Le Pigeon's break from tradition is the often-pinpointed characteristic making it worthy of acclaim. This remains true 12 years after now-celebrity chef Gabriel Rucker opened the diminutive Buckman restaurant in his mid-20s. But Le Pigeon's ability to conquer the hearts and minds of those most cynical about high-end cuisine is likely to endure as its greatest achievement by letting the food do the talking rather than getting wrapped up in an air of sophistication and self-satisfaction.
That laid-back attitude is immediately apparent when you're seated snugly between strangers at a communal table. The exposed brick, cache of cookware dangling above the open kitchen, and the stereo that plays Tom Petty and Hall & Oates all build an environment that shrugs off formalities. The menu, rife with hearty New American fare filtered through Rucker's French lens, represents a pivotal point when restaurateurs realized it was possible to decouple culinary acumen from pomp and pretense. Dishes are generally placed in two categories: the more ephemeral, experimental items are listed on the left, and Rucker's triumphant standbys can be found on the right. Be sure to order from both sides.
Some of the temporary specials on a recent visit included hamachi crudo ($26), the fish bursting with acidic sweetness and autumnal warmth courtesy of hazelnuts, a roasted ginger dressing and king oyster mushrooms. Meanwhile, the fajitas ($28), with a melt-in-your-mouth foie gras and avocado terrine that was a dazzling mix of supple textures and smoky flavors, were an elevated nod to the Tex-Mex chain-restaurant standby.
On the right is where you'll find the much-celebrated burger ($17), which is seasoned to perfection and almost dumbfounding in its simplicity. There's also the beef cheek bourguignon ($35), a fork-tender cut that's steeped in wine and aromatics for hours in the deep recesses of the East Burnside building. Both are among the few menu items that Rucker has deemed eternal.
Rich yet dynamic, decadent yet thoughtful—it's that kind of skill refined over the years solidifying Rucker's status as a once-in-a-generation talent—something akin to the Beatles or Nirvana. Portland revels in exceptionalism about many frivolous things, but Le Pigeon proves that an exemplary dining experience can simultaneously be one that is relaxed and intimate.
Pro tip: Don't let the accolades and dollar signs scare you—even a commoner can experience excellence via the burger ($17) and a bottle of Coors Banquet ($4), which isn't much more than you'd spend for a similar setup at nearby hesher hang Sandy Hut.