Pig ears are an awfully polarizing ingredient. We openly embrace pork belly and look the other way when it comes to questioning our beloved bacon. But, eating an ear? Seriously, isn’t that only something Mike Tyson would do? Only people who own tigers would eat ear, even if it’s a pig ear, right?
Being such a fickle ingredient for chefs, pig ears are daunting. The risk of using them can result in a diner swearing them off forever. The reward is that pig ear can be extraordinary, surpassing any other part of the hog. On bad days, pig ears are the worst of both worlds of bone marrow: horribly gelatinous and greasy like inferior marrow, with a vicious crunch that sneaks up and punches you in the mouth like a hidden piece of bone. On good days, pig ears tie together all of the elements of exceptional pork: moisture, saltiness, umami, and supreme tenderness, with the slight funk in the pillowy texture that only peculiar offal parts seem to be able to achieve, such as a liver or a cheek.
It does seem strange that the signature dish at a restaurant named Aviary does not revolve around quail or Guinea fowl, but actually around crispy pig ear.
Yet, with the exceptional care and design put into this paella via Southeast Asia-inspired casserole at what may very well be the most exciting restaurant in what may very well be the country’s most exciting food city at the turn of the year to 2013, expect to see the pig ear welcomed much more by the dining public.Sarah Pilner, Jasper Shen, and Kat Whitehead are the triumphant trio behind this barely two year old destination, far removed from Downtown Portland in a mostly residential area of the Northeast. The Alberta Arts District, a handful of blocks, represents the distinctive diversity of Northeast Portland. There is a mix of boarded-up houses on the side streets, hipster baristas at the always excellent coffee shop Barista NE who shares a courtyard with Aviary, and Tin Shed, a classic greasy spoon brunch destination with eternally long waits for biscuits and gravy and lumberjack omelettes. Yet, here you also have the very accomplished, ambitious Aviary, and you’re never very far from another mammoth Whole Foods Market.
Despite its young age, Aviary has been through more unfortunately than any restaurant should, regardless of age. After getting going initially with the first round of positive reviews, a firework struck the restaurant’s roof, closing down the restaurant. With the support of the tight-knit Portland restaurant community, Aviary got back on its feet just a few months later by the end of 2011.
Pilner, Shen, and Whitehead have quite the impressive resumes from their formative culinary careers. Portland heavyweights The Heathman and Giorgio’s can be cited, along with major Manhattan legends including Jean-Georges, Alain Ducasse, and George Mendes of Aldea.
It’s intriguing cooking on display courtesy of a very intriguing concept. The kitchen world is one usually very much of distinct roles, with seniority very apparent. You have the executive chef. You have the chef de cuisine. You have the pastry chef. You have the sauciers and the lowly apprentices who never stop chopping.
Aviary is a team concept. Often you see best friends or a husband and wife duo behind a restaurant, but it is very rare to see three young chefs put their innovative visions and special talents together like this. Let’s hope to see it more often.
While Portland’s restaurants get their reputation mostly from a few common sources: purposeful excess (think Pine State Biscuits and the city’s affection for mega hangover curing brunches), just plain quirkiness (visit any street cart pod), or a resolute attention to the origin and welfare of ingredients (just watch “Portlandia” on IFC).
Does Aviary have dishes bordering on excess? There is pig ear, but nothing here is close to overboard. Quirky? Sure, it’s unique, but not in an offbeat way. Cares about ingredients? Of course, but I don’t know how much coconut is grown in Oregon, and the menu doesn’t list a single farm if that is an important trait for you.
What Aviary shows is the continued maturation of the Portland restaurant scene. There are marquee restaurants for sure in this town, just sit for a prix fixe dinner from Naomi Pomeroy at Beast. Matthew Lightner now is nationally known for his cutting edge creations at Atera in New York. Beforehand, he was doing the same, taking the moist, rugged terroir of the Pacific Northwest, and creating revelations for diners at Castagna.
The trio at Aviary are following this path of bold techniques, but possess a global edge to their style that might be a first in Portland. Most of that global edge comes from Asian cuisines, whether it’s sake with roasted black cod or the kimchi with a strip steak. At the same time, baba ganoush is the base for a fried chicken salad.
“Eclectic” is really the appropriate word for this menu. Why follow a particular cuisine? Aviary has its niche and almost always thrives in it. That crispy pig ear is spectacular, in a hot casserole skillet, arranged over fragrant coconut rice, coins of spicy Chinese sausage, a garden’s worth of herbs, and yes, slices of avocado. It’s all very green. It’s all magnificent. One of the casserole dishes seems to be on at least 80% of the tables, ordered as commonly as the Ike’s Fish Sauce Chicken Wings at Pok Pok or the burger during lunch service at Grüner.
Each dish is a “small plate,” but really is in that perfect category of “medium” where two to three dishes a person works. The menu is listed lightest to heaviest, starting with Kusshi oysters and tomato granité, and concluding with a New York strip steak and duck fat potatoes. Yes, there are lots of possibilities in between given those parameters. It’s a sensational menu format, encouraging sharing but allowing you to hog if you must.
The menu doesn’t have drastic changes very often, with the octopus, tempura green beans, and crispy pig ear now absolute standards. You’ll see lots of tweaks here and there over time- peaches in September giving way to apples in October style.
Perfectly tender, charred octopus is another example of this global, edgy cooking, grouped with scallion pancakes, green papaya, Chinese long beans, and cashews. That fried chicken salad is a revelation, given crunch and salinity from the skins, richness from the baba ganoush without being heavy, then a sharp kick from a bed of bitter greens, a bright sweetness from watermelon and pickled watermelon rind, all tied together by the spice and funk of a Thai chile fish sauce. You can’t find this at Pok Pok.
Other dishes you’ll find are more elegant and less global– a lovely seared sea scallops preparation with sunchokes, Meyer lemon, black olive oil, and Oregon truffles, along with cappelletti stuffed with Chanterelles, in an herb broth, bolstered by quince and tapioca pearls. Meanwhile, look elsewhere on the menu, and some inspiration in each dish might draw from five continents’ Steamed Manila clams with Sherry, pig snout bacon, snap pears, and coriander, or shortrib in a hoisin glaze with ginkgo nuts, blood orange, and celery root.
There is a delicate side to the cooking. I adored a roasted black cod, scales on, soft as a Portland mist, jolted by sake’s umami, sour grapes sprinkled about, parnsip puree, and crisp lacinato kale. The presentation is less imaginative than others here. At the same time, it’s such an inviting dish– comforting and interesting.
There is a homey side to the cooking. You could be in a Tuscan village enjoying braised goat with goat cheese gnocchi, kabocha squash, and cherry tomatoes. Except, you add toasted coconut to the equation and braise the goat in red curry here.
Best of all may have been a take on the Japanese izakaya standard – fried tofu in a dashi-fortified broth, called “Agedashi Tofu.” In place of tofu, sweet potato cubes are fried, then placed in the dashi broth, joined by a smorgasbord of smashing sensations. A little trout roe here, a little spinach there, a little crunch from pumpkin seeds, a little puckering element from buttermilk– it’s all here and never loses its original focus of being a clean, clear dish about the dashi broth and the fried sweet potato.
The only stumbling block comes at dessert. A very tempting sounding chocolate tart with milk jam barely has the promised dulce de leche and sports a chalky, bland crust. Better to go for the cardamom rice pudding with cashews and pomegranates, or for the homey toffee- stout cake accompanied by spiced apples.
The single page wine list could actually use a few more Oregon names, though I very much enjoyed a young Brooks Pinot Noir. And, though the menu is extremely well priced with dishes often in the $13-18 range and never topping much above $20, the wine list seemed a touch steep.
Ross Hunsinger’s cocktails seem to commence dinner at every table, shaken and stirred in the bar, hidden behind a curtain from the main dining room. If you’re in a deceitful mood, go for the Clear Creek Apple Brandy, Fernet Branca, Mulled Cider, Lemon, and Orange creation called “Vicious Lies & Dangerous Rumors.” The “One Night in Bangkok” would perfectly complement the crispy pig ear, with Monopolowa Vodka, kafir lime leaves, and lemongrass. The most ordered seems to be the Oregon-inspired Manhattan variation, blending Buffalo Trace Bourbon, house sour, orange, Angostura bitters, then topped with a Cabernet Sauvignon float, called appropriately the “Brix Layer.” Except, shouldn’t the float be Pinot Noir in these parts? Served up in a martini glass, the handsome, sweet drink was a touch too heavy on the house sour, yet still very worthwhile.
Still finding its legs a bit more than the kitchen, service has great heart and knows the menu inside and out. There will be real fluctuations in pacing. Sometimes courses are well timed; other times you’ll have 40 minute waits between dishes, then have dessert appear two minutes after ordering. All happened to me in one sitting.
The building used to be a church, with some of its remnants used as furniture in the almost speakeasy- dark bar. The dining room is a touch lighter with distinct red hues. A banquette lines one side, while prime four top tables reside in the center, and a chef’s counter overlooks the open kitchen and wine cellar wall taking up another side. This is a big city bistro vibe, with the usual industrial elements decor and the concert noise to go with it. You dress up in chic attire to dine here; no birkenstocks.
We know that Portland’s restaurants long ago shed their birkenstocks and “Portlandia” identity. A restaurant as exciting and grown-up as Aviary, well, that might be much newer. Aviary isn’t a restaurant to watch anymore. Aviary is an example of a restaurant that many restaurants today are aspiring to be.
Dinner Monday to Saturday
1733 NE Alberta St., Portland, OR