Image: Karen Brooks
Ava Gene's dining room in the former Lauro Kitchen space on SE Division Street

A food writer recently pitched a story on Ava Gene’s but asked “is it too old already?” Given the buzz and build-up, it only seems that way. Ava Gene’s hasn’t even opened. Yet.

Come next week, in the neighborhood that birthed his Stumptown Coffee Roasters and the Woodsman Tavern, Duane Sorenson will uncork his love of rustic pastas, wood-fired meats, and serious Italian drinking. Can the guy who changed the coffee conversation, re-energized SE Division Street, and opened the best food market in a food-crazed city (the Woodsman Market), have another slam-dunk up his tattooed sleeve?

We’ll be debating soon enough. Here are your talking points.

The Name: Portland specializes in restaurant names no one can pronounce. So, if you’ve joined the party saying “Av-Ah Gen-Us,” reboot: think Ava Gardner + denim jeans. Ava Gene is Sorenson’s oldest daughter.

Prediction: Ava Gene’s will contend for Portland’s best room. In a town that worships bootstrapping décor, Sorenson is leading a movement (perhaps his own) toward serious design, unpretentious but well-considered and intensely custom-made, with every detail bolted down. That includes an early-1900s marble sink, a vaulted ceiling, and plaster walls glimmering with marble dust … in the bathroom. Confesses Sorenson: “I went bonkers in the bathroom.”

Coolest Detail: Dangling lights flicker across the dining room like crazed fireflies over back-to-back, room-length banquettes padded with hand-stitched brick-red leather.  

The Menu: Divided into six or seven small sections, the still-in-progress list shouts all the obsessions of Sorensen and New York rustic Italian vet Joshua McFadden. Rabid hunts for the best ingredients, farm-fresh evangelism, and signature Italian stripped-down flavors—but not worried about to-the-letter authencity. That means flavor-aggressive pastas with a Roman edge; hot steaks, chicken, and fish popping off the wood grill; local vegetables in simple but unexpected combinations, like pink-fleshed mountain rose apples crowned with honey vinegar. Plus, an Old Italian bakery-style cookie plate to pair with Stumptown gelato and espresso from an on-site barista. You won’t find that in Rome.

What Looks Good: Chicken livers, grilled to order, mixed with marsala-soaked raisins and heaped on toast; Nduja, a spreadable salami from San Francisco pork lord Chris Cosentino (the New York Times calls it “hugely spicy, unnervingly soft, extremely delicious”), hard-to-find Abruzzo caserecci pasta with pork sausage and broccoli leaf; and Delicata squash fritters beneath a fresh-grated haystack of Wisconsin’s Sarvecchio Parmesan (“It’s f-ing amazing,” exclaims Sorenson).

Get Ready for Grappa: Cocktail wizard Evan Zimmerman has a mission statement for his Italian-focused list, heavy on aperitifs and after-dinner drinks: “a huge, concerted effort to get people behind grappa. We’re sourcing from wine-makers and small producers and finding aged grappas. Everyone thinks grappa is just hot and firey and poorly made. But it can be unbelievable, like cognac.”

Ava Gene’s, opening soon
3377 SE Division St
971-229-0571
avagenes.com