Little Bird Bistro Kitchen

The kitchen entrance at Little Bird, a new French bistro on SW Sixth Avenue

A PILE OF LAMB heads. A power drill. A gritty stretch of East Burnside. New Year’s Eve.

They could have been the ingredients for a Stephen King novel. But on that winter day in 2006, just six months after Gabriel Rucker debuted as head chef at Le Pigeon, these elements freed him do what he loves: send shivers up and down the spines of food-obsessed customers.

Earlier that day, Rucker had huddled with his trusted side cook, Erik Van Kley, to face the problem of (literally) cracking into a cache of free lamb skulls obtained from a local farm. All agreed: Le Pigeon’s owner, Paul Brady, was “good with tools.” Off Brady went to the basement kitchen, like a hit man in Goodfellas, to bore out the goods. Hours later, Rucker and Van Kley were frying up brains, tongues, and cheeks to mash with potatoes and mushrooms for Le Pigeon’s new “Lamb’s Head Shepherds Pie.” It was more than a hit. Customers clamored for seconds.

If their clientele would eat up the innards of a lamb’s noggin, Rucker and Van Kley recalled asking themselves, “Where do we go from here?” Answer: foie gras ice cream, barbecued pig’s tail, soup with squab heads, and a menu that sent Rucker flapping into the national spotlight at age 26. Now, food-world heavyweights make pilgrimages to eat whatever ideas pop into his head.

Culinary cult status often means a date with the Food Network or a vanity project to feed the ego. But for his second act, Rucker has spread his wings with something completely unexpected: tradition. His new downtown eatery, Little Bird, skips the DIY décor for tush-friendly banquettes, tables bound in butcher paper, and walls bathed in chic robin’s-egg blue. Instead of radical culinary takeoffs, the food is nested in classic French bistro. The mood is big, boisterous, and fun, with enough touches of Northwest noir to leave no doubt that this is Portland, not Provence: stuffed birds hide in teeny portal holes, mossy plants sprout out of enormous mirrors, and what counts as a thrilling vista is the passing MAX train on the bus mall outside. Rucker has made a safe place for power brokers to eat a wee bit dangerously. Daters and cleavage are arriving in force. Half the tables are eating a duck confit you’d be happy to serve your mother, and no one is hollering for more fried cow’s tongue.

Little Bird Chef / Co-owner, Gabriel Rucker and bar man Jonny Ericson

Chef/co-owner Gabriel Rucker (left) and bar man Jonny Ericson

Rucker preps at lunch only; Le Pigeon is still his main perch. Van Kley has stepped out as chef, charged with translating Le Pigeon’s provocative vocabulary to the simpler language of the hearty, modest Parisian bistro. It’s a challenging proposition, but Van Kley is finding his way, sometimes squawking, often singing beautifully. A big boost comes from an informed, French-intensive wine list by savvy sommelier (and partner and floor manager) Andrew Fortgang.

Starter options include a luscious little pot of duck-liver mousse (essentially a green light to smear butter and duck fat on good bread) and, for more adventure, a pair of hulking veal marrow bones that look on loan from a natural history museum. Eat them as if excavating a tunnel: scrape out the roasted, jelly-soft essence with a spoon, inhale whiffs of sweet balsamic-glazed onions, and then slurp it all up. It’s primal and sensual enough to make you blush. Order it.

Two entrées are stars. Steak arrives in fine form: juicy, thick-cut slices are sandwiched between brazen bolts of garlic and a cushion of fries soaking up an honest bordelaise sauce, deepened with veal stock and dark as crude oil. Van Kley presents the beautifully seared cod in cunning Le Pigeon mode: propped over tiny fatted potato balls; encircled by licorice-scented buerre blanc, confit Meyer lemons, and flavor-intensive parsley oil dots; and crowned with a haystack of frizzy leaves.

The crêpe, elegantly folded with hot ham and pungent cheese, gets an extra bump from the kitchen’s nutty browned butter, a perfume found in the batter and crowning vinaigrette to double the pleasure. At lunch look for the champignon sandwich, full of sherried mushroom notes and served on a thick, toasty baguette with hot, crispy edges.

Little Bird dining room

The dining room view from the upper balcony.

I love the side options, especially a rough-and-tumble chard creamed with homemade crème fraîche. The à la carte potato choices are simple, lusty treats, either roasted to glory with smoky bacon and racy raclette cheese or swirled to a creamy, truffle-scented finish. But both are lost on this menu without obvious pairing partners, given the entrées come fully loaded with their own accessories and potato posses.

A number of dishes are still lacking that “I can’t wait to eat this again” factor. The mussels are sleepy. The rabbit blanquette, bland. The coq au vin? Sorry, it doesn’t slump off the bones. Even the fries could be better: less fat flavor, more clear, bright potato intensity.

Pastry whiz Lauren Fortgang, fresh from Paley’s Place, has bested most of the competition in a city where the closing arguments of a good meal are often an afterthought. Still, some of her delights are a bit too studied and overdressed. The greatest pleasures here are the earthier ones. Grab the pitch-perfect apple tarte tatin, divine butterscotch pot du crème, or stunning mini-scoop sampler of ice creams and sorbets, led by the likes of oatmeal-praline and pineapple-clove.

For his first act, Gabriel Rucker ruffled feathers, challenging us to love a restaurant inspired by a gritty street bird. With his newest venture, he’s given us something closer to a bluebird: easy, seductive, and pretty.