I CAN'T SAY that Aviary was on my most-anticipated list. The concept, at first glance, seemed ill defined, and every description I'd heard was full of buzzwords from some kind of foodie parody: fusion-y, East meets West, molecular gastronomical. The way people talked about the menu I half expected some kind of seaweed-encrusted beef-tendon risotto with, like, a salted caramel, duck-confit, rhubarb crème-fraîche demi-glace (but, you know, served tapas style). And another Portland restaurant with bird imagery? Needless to say, I approached NE Alberta's new fine-dining establishment with a fair bit of skepticism.
Of course, any concept is fine so long as you can deliver. What counts is the execution, and in my experience so far, Aviary's kitchen hasn't missed. I walked away from my first dinner with a full stomach, a good taste in my mouth, and my tail between my legs. Aviary pulled it off.
If the old "too many cooks" saying holds any truth, you wouldn't know it here. The restaurant is a collaboration between three co-chefs—Sarah Pliner, Jasper Shen, and Kat Whitehead—each of whom is coming off high-profile New York gigs. And whatever teamwork is going on back in Aviary's big open kitchen seems related to the strange and wonderful combinations on each of their small plates.
A meal at Aviary starts out with a bang. The bread plate features two varieties from Pearl Bakery—a standard baguette and an olive loaf—but it's accompanied by no simple pat of butter. The bagna cauda (meaning "hot bath") is a rich, warm cocktail of olive oil, butter, and garlic (traditionally it's made with anchovies, but I didn't taste or see any—if you're a vegetarian, you may want to double check). But if the bread course is Aviary's "Thunder Road," the salads are its "10th Avenue Freeze-Out." There's that feeling that you can't possibly maintain the energy and quality, until the chorus hits, or in this case, you bite into the best seared octopus you've ever tried, served over a bed of micro-greens with chickpea fritters, and dressed with a light yogurt and paprika reduction sauce. If you've only ever had rubbery octopus, let these guys change your mind.
Or if it's not your thing, substitute the warm snap pea and barley salad. It's served with tiny delicate orbs of yogurt and orange juice; they almost have the consistency of a poached egg, but when punctured, they make a nice subtle dressing for your salad.
I can't recommend the Dungeness crab strudel highly enough. Layers of light, flaky pastry envelop a generous portion of crab meat. But if that sounds too straightforward, know that it's paired with baby lettuce and a lovely nori vinaigrette. The tempura pumpkin will be a nice addition to whatever you order—the big, bold red curry stands out from the more delicate flavors that most of the dishes are built around.
As far as large plates go (large being a relative term), the highlight is Aviary's crispy pig ear, hands down. Coconut rice fills the bottom of a paella pan, and it's topped with dime-sized pieces of sweet Chinese sausage, avocado, shoestrings of pickled daikon, watercress, and a little bit of basil. The pig ear is thin and brittle, but still manages to have a big meaty flavor. The range of flavors, as you might guess, is immense, but it's all very rich. I'd recommend sharing.
The Shao Xing chicken is worth ordering for the asparagus tapenade alone (why hasn't anyone prepared this for me before?). The cutlets of breast meat are ridiculously tender and drenched in whatever wine base it's cooked in. I thought goji berries were only used in multi-level marketing schemes, but it turns out they're great with poultry as well.
I haven't dug too deep into the desserts yet—beer ice cream is next on my list—but I was pleased with the coconut bread pudding. The coconut flavor probably could have been played up, but once I ran my fork through the sesame caramel, and scooped up a slice of mandarin orange salad, that was fairly easy to ignore.
My only real gripe with the restaurant is the space. All the concrete surfaces look nice enough, but they don't do any favors to the volume level. On a busy night, it's pretty tough to hear someone even just across the table from you. It's a minor flaw, but I worry it'll deter date nights, which should be Aviary's bread and butter. And I'm not sure they can afford to deter their audience. The concept isn't the kind of thing that draws in the masses, and these guys aren't trying to make a play for the best-burger-in-town crowd. I'd say it isn't the kind of food you get some unwavering hankering for—it's the kind of meal you plan in advance—but just thinking about that pig ear has me looking for my car keys.