THE FOOD Gabriel Rucker, the young culinary maestro behind Le Pigeon’s near-immediate success in Portland, has never failed to play with his food. In fact, every item on the French-influenced menu represents an exercise in innovation and tongue-in-cheek humor. What you may visualize when ordering the “tomato tart, green beans and duck feet” will likely have little to do with what’s actually set in front of you. Instead, you’ll bite into flaky puff pastry that envelops a tangy and savory tomato- and-duck jam spiked with vinegar and Tabasco. On top, a duck egg yolk and two deep-fried duck feet covered in crispy, addictive, sweet-and-sour duck skin may look intimidating, but nibbling on them constitutes one of the most pleasurable eating experiences one could have. Other dishes, like foie gras PB&J, may sound like a trick but are in fact straightforward: white bread, peanut butter, jelly, foie gras. Same for the foie gras profiteroles on the dessert menu: a trio of tiny éclairs stuffed with foie gras ice cream and topped with both foie gras caramel sauce and foie gras powdered sugar. It may sound zanier-than-thou, but Rucker manages to keep the flavors true. How those flavors interact is entirely up to his culinary imagination, and more often than not, they will stimulate your own.
THE CHEF Rucker, only 27, has had it quite good since he opened Le Pigeon in 2006. Food & Wine came calling. Gourmet and People did, too. The New York Times and the James Beard Foundation have also wanted a piece of him. And you can tell. Where once Rucker stood behind his open chef’s counter eagerly watching each diner’s face to see the response to his creative cuisine, now he knows he’s got every person in the dining room lapping it up, waiting to see what he’ll do next. As a result, he cooks with a cocky, though nevertheless charming, swagger—but he still greets every person who walks through the door with a boyish, appreciative smile. And his innovative cuisine continues to shine as it did the first week Le Pigeon opened.
THE ATMOSPHERE Filling just three communal tables, Le Pigeon’s clientele ranges from Lake Oswego soccer moms to E Burnside Street punks, but their undying love for Rucker’s food brings them all together. Brick walls and shelves of preserved goods lend the space the feel of a French bistro, but the boisterous, come-as-you-are tone is pure Portland.
THE SERVICE Given the cramped space, the servers—of which there are usually two, maybe three at most—manage to move gracefully between tables and the chef’s counter. Their demeanor is casual but by no means inattentive. They’re eager to please, apologizing profusely if you arrive and the wait is two or more hours (entirely a possibility), even trying to give you a few inside tips on how to go about securing a seat next time you visit (trust us, the only way to get a seat is to call way in advance). Seated at one of eight stools at the chef’s counter, you’ll get to watch all the fiery action, but the view from any table shows off a kitchen staff exhilarated by what they’re cooking. No matter where you sit, don’t be surprised if the chef brings your plate to you himself, with a wink.