Chef-owner Gabriel Rucker is already famous for foie gras profiteroles at Le Pigeon and chicken-fried trout at Little Bird Bistro. With Canard, he went further. Much further by tapping into his obsession with American junk food and pairing that with inspirations from French fine dining and beyond.
"I think that's what is supposed to happen," says Rucker. "Look at all the influences we have accessible to us right now. When chef Taylor [Daugherty] and I are planning dishes at Canard, we try to do things that have been done before, only do them our way. All a dish has to be is delicious."
Canard took over the space that used to be a gothic clothing boutique on East Burnside Street next door to Le Pigeon in April. The first to publish a review, WW declared Rucker "unleashes the full breadth of his creativity" with the third restaurant under his leadership. The lower prices magnified the effect—most plates cost no more than $20—yet it's still unadulterated Rucker. And for that vast and uncompromising vision, Canard is WW 's 2018 Spinoff of the Year.
Serving things like clam ceviche nachos and uni Texas toast, Canard embodies the ethos for which our city is famous: a devilish compulsion to push people out of their comfort zones. Yet it's also determined to offer something for everyone, merging a half-dozen culinary styles—bistro, wine bar, dive, fast-food franchise, bohemian coffee shop, veggie bowl cafe—into one. This attracts a diverse set of adventurous Portlanders. You may sit next to a silver-studded punk discussing the latest Berlin art show one day, a startup CEO explaining why money and power are all that matter to two peach-fuzz employees the next.
Almost a mirror image of its adjacent sister restaurant, Canard is little more than a hole in the wall, but it doesn't feel that way. By far the liveliest of Rucker's three businesses, especially late at night when booming bass typically thunders from the Bossanova Ballroom upstairs, multiple areas can still fit most moods with a contortionist's flexibility. There's a loungy space in front, a marble-top bar running most the length of the venue and several good old-fashioned tables in back. A canary-yellow-and-navy-blue color theme underlies it all, and a mural-sized patch of vintage intricate-print William Morris wallpaper adds an intercontinental feel.
Mirroring its eclectic style, Canard serves racy dishes morning, noon and night—this being the place where Rucker finally found room for breakfast. If Elvis were still alive, the duck stack ($15) would surely do him in. The must-order dish delivers all the satisfaction of American trucker food with an upscale twist. Fluffy pancakes come loaded with both a rich gravy and egg courtesy of the duck, the spice and tang of Tabasco-glazed grilled onions cutting through it all. To turn this into a duck hat trick, there's the option to add foie gras for $15.
The rest of the breakfast menu equally does its part to make you scratch your head and wonder, "Where am I? A cafe in Paris? A White Castle in Ohio?" A goat cheese omelet ($7) appears just a few slots above a breakfast sandwich ($6) blatantly touting a slice of American with Sheridan breakfast sausage on a Hawaiian roll. Drinks span espresso ($3.25), boulevardiers ($11) and a boozy float ($12 on weekends).
To be sure, Canard is a direct match with fans of American junk food. But it poses sincere questions for everyone else, too, like, "When's the last time you had perfectly crisp breakfast potatoes loaded with chorizo and melted manchego?" or "Have you ever tasted the magical marriage of wasabi, egg salad and fried chicken?"
Though you can squeeze into Canard for a bumping weekend brunch, weekday lunch provides a quieter respite. In the hazy afternoon hours, it's so cozy you could read a book, with about 20 wines by the glass for company. Sommelier and co-owner Andy Fortgang proves that, at least in its heart, Canard really is a wine bar. Find orange wine from Slovenia, French gamays and dynamic rosés. Fortgang even has the audacity to put Champagnes on the list that cost anywhere from $22 to $23 a glass. They've been on the list since opening, so someone must be ordering them.
While breakfast and lunch come with plenty of highlights, the dinnertime menus are the most refined—in effect offering a window into the upscale and audacious cuisine at Le Pigeon for a fraction of the price. This is especially true during the early and late-night happy hours, when the steam burger, a guilty-pleasure bite seasoned with Lipton French onion soup mix that's about the size of a White Castle, is just $3, and the experiment in surrealism—a seven-minute boiled egg with trout roe, bacon, roasted garlic and smoke-infused maple syrup dubbed oeufs en mayonnaise—is $5.
Many of Canard's most memorable dishes have been those seemed doomed to fail, like foie gras dumplings ($20), the early version featured peanut sauce, cubed green apple and crunchy miso-roasted shallots. The nuttiness, bright acidity and umami flavors each came through with clarity. Those ingredients have been switched out for more fall-like fare, including pear relish, roasted chestnut and black truffle. Just make sure to bite into the dumplings the moment they hit the table to capture their supple texture and the foie gras's truffly vapor.
Canard may at times feel like the adventurous eater's Mount Everest, but Rucker pushes all allegations of absurdity to the side with his unassuming vegetable dishes. The menu descriptions never do them justice. They were reliably our favorite plates every visit. The quinoa bowl ($10) defies the bland versions around town. It begins with a spicy-cool combination of carrot harissa, cucumber raita and cilantro, but it's also a study in textures, featuring boiled quinoa, seared avocado and seasonal cubes of golden beet and plum.
We could eat it every day.
Likewise, a late-summer orzo ratatouille ($15) was so nourishing and comforting it made chicken noodle soup seem almost vulgar by comparison. Rather than basic broth, succulent tomato and transportive marjoram formed a baseline, followed by rich grilled portobello mushrooms, Parmesan, aged balsamic drizzles and buttery breadcrumbs. New components keep bubbling up among the silky orzo with each forkful, like chunks of perfectly tender zucchini and eggplant that melt in the mouth.
The desserts at Canard are worth the splurge. Nothing contains foie gras so far, but the seasonal Paris Brest ($10) squeezes lacy cream between the same pâte à choux pastry as the profiteroles next door. It's one of the best desserts in the city right now. Additionally, the soft serve peanut butter fun cones ($6) are a taste of childhood.
"I always talk about food being fun, not being this temple of seriousness," says Rucker. "I want the food at Canard to make you smile, not think so much."
Canard probably wouldn't have happened if Rucker weren't already standing on such a sturdy foundation. The restaurant leans more heavily on nostalgic, classically unsophisticated flavor wallops than either Le Pigeon or Little Bird. It's exactly as if fast food got a Michelin-star upgrade.
Few chefs would hazard such childish playfulness within reach of razor-sharp knives, foie gras and truffles. After a thundering first seven months, Rucker feels blessed.
"Canard is the only restaurant we've built from scratch," he says. "We set out with such a lofty goal, and I'm amazed it's happened. Every day, I walk in with people doing business meetings, moms breastfeeding babies, weed dispensary dudes eating duck stack pancakes. At the end of the day, it's about making people happy and bringing them together under one roof. If you're cooking just to pay the bills, you aren't sharing the experience."