Oxtail croquettes with tomato jam.

THREE CHEFS arrive in Portland after sweating the line at modernist New York destinations Jean Georges and Aquavit, and what do they do? Put a bird on it! At Aviary, a sign featuring three birds on a branch welcomes diners, and a golden winged warbler, rendered in artist’s paint, hawks the scene. But Portlandia quirky ends here. Chefs Sarah Pliner, Kat Whitehead, and Jasper Shen bring something new to the Portland scene: sophisticated Asian-French fusion cooking with hints of molecular know-how in a polished but super-casual setting.

I’d come back just for the blood orange bourbon cocktail, the tiny oxtail croquettes dabbed with tomato jam, and cauliflower soup with a painterly swirl of shiso purée on top and below—deep in its creamy depths—sweet, nutty fresh chestnuts. And Aviary’s contribution to Porkland, a New World paella with crispy pigs’ ears, coconut rice, and Chinese sausage, is already gaining devotees around town.

But the kitchen is still finding its rhythms—an observation best expressed in a warm snap pea salad. This visually striking dish had, amazingly, about 14 things going on: a swipe of pea purée and cut-open pods revealing delicate peas; spheres of yogurt and orange juice transformed by science into what looked like quail eggs; lily bulbs; itty-bitty shimeji mushrooms; and a fragile handmade barley cracker on top. All this passion and labor for a mere $9. Only one thing was missing: truly memorable flavor.

Still, the art, beauty, and ambition are welcome in a scene overflowing with pork belly sandwiches. Prices are generous, with everything coming in under $16. The room chirps with a quiet urban chic. If Aviary nails a few details—better attention to flavor and temperature control—this place could fly, high. Come get a seat while you can.

This article appeared in the June 2011 issue of Portland Monthly Magazine.

Show Comments