[Editor's Note: This is food critic Chris Onstad's last review for the Mercury, and we wish him the best of luck! Tune in next week to meet our new critic, the very talented Andrea Damewood.]
It may not seem timely to review a restaurant that opened in December 2012, but I don't care. This is my last hour in the pulpit, and I'm not going to spend it romanticizing some east county pupusa cart. Ava Gene's—crowned Portland Monthly's 2013 Restaurant of the Year, and rated the fifth best new restaurant in America by Bon Appétit—fit the bill. They've been elected the best in one of the country's top restaurant markets. Do they rep us well? Are they still earning it?
Portland has capably defined fine dining on its own terms: There are no tablecloths. You can have beer. Silverware is arranged casually, and may not even match. What matters is that the food delivers in ways that make you long for home when you travel. Every time. Especially at these prices.
But let's begin at the front door. Whatever fortune Ava Gene's paid their interior-design firm to create the space, it was worth it. The dining room noses easily into the intersection of casual and loca-luxe: It's an amber-lit swank saloon of thick white marble, brass, burgundy leather, and skilled woodwork. Tables are set casually and spaced close, but they don't feel cramped; these are acoustically private spaces in a room that's always buzzing and cheery. You will feel attractive and smart.
Service is among the best in the city, and lord knows we tested them. One dinner for two ran over three hours (in a smallish restaurant that's booked solid from 5-10 pm every night of the week). Did the waiter wince when we sent something back, or when we kept adding dishes as our conversation caught second and third winds? No, and he brought dessert menus without giving us the option to skip sweets to let him turn the table. I even asked him to bring the check with the pastry; unfailingly professional, I'm sure he would rather have spat on the floor.
Starters, pane (bread dishes), and giardini (salads) are where Ava Gene's showcases its award-winning creativity and boundary-exploring artistry. Squid ink arancini ($10 for three), in a wintry drift of grated parm, enjoy an approachable tweak of umami. The leafless salads (e.g., richly dressed citrus, dates, almonds, chilies, whipped ricotta, $12) make up the most clever and satisfying vegetarian dishes in town (if you don't count the inclusion of the occasional bit of anchovy, colatura fish sauce, or heavy hand with the salt). A carta di musica (a paperback-sized cracker, $9) dressed with squash puree, mint, ricotta salata, and colatura, made me surrender myself to the kitchen.
Yes, we sent something back, but that was out of 22 items ordered. It was a $33 beef short rib, a weighty and lacquered beauty in a generous drizzle of Stumptown Hair Bender demi-glace, under artfully contrasting raw mandolined vegetables. But the meat was dry, the horseradish sauce bland, and the demi-glace not noticeably Stumpy. Short ribs are very hard to cook and hold, I know, and I apologized as I asked for the culotte steak ($35) instead. Apologies were returned in spades from the entire chain of command. Even though it was photogenically Titian, culotte seems to be a lean and monotonous cut of beef, and its accompanying panzanella was more akin to unforkably hard croutons, unaided by bizarrely dry greens. However, my guest—your incoming food editor, Andrea Damewood, whose taste I came to respect over the course of the evening—enjoyed the meat's delicacy and the way the flavors built.
Lamb spiedino ($33), on the other hand, should be on every table. It's a princely tour of the animal, on a bed of satiny hummus that tastes as though the meat's drippings have been mixed in. Butter-soft roast shoulder, an oversized quadrillage-charred chop an inch thick, and deeply smoky lamb sausage, skewered with onion and creamy liver make up one of the most primally moving mixed-grill plates I've ever consumed.
Pastas were either revelatory (an earthy, medieval four-nut ragu on fresh buffalo cheese ravioli, $21), or very good but not worthy of special-occasion dining (rigatoni with sausage crumbles, rapini, and red chili flake, $20). A lamb neck ragu on cavatelli ($19) soothed me deeply, but was too simple for a friend.
The majority of cocktails are $9, and five out of five were bull's eyes of texture, temperature, balance, restrained inventiveness, and evolving flavor. Dessert... these are Italian desserts. They are best in class, but you get them to accompany caffe corretto ($9, an espresso with a whopping cordial of grappa).
I was surprised to find so many chinks in the armor here, yet also to be so swept away by the ride. If they can rein in the quality control, Ava Gene's might, in my experience, be worthy of those accolades.
Open daily 5-11 pm. Reservations highly recommended. The wine list recognizes every walk of life.