Little Bird, With a Central Detour

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When new restaurants I’ve been eagerly anticipating finally open, I’m like the proverbial kid in a candy store. I love the energy of opening day, the shiny newness, the nervous excitement, the unfamiliar menu, the unpredictable reactions from the crowd. It’s like going to the theater, except better, because I get to eat and there’s no risk of accidentally drinking too much champagne beforehand and having to hold it until intermission.

Little Bird has been on my radar for ages, and I was so excited about its arrival, I somehow ended up going for lunch and dinner on opening day. Both my déjeuner and dîner experiences are included in this two-part piece, along with our brief detour to Central, a bewitching new downtown speakeasy hiding down an alley mere blocks from Little Bird (I’d suggest combining the two for a surefire date night!).

Little Bird Round Un: Hypnotically Shiny Tin Ceilings, Unabashed Overhead Spying, Bring on the Bread

I had a vague inclination of where Little Bird was before I went (somewhere downtown), but even when I Google-mapped it before I left the house Wednesday, I was having trouble visualizing the exact location. It’s on SW 6th between SW Oak and Pine, next to Hillbilly Bento and steps from Cafe Velo‘s darling downtown outpost, across from Big Pink and right on the Max line.

From afar, you can see the small hanging sign, but visually, there’s really no impact until you’re steps from the front door, and even then, until you walk in, it’s difficult to see what you’re in store for–a beautiful, thoughtfully-designed Paris-meets-Portland bistro experience. Courtesy of the transparent strip of glass-walled kitchen visible from the street as you approach, you can however, see Gabe, Erik, and their team toiling intently in the crowded kitchen, a fun sneak-a-peek at the behind-the-scenes melee.

Little Bird is the second restaurant by Le Pigeon Executive Chef Gabriel Rucker and Le Pigeon General Manager Andrew Fortgang, with former longtime Le Pigeon Sous Chef Erik Van Kley moving into the role of Little Bird executive chef. It’s much roomier than petite Le Pigeon, with a much larger menu that zeroes in on beloved French classics like steak frites and coq au vin. Being open from noon to midnight during the week, and 5pm to midnight on the weekend, makes it a very flexible dining destination. As the Le Pigeon team put it, “We want it to be a place you can drop by anytime for a plate of cheese, charcuterie, a small meal or a big meal, a glass of wine, a cocktail, or just a coffee.”

Once inside, my friend Lila and I admired Little Bird’s many physical attributes and careful details–soaring, shiny pressed-tin ceilings, dark red leather banquettes curved in the corners like a sly smile, the slate blue paint that seems to change color four times during the meal, a gleaming copper bar sheltering a motley crew of curious foodies and movers and shakers seeking refuge from nearby Big Pink, the stuffed fowl peeking out from various crevices and hidey-holes, the flock of tiny white ceramic birds flying across the bathroom wall (I was curious what held them up, and I tugged gingerly on one, and it broke off the wall instantly, but I fixed it, and I’m sorry).

We were seated up in the loft at the tiny corner two-top hugging the balcony, with a sweeping view of the towering, mirror-backed main dining room. It was the best table in the restaurant, in my opinion, although the host confirmed that it was his favorite as well…you should request it when you go, unless you’re acrophobic.

From this perch, you can observe the entire restaurant in motion, almost to the point of complete distraction if you’re a shameless voyeur like me. We were riveted by a prim, impeccably-dressed lone diner below who ordered the burger, delicately dislodged the knife stuck straight through it when it arrived, and then crammed in every last bite, and the trio of giggly grannies in gaudy holiday sweaters who had the forethought to book one of the wine-hued leather half-booths for their Christmas gift exchange.

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With a bit of effort, we could also manage a clandestine peek at the bustling copper bar tucked beneath.

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The loft is painted the same peculiar gray blue as the rest of the restaurant, but the back wall is largely comprised of dark wood wine shelving. Tiny brightly-colored birds are snuggled intermittently along the shelves, while a skull ‘n antlers and glass-framed displays of mounted butterflies accentuate the exposed wall. But everything pales beneath those shining, shimmering pressed-tin ceilings. I could stare at them for hours. Don’t worry, I didn’t. It was only fair to turn that fantastic table over to someone else, so they could spy on people and stare at the ceilings too.

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After deliberating extensively over the lunch menu, we ordered. I’ve hardly ever met a Salad Lyonnaise I didn’t like, and Little Bird’s was particularly luxurious–the frisee a whispery backdrop for a slab of crispy pork belly paired with a soft-boiled egg cracked so artfully, it hardly looked real. An assertive dijon dressing united everything without being overpowering. We also ordered the white beans, which shared the dish with mild, tender slices of ham and a healthy smattering of parsley chopped so fine I was afraid to show any teeth for the next eight hours.

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Lila and I were feeling carbolicious, so we bypassed the steak frites and grilled trout and agreed to split two of the sandwiches. They were both excellent–the jambon and gruyere on baguette was served pressed and still warm, with a wispy snowball of fresh arugula beside it, as was the mushrooms and cheese on baguette, which is meatless, if you’re into that sort of thing.
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For dessert, we shared a row of golden madeleines, four of them neatly tucked into a white napkin like sleeping babies, accompanied by a small dish of milky yellow lemon curd.

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After that, Lila and I bid each other adieu and I went home and took a nap, willing my stomach to digest everything in time for dinner, scheduled a safe six hours later.

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Little Bird Round Deux: A Slight Diversion, Steak Frites Worth Kidnapping and a Truffle Kerscuffle

centralexttwoLater that evening, en route to dinner, my sis Michelle and I were waylaid by Central, a new Oldtown speakeasy tucked between Dan & Louis’ Oyster Bar and Valentine’s, at 220 SW Ankeny Street.

Owned and designed by Dustin Knox, the fellow behind Cartopia‘s Perierra Crêperie, Central is fronted by a casual crepe window, but if you walk through the narrow doors to the right, and part the thick, black velvet curtains draped just inside the doorway, you enter the bar, passing a candlelit table bearing the “House Rules.” In a nutshell, you’re to sit, not stand, fighting is prohibited along with name-dropping and excess whining, no serving the pre-intoxicated, only one person at a time in the bathroom, and you can’t hit on members of the opposite sex. It does not, however, say you can’t hit on members of the same sex, so have at it.

There is a password to get in, but I don’t think you’ll be turned away if you don’t know it. It’s Central anyway, a hard one to remember. Inside, the bar is a revelation–alternately crude and perfectly polished, with exposed brick walls and unfinished ceilings, lustrous lacquered wood slab tables and posh damask half booths, flickery jam jar oil lamps, long communal tables, high shelves of top notch liquor, and an attentive, knowledgeable staff. Upstairs is a small loft, lined with red school lockers. The effect is at once soothing, glamorous, seductive, and nurturing–as in, we could have stayed there and been nurtured by the house cocktails all night.

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The menu is a one-page list of original cocktails that culminates in a selection of $6 highballs…absinthe and root beer? Maybe if it were Friday, Michelle said. We ordered both champagne cocktails, and the Pear & Equal was our overwhelming favorite–it was feather-light, made with pear-infused Plymouth gin and Noilly Prat vermouth, and just effervescent enough. A handful of beers rounded out the menu, along with an entreaty to ask about the seasonal wines. The accompanying crepe menu was tempting, with five sweets and five savories, but we were late to Little Bird so we’d have to indulge another night.

Our friends Mona and Anna met us at the restaurant, and since they were appropriately prompt and we weren’t, they’d already ordered wine off Little Bird’s extensive, excellent, and quite reasonable wine list, so Michelle and I were forced to split a bottle of Crémant de Loire. When the server started pouring it, a visibly envious Mona and Anna decided they could double fist after all, and a few minutes later, all four of us had a proper champagne toast.

“I feel,” Mona said over the joyous din of the crowded dining room, “Like this restaurant has always been here.”

We all agreed, wooed by the tiny cremant bubbles, the cozy, merry dining room thumbing its nose at the driving rain pelting the windows outside, the delicious smells wafting past, feeling slightly love at first sight-ish and instantly comfortable, like we’d known Little Bird our whole lives, or something like that.

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After our warm fuzzy moment, we got serious and focused on the dinner menu, which is broken out into four simple categories: Salads, sides, appetizers and mains. The sides list is particularly robust, with roasted mushrooms, pommes Lyonnaise, lentils with garlic scallion pistou, and more, everything between $5-$8. Clipped to the top of the menu are the chalkboard specials, which mirror those on the wall board on the entryway wall.

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We started off with a few fresh, sweet, little Kusshi oysters, the fennel gratin, crab and celery root remoulade, creamy chard, and butter lettuce salad. The gratin was dreamy–each small crescent of fennel was tender and creamy, each bite endowed with the satisfying crunch of toasted bread crumbs and minced chives. The remoulade disappeared quickly, following a small forkfight over the hunk of Dungeness  crab on top. The unexpected hit of the foursome though, was the creamy chard, a simple $5 side dish. It was cooked with brown butter (we think), and so each bite began with the earthy flavor of the cooked greens and ended with that million-dollar brown butter flavor that’s so good you wish you could hold it on your tongue forever. We used our last piece of baguette to wipe up every last remnant of sauce.

The butter lettuce salad came expertly dressed, with Roquefort and diced tomato. Once upon a time, I doubt any of us would have given the tomato a second thought, but you know how it is here in Portland, we’re snobs about out of season tomatoes.

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The plates were cleared and it was onward to the mains, of which we ordered four to share. The cod arrived, a flawlessly cooked hunk of silky white fish served with delightfully roly-poly Parisienne Potatoes in a buerre blanc sauce with a parsley and frisee headdress.

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Providentially, the steak frites landed in front of me. Cooked medium rare, the rosy meat was so tender we tried cutting it with a fork, and nearly could. But it got even better, because the slices of beef were sitting atop a pile of marrow butter fries interlaced with a dribble of lavish red wine-laced bordelaise sauce. I wanted to pick the plate up and run away with it so we could be together, just the two of us, but then I would have been frozen out of dessert by my vindictive tablemates, so I resentfully shared.

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We’d also ordered the gnocchi Parisienne with mushrooms and pickled squash, which had been drizzled with truffle oil, which sent Michelle the Truffle Oil Hater into a tirade.

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Once all the broken glass had been retrieved and the wine mopped up, we carried on with the Coq au Vin, served atop a creamy potato puree. It was wonderful, I’d been warned by multiple sources. They were not exaggerating. The meat fell off the bones, which seemed to mollify the truffle-ruffled Michelle, who only reluctantly granted our forks passage on the plate.

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The night was growing long in the tooth, the champagne was finished, it was time for dessert. I didn’t realize I was dining with a bunch of lightweights, who only wanted to order two desserts between the four of us, but that’s what happened. So we had to choose wisely. Pastry Chef Lauren Fortgang, formerly of Paley’s Place, baked a hazelnut financier that caused the table to swoon in unison–cut through the crisp golden coating into the dense, chewy, almost meaty cake beneath, run the bite through the nearby smear of milk chocolate, then fork a candied kumquat and you have the “perfect bite” of legend. Equally engaging was the delicate round of coconut cake flanked by a quenelle of passion fruit sorbet and tiny cones of dried pineapple, all atop a shockingly good vanilla-bean inflected sauce.

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The rain was pounding the sidewalk, Michelle had worn herself out during the truffle kerscuffle, and Anna’s babysitter was restless–it was time for the check. But there were two last treats to be had–firstly, we were told we’d accidentally been given the more upscale Cremant d’Alsace but charged for the less expensive one (sweet!), and secondly, we were handed a plate of four exquisite, glossy little vanilla macarons. A lovely way to say goodbye to a very memorable first meal at a beautiful bistro that already feels like it’s been around a while–in a good way.

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Little Bird * Mon-Fri 12pm-12am, Sat-Sun 5pm-12am * 219 SW 6th Ave. * 503.688.5952 * littlebirdbistro.com