Friday, March 4, 2011

NE Alberta's Aviary: International Cuisine Without Borders, or, As the Bird Flies

I was going to write a whole post about Aviary without making a single bird double entendre, but as I was trying to characterize the food coming out of Sarah Pliner, Jasper Shen, and Kat Whitehead's three-chef kitchen, I couldn't help but think of the phrase as the crow flies... and all bets were off. Even a cursory glance at the collaborative menu of these New York transplants' new restaurant reveals an international approach to food, an attention to detail and ingredients that seems to fly over borders and culinary trends. Indeed, these dishes combine French techniques and Asian ingredients, but there's something more to their selection and incorporation of specialty herbs, fruits, spices, fish, and meat that puts them above the standard roadways and expected avenues of the Portland's food scene. Herbs, greens, and garnishes seem to have been foraged simply because they taste great and add a lot to a dish - not because they are traditional or trendy - like a bird opportunistically selecting the tastiest bites from any spot of earth, regardless of fences or geographical boundaries.

Aviary's menu is sophisticated in a way that points a big neon arrow to the chef's culinary provinence (including stints with Alain Ducasse at the Essex House and Aquavit to Jean-Georges and Aldea), the techniques on display put them in a different category than most eateries on Alberta, and General Manager and wine director Leah Moorhead brings her truly local expertise to the fantastic wine list - but the accessible prices and enthusaism of the young chefs break through any stuffiness that sophistication might otherwise bring to the dining experience.  Even though Aviary will undoubtedly receive a bit of teasing for falling into the "put-a-bird-on-it" trend of Portland's restaurants (See also: Little Bird, Roost, and the soon-to-open Cocotte), Sarah, Jasper, and Kat are doing some truly unique things that complicate any simple categorization. There's nothing predictable on the menu, and the presentation is creative and captivating, from the crispy pig ear rice to the beer ice cream with salted pretzels. I really hope people will venture out of their culinary comfort zones into one of Aviary's comfortable tables to try these dishes for themselves. If Aviary can get off the ground, they'll really help widen Portland's palate to include the kind of creative and sophisticated food that will take us from a small town with great grub to a world-class culinary community on par with the big birds.

Aviary - 1733 NE Alberta St. Portland, OR 97211 - (503) 287-2400,
Hours: Mon-Thu 5pm-10pm; Fri-Sat 5pm-11pm; Closed Sunday

Octopus salad with chickpea fries, pickled shallots, arugula, meyer lemon yogurt (Soon to be on the menu - my favorite dish of the night)

Cauliflower Veloute with chestnuts, shiso, and American caviar.

Crispy pig ear with coconut rice, Chinese sausage, and avocado.

Arctic Char confit with nori beurre noisette.

Brioche-crusted halibut with sea urchin, spinach, and cucumber.

Seared Tai Snapper with shrimp, bacon, and mustard greens.

Braised beef cheeks with celery root, blood orange, and ginkgo nuts.

Beer ice cream, coffee gelee, pretzel nougatine, and evaporated milk tuile (made with MacTarnahan's Amber Ale)


  1. Nice feature, Allison. I have been meaning to get in there, and I'm even more excited after seeing this.