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.