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.