Don't let all the Italian words on the menu fool you. Ava Gene's is the best Pacific Northwest restaurant in Portland.
Helmed by chef-owner Joshua McFadden, Ava Gene's is fancy—practically cosmopolitan—with white marble floors and what feels like a hundred hanging lights. Waiters in all black are knowledgeable but not intrusive. The sophisticated drinks program is known for Negronis and rare Italian wines.
It's all done in honor of the food. While many make empty promises, McFadden actually serves the best and freshest regional produce, the result of hard-won relationships with local farmers. This makes the giardini the most exciting section of the menu. There, every dish, no matter the complexity, is driven by one or two perfectly in-season ingredients—from strawberries and cherries to corn and tomatoes.
This summer saw the raw tartness of tomatillos pitted against sultry peaches ($13), the sweet-tart flavors duking it out over wholesome green parched wheat with feta and Padrón peppers. Last winter, spiced carrots and cashews arrived beneath fried sunchoke reminiscent of potato chips.
When it comes to its pastas, Ava Gene's is especially hands-on, sourcing its grains and flours from local farmers and even milling some in-house. The tagliatelle alla Bolognese ($24) has transported me to Bologna, but I lean toward the adventurous seasonal pastas made with rye, buckwheat or other less common flours.
With such sourcing and technique, the pastas are spendy, and don't expect a single dish to equate to a full meal—Ava Gene's portions are only slightly larger than the classic Italian primi. It's a good excuse to go wild with giardini selections and split a pasta; regardless, everything is supposed to be eaten family-style.
Pro tip: For those going all out, move onto the secondi, such as the pork saltimbocca ($33) or roasted chicken ($29). And don't leave without trying what's very likely the best tiramisu ($10) in Portland.