EAT THIS NOW
- Fried chicken-skin salad
- Tempura green beans
- Four-cup chicken
- Hoisin-glazed short rib
- Brix Layer cocktail
Unlike the quick burn at Smallwares, Aviary’s mysteries unfold slowly on a seemingly random list of dishes, each its own constellation of cuisines and juxtapositions. France winks at Chinatown. Japan dances with India. Think of an iPod shuffling from Ravel to M.I.A.
The restaurant opened as one of 2011’s brightest stars; then a fire shuttered it for months. Recently, the kitchen rebooted with expanded ambitions and a new wave of cocktails as surprising as the food. Through it all, this spare room has perplexed and impressed. On any night, it’s possible to encounter the weird, the forgettable, and the transcendent.
This much is clear: chef Sarah Pliner, 40, is on the rise. Her journey through the New York kitchens of French master Alain Ducasse (Essex House) and Indian modernist Floyd Cardoz (Tabla) has yielded techniques and spice knowledge beyond Portland’s typical home-schooled kitchen. What’s missing is the “come eat my damn food” confidence of Le Pigeon or the personalized dinner-party focus of Beast. And better lighting wouldn’t hurt.
The art and originality—the most difficult ingredients of all—are already here. Four-cup chicken, a riff on a Taiwanese dish, sums up Pliner’s potential. Elegant coils of chicken—poached, seared, and clutching inspired bits of dried apricots and scallions—stand upright in an iconic Chinese broth sharpened by tomato water. The real brilliance is found bobbing around the edges: opium-caliber blobs of creamed taro root intoxicated by truffle perfumes. You don’t so much eat it as inhale it.
I’d return to Aviary just for this trio of dishes: tempura green beans, piled in a crosshatch over green curry transformed by coconut milk, honey, lime, and fresh tahini; cured salmon glistening between black caviar beads and butter-whipped fennel; and spicy duck legs with a dark swamp of richness, a poached egg, and buttery brioche croutons that seem straight from a Paris bistro.
Aviary and Smallwares expose the conventions creeping into Portland’s heralded un-conventionality. One hits the gut with playful addictions; the other teases the mind and makes your tongue smile. Their double dares come with delicacy and restraint, from food to mood. Rule-breaking food meets brains and beauty, at last.