YOU CAN'T SLAP a sleeping foodie* in this town without them declaring Aviary the hottest new thing since crème fraîche on brandied accipiter loin—and for good reason. For those who dine adventurously, Aviary has few peers. As a restaurant, it's an active conversation at the fringe of the primordial food party that is Portland; it's a supercollider of ideas where discovery occurs.

I know too many people on the staff to objectively review the place, but rather than stay silent on the topic of one of the most important restaurants in the city, I worked that professional handicap into a visit and lengthy Q&A with the chefs, going behind the scenes to get at what makes Aviary tick. Jasper Shen, Kat Whitehead, and Sarah Pliner, the boundary-pushing minds behind fried chicken skin salad with watermelon and clams with snout bacon, took some time out of their 12-hour workdays to talk about their motives, how they create a dish, and how they've adapted over time.

MERCURY: A few local restaurants are offering a new style of small-plate, technique-driven, category-defying cooking. It's hard to make, hard to describe, and it has a firm, often polarizing grasp on the dining public's imagination. What role does food like this play in the evolution of how we eat? Why is it important?

SARAH PLINER: I think the key element in this type of food is the lack of a specific cultural base—we don't care where in the world an ingredient or concept comes from, as long as it tastes good and is interesting. From what I remember from when I started cooking in Portland in the early '90s, we were always cooking a specific type of food: Italian, French, American. As I got into more and more progressive restaurants, that started to fall apart. There were Asian ingredients showing up, and when I got to New York, there didn't seem to be any limits, even at Ducasse, which is so French. I know there are still restaurants out there that adhere to a specific region or cuisine, but to me that just seems arbitrary. People are much more interested in food now than they were 20 years ago, and more knowledgeable—maybe we've reached a point where we're ready to explore food as a thing in itself, and not just a style?

Have public attitudes about this kind of small-plates, culturally unrestricted food become more receptive since you've been open?

JASPER SHEN: I think public opinion and our views have both changed over time. As word has gotten out, people have started to trust in the food we do. So, people have become more open the minute they come in the door, compared with when we first opened and people had no idea what they were going to get, and were pretty wary of it. Also, we have increased the size of the portions to be a little more user-friendly. We have found that people think smaller food portions are smaller food portions no matter how cheaply you price it. By increasing the size of the food on the plate, people are happier.  

Do you recall any "a-ha" moments early in your career, watching your chefs taste and invent, that strike you as particularly influential?

PLINER: When I was working at Ducasse, one day Tony Esnault, the chef, was working on a lobster dish, and I smelled the sauce from across the kitchen—lobster stock, coconut milk, mango—and I thought, "That smells delicious, I can't wait to see what he does with it." Then nothing for a few weeks. Then he was making it again, but a little different, then nothing again for a few weeks. It went on and on, and I started wondering if we'd ever see the dish. Three months later he had something he was happy with and put it on the menu. I'd never see anyone work that long or hard on a dish—when I was at the Heathman we changed the menu every day, and we'd just go stand in the walk-in at 2 pm and say, "Well, we have a lot of fingerling potatoes, and those mushrooms are going to go bad soon, and what else, spinach? Bacon! Espagnole! Done!" The food was okay, but I learned from Tony that if you take food seriously, you can really work at it and actually create something great, not through luck or talent or chance, but by work and perseverance. 

What is "wow factor," and how is it achieved? PLINER: That's hard. It's what's interesting about a dish, what no one else would have thought of. And sometimes it's not the thing I thought it would be—in our hamachi dish, I think it's the mentaiko [fish roe], but I see a lot of plates come back and people haven't even touched the mentaiko, though the rest of the plate is practically licked clean. With the hamachi, we pay a little extra to get fresh hamachi from Japan, never frozen or chemically treated to hold its color, which a lot of people have never tasted before, so for them that's the wow factor, not that weird-tasting little pile of fish eggs on the plate. I won't put something on the menu that doesn't have something interesting going on, I don't think we're doing our job as a restaurant if we do, so yeah, I guess wow factor is part of deciding when a dish is ready for the menu.

Why work so hard to serve this kind of food, when a hamburger-and-Pabst restaurant is basically a license to print money?

PLINER: This is a very personal question for me. I can't speak for Jasper and Kat, though I think their answer might be similar. I've never had any interest in being mediocre or making money just to make money. I didn't choose my career as a way to live; my career is my life. I cannot understand how anyone does anything every day of their life that they don't have passion for, and if you have passion, you do whatever you have to do to realize that. You cannot create a great restaurant working eight hours a day, and I don't see the point of creating a mediocre restaurant.

What is your creative process like? Could you take me through the invention of a specific dish that's currently on the menu?

PLINER: I usually start with either an ingredient I want to use or a technique. I'd like to go through the bigeye tuna dish—which will be on the menu either Friday or Saturday of this week, depending on when we run out of hamachi—because I can still remember the process.

First thing was the hamachi's been on [the menu] for like eight months, and it's time to go. Then it's got to be something cold, because if I add another hot dish, the hot side gets killed while garde manger [cold station] stands around and watches.

I've wanted to use bigeye tuna since I realized it was available and affordable. I really like Ethiopian food, and I was thinking about gored gored, which is cubes of raw beef dressed with clarified butter and berbere. So, I thought tuna tartare with berbere and olive oil. Then it needs some texture, and in sushi restaurants they often mix tobiko [flying fish roe] into tartares for some pop, so okay, tobiko.

I was also thinking about North African flavors, and eating a cold dish in winter, and how to bring some warmth into it, and I remembered something we did at Ducasse with lamb and red bell peppers and raisins. I can't quite remember exactly what the dish was, but I liked the sweetness of the raisins and thought the bitterness of roasted peppers would complement it, so like a little sofrito of red peppers and yellow raisins, and Asian pears for some crunch... then I was on hold with our produce company and the hold message was going on and on about persimmons, and I thought diced persimmon might serve as a bridge between the crunchy pear and the mushy raisins and peppers, and also persimmons really sing about fall.

So the dish is fine, but kind of unsatisfying—it needs something creamy. I took the berbere out of the tartare and put it in the sofrito, it needed it anyway, and dressed the tuna with lemon anchovy emulsion, which is like an aioli but uses the whole lemon so it has more bite and some bitterness that will contrast with all the sweet stuff, and goes better with the tobiko anyway. Still nervous about all the sweetness, I dusted toasted nori powder on the tartare—I wanted something toasty or bready or fried to ground it, and also it would be pretty.

Then [the dish needed] something clean and refreshing because there are a lot of strong flavors already. I wanted red-veined sorrel, but checked my garden and most of it is dead, so what? Arugula's obnoxious, we're already using watercress in two other dishes, endive might be good but it has to be cut to order and Kat's already really busy on garde manger. So a shot in the dark, I texted my produce rep and asked if he could get micro red sorrel, and was shocked that he can. That's not substantial enough by itself and has a very strong flavor, so I was thinking about a stage I did at Jean-Georges 10 years ago, and he does a really simple tuna tartare and then buries it under shaved radishes, I always though that was a nice idea, so we can mix in shaved radishes with the micro sorrel, olive oil, and lemon juice, and that finishes it.

Except I was still worried about the sofrito being too sweet and people eating it and saying, "Well, the tuna was nice, but I don't get this pile of sweet stuff on the plate," and for it to make sense, I thought there should be more berbere somewhere, so, last thing, I took the cleanest part of the tuna loin and did a quick cure on it with salt/sugar/berbere, and sliced it and put it under the sofrito.

[A dish is] complete when I can see it in my head, and nothing bothers me about it. 

How does cooking this way satisfy you? PLINER: I think food is one of life's biggest and most reliable pleasures, and it's a missed opportunity to eat a boring, bland meal. One of the reasons we cook the way we do at Aviary is, to walk away from a good taste for any reason is just stupid. It satisfies me because I don't think I ever discard an idea for an arbitrary reason, and because of that I get to share all these great ingredients with other people.

[To Kat Whitehead] Do you recall any "a-ha" moments early in your career?

WHITEHEAD: One of the first places that I cooked at in NYC was 5 Ninth, with Zak Pelaccio. Zak is totally crazy, but he puts flavors together in a way that most of us can't understand until we taste the result (Sarah Pliner is the same way). I remember prepping out this dish to his specs while he was out of the country for a big event. He gave us these recipes for curry-pickled tomatoes and a very sweet cilantro sauce. Both tasted horrible after being prepped, and we called Zak's assistant, freaking out. They told us not to worry, that as long as we'd followed the recipe, it was what Zak wanted. Okay, whatever... well, we got to taste the final dish, a brisket sandwich, and it was amazing. Everything worked together perfectly.

Which current dish on your menu are you particularly excited about?

PLINER: The skate. When I first tasted sunchokes, I really fell in love with them, then the next few years I guess I went a little overboard, 'til I finally got sick of them. I hadn't eaten a sunchoke for a few years, then this fall I went to San Francisco and I ate at Quince, where they had a sunchoke pasta, and I remembered how good they are. So the skate comes with a sunchoke puree, and a salad of shaved sunchokes, and it makes me happy every time we sell one, because I know whoever ordered it is going to really enjoy it. Also, skate's a really good fish and we don't see enough of it in Portland.

What are some strong childhood flavor impressions?

PLINER: For my stepmother's 40th birthday party, we went to Mondrian, which was a big-deal restaurant in the '80s in Manhattan. I was 15, and had no interest in becoming a chef, but I liked food. For one course we had a lobster dish with a whole bunch of different sauces squeeze-bottled onto the plate. I would guess now it was lobster jus, crème fraîche, and chive oil. All I knew then was it tasted incredible, it bloomed in my mouth, the combination seemed somehow right in a way that transcended what I thought food could be. When I started cooking for a living I still remembered that taste, and kind of chased it through restaurants, eventually only taking jobs at restaurants where the food reminded me of that dish.

WHITEHEAD: Connecticut-style lobster rolls, just butter and meat (mayo and celery are abominations!). Connecticut clam chowder, which is a thin, milky broth. It's not clear, like Rhode Island chowder, but it shouldn't be thick and "paste-y." No one away from the Connecticut shoreline gets these things right.

Familiarity is a key component of comfort and trust, so how does a modernist restaurant with a completely unique menu nobody's ever seen before get people in the door and lower their inhibitions?

SHEN: Unfortunately, we more often than not don't get them in the door. Many people look at our menu, shake their heads, and walk away. Good reviews help a lot, as does word of mouth—we also do well when people come in as guests of a regular. But at the end of the day, we're just not everyone's cup of tea.

Aviary is open Monday-Thursday 5-10 pm, Friday-Saturday 5-11 pm.


* Anyone who self-describes as a "foodie" should be slapped.