We just got back from one of our semi-infrequent escapades to Portland – essentially, a long weekend of food related adventures. Every year that goes by, Portland seems to add some elements of improvement to its food scene, and fortunately has a population willing to support whatever emerging points of excellence should appear. And so, armed with our pre-meditated research, from such sites as Yelp, Chowhound (both good sources of “user” reviews) and my favorite, portlandfood.com (a hangout not only for serious foodies, but many restaurant owners, chefs, and staffers), we set about to find cost effective lodging for our visit.
For a big city with a good food scene, I suppose Portland is a relatively inexpensive place to bed down, but by Oregon standards, it is the most expensive place in the state to find a room – but I have found a good way, with relatively few concessions to be made, to beat the system – I use Priceline, and only bid in the airport area, where the hotels are many, most of newer vintage, and often starving for guests (especially now). I don’t bid below the 2 ½ level, and I’m not aware of any dogs on Bidding for Travel’s hotel list (If you use Priceline, make sure you check this site for helpful hints and info to make your bidding more successful). Surprisingly, I got the Holiday Inn on Columbia on my first try for $36 a night! Always makes you wish you had opened your bidding at $15 or something similar.
What concessions did we give up for this deal? Just the fact that we were located on the far east side of town, but the hotel is located at the hub of several key transit routes that serve to drop you quickly into downtown Portland – and the hotel itself is perfectly fine – an older property to be sure, but well maintained, very clean, and all parts functional. Additionally, they did not seem to be suffering for lack of guests – I’m quite sure that Saturday night was close to full capacity (8 floors!). I’m not sure just why hotels use Priceline – there’s definitely something I don’t know about the strategy – Whatever!
One of the highlights of the weekend was dinner at Le Pigeon, a small (30 seats), relatively new (2006), bistro style place with communal seating at three long tables, and another ten seats at the counter overlooking the kitchen action – as in many fine restaurants, the actual cooking area is minuscule, maybe 15’x3′, a space in which 3 people are moving constantly. The counter space cannot be reserved, and so is only assigned on a walk-in basis – but, with my past restaurant kitchen experience, I knew that was where I wanted to be! So, hoping for the best, we arrived at 6:30 – and the stars were right; we slipped into the two end seats of the counter, directly overlooking Gabe Rucker, owner/chef, and his assistant, a young 25’ish Asian woman, and positioned ourselves for the show!
The food at Le Pigeon is French influenced, but strays from the classics often. Rucker’s approach is to choose unusual ingredients and put them together in a French manner, kind of like bistro comfort food. Everything is rich, fatty, and selected for its appeal to the local crowd, and this is even true for the one vegetarian dish generally included on the changing weekly menu. If you’re in a dieting mode, this is not a good place to be. I’m not complaining, quite the opposite – this is my kind of place, where flavor is everything.
Amazingly copious amounts of butter were being used in most preparations – I watched as at least 3 ounces was used to bathe a searing piece of halibut, and then deposited into a container on the back of the stove (I wonder what its future fate may be?). Other elements applied copiously are salt and fresh lemon juice – salt is applied from ketchup containers, and although I’m an over-salter (per my wife), I was a little taken-aback by the amounts I saw being used – but as many other commenters have observed, I actually found nothing that tasted over-salted!
I really loved this experience of kitchen watching! The prep needed to jump-start the operation must be enormous – most dishes have elements that require either precooking (braised items, duck, sauces, etc.), or the timely application of multiple ingredients which must be readily available at arm’s reach – and it all is right there on the counter side of the chefs’ alley. The stove is a big, six burner, gas affair with a built-in grill that I’d die to have – and most dishes are done in eight inch saute pans similar to those most of us would use for our breakfast eggs – there’s a stack of 30-40 of these over the stove, and I’m sure that stack turns over several times in an ordinary night.
This is not “picture perfect” French food – it is, above all, food meant to be adventurous, daring, and ground breaking – but always to taste as good as possible. And Le Pigeon is a restaurant that reflects the attitude of Portland as well as any other in town – which means laid back, casual, but serious about what counts most, the enjoyment of good food.
And when you leave Le Pigeon, you know you’ve just had a wonderful meal in an enjoyable ambiance – and you know you’ll be back.