SOPHOMORE EFFORTS are notoriously difficult, more so when your debut earned commercial and critical acclaim. Among musicians, it's said that you have your whole life to make your first album, and two weeks to make your second. Expectations are high, and there's a tension between the need to innovate and the desire to replicate your original success. Best-case scenario, you expand your audience without alienating your fans.
In a time and place where chefs have the éclat of rock stars, that pressure can't be far from Gabriel Rucker's mind.
In December, Rucker and partner Andy Fortgang opened Little Bird, their follow-up to the much-lauded Le Pigeon. Since 2006, Rucker has been operating from the stage-like kitchen in Le Pigeon's tiny East Burnside space. He's been James Bearded many times over, a crush object of the national press, and absolutely instrumental in defining Portland's culinary renaissance... ironic, as Le Pigeon's menu is so difficult to define. French, but playful. No opportunity to utilize offal is bypassed.
It's not quite accurate to say that Little Bird plays it safer—just glance at the appetizers and you'll see glazed beef tongue and potted duck liver—but the menu is friendlier to the masses, more recognizable to the customer that might accidentally order sweetbreads when they really want Rucker's famous honey-bacon-apricot cornbread. A lot of this has to do with size—a bigger dining room and a bigger kitchen can accommodate a bigger menu—but there's definitely a concerted effort being made for a bigger audience.
Little Bird's design splits the difference between, say, Jake's and any of the hipster-aesthetic inner Eastside places. Deep red booths, a pressed-tin ceiling (faux, I'm told), and '40s jazz add a little bit of classic ambiance to the Paxton-Gate, dead-animal-chic décor.
The menu—which Rucker developed with Erik Van Kley, his former sous chef, and the man handling day-to-day operations—is heavy on traditional French bistro favorites: moules frites, frog legs, escargot. But nothing I've tried feels pigeonholed by tradition; nothing tastes generic.
We started with a salad... well, a salad in name only—frisée, crisp pork belly, and a soft-boiled egg ($9). It was, essentially, the greatest bacon and eggs ever prepared, served with a small pile of greens tossed in a light Dijon. Next we had the aforementioned mussels ($13). The broth was much thicker than what I'm used to—rich and buttery with a strong saffron flavor. The fries were crisp, hot, and seasoned with espelette, a Basque chile powder. I can't recommend either dish highly enough.
The first entrée I tried was the flatiron steak ($22). It was grilled perfectly, but what really stood out was how well it paired with its accompaniments. The meat was served over a bed of truffle-creamed spinach. Both in texture and in flavor, it was a perfect complement—rich and decadent without overpowering the steak. And the pickled onion rings! I don't use exclamation points lightly, but oh my.
If your appetite is not easily sated, you probably can't do better than the pork chop ($23). It's an enormous cut of meat served over a cabbage galette (if the latter doesn't sound particularly exciting, know that the flaky dough is also packed with onion, bacon, and, I believe, gruyère cheese). The dish is finished with a bacon-apple relish—a great balance of sweet and savory.
The most anticipated menu item was probably Rucker's coveted burger—if only because Le Pigeon was limited to five a night... and I tend toward late dinners. At $12 with fries or salad, it's worth every penny and worthy of all the hype. Be prepared to break out your knife and fork—the patty itself is significantly thicker than most, but when you factor in the mound of iceberg slaw (why don't more people do this?), the grilled pickled onions (which, at first, I mistook for thick-cut bacon), and the Ken's ciabatta roll, there's no way in hell you're getting it in your mouth without making a mess (I tried, and failed). If entrées upward of $20 aren't realistic for your budget, you'll still be able to see what all the fuss is about.
The hours make Little Bird a little more accessible as well. Instead of a four- or five-hour window, Little Bird is open weekdays from 11:30 am to midnight (with happy hour from 3 to 5 pm... pretty good motivation to knock off early if you work downtown). Saturday and Sunday they're open from 5 pm to midnight.
The problem with a menu as large and interesting as this one is how difficult it is to be comprehensive—I still want to try the bone marrow; I've heard raves about the crab and celery root rémoulade; I'll have to go back for pastry chef Lauren Fortgang's desserts. Rucker's follow-up may not push the envelope like Le Pigeon, but it's certainly going to please his fans, and judging from the crowds I've seen so far, that fanbase is growing.