fir and served with a bone marrow custard.
If you're one of those people still walking by without popping in, the happy hour is highly recommended. There, you'll find deft versions of the high-low mashups that so often go awry in town, like gobsmacking Brussels sprouts nachos with crumbled cotija cheese and herbal creme fraîche, and a banh mi burger that's won dedicated fans.
Yes, Aviary now has a burger—it's priced to satisfy even the crustiest Last Thursday fire juggler at $8, or $10 with an Old German tallboy. After all the work Pliner has done clearing space for restaurants like this in the city where she settled, she deserves one.
Aviary, 1733 NE Alberta St., 503-287-2400, aviarypdx.com. 5-10 pm Monday-Saturday. $$$.
Pro tip: The secret back patio is the place to sit for happy hour, and that rear-bar menu hides delights like a $7 slaw-topped and house-smoked Olympia Provisions dog and the only banh mi burger in Portland worth a damn: Kewpie and hoisin swirl into umami ecstasy atop lemongrass-kaffir-seasoned beef, pickled carrots and jalapeño, plus a deep-fried egg with warm, barely liquid yolk within.