It's stating the obvious to note that Chef Gabriel Rucker is exactly the type of chef Portland is known for: He's young, he's got tattoos, and he's a cooking school dropout. He's also P-town's latest culinary success story. Former sous chef at Gotham Bldg. Tavern, he currently mans the open kitchen at Le Pigeon, where his cooking has gained him some serious fans in the four short months the restaurant has been open. Rucker shrugged when I called him the prototypical new Portland chef. "There's an equation going on," he said, "that I stumbled onto that kind of... worked."
It sure does. Rucker moved into the storefront formerly occupied by Colleen French's beloved self-titled restaurant, and old fans of Colleen's will find it much the same. A handful of tables jostle cozily for space, a chef's table surrounds the open bar, and vintage chandeliers bathe the dining room in light that seems to come not only from a different time, but a different continent: Comparisons to some tiny, 19th century French bistro are inevitable. And in the same way that Le Pigeon apparently exists in some warp in the time-space continuum, some of Rucker's food similarly defies the basic laws of reality.
I made it through appetizers at Le Pigeon without having any metaphysical mishaps—Brie tartlets with arugula and garlic confit whetted the appetite nicely. One bite of my entrée, though, and time itself came to a screeching halt. The braised pork belly with butter-poached prawns and creamed corn single-handedly caused all activity in the universe to cease for a moment: It was just my pork belly and me. The pork belly, a two-by-two-inch square of the fattiest part of the pig, vaguely resembled a layered dessert cake: juicy meat atop a layer of pure fat. Here the fat adds a smooth, velvety feel to the crispier meat it's paired with—if it sounds gross, that's only because you haven't tried it yet. The accompanying creamed corn was a revelation, namely that in the hands of this talented young chef, even food that is effectively synonymous with "dull" can be coaxed into providing exquisite, unexpected flavors.
Entrée number two was the cutely named Duck-Duck-Pigeon: pan-roasted squab (a young, unfledged pigeon) with duck confit, and salad with duck-liver vinaigrette. The dark, greasy little bird paired nicely with a tumble of frisée lettuce, grapes, and duck bits.
For dessert, another phenomenal actualization of pig's potential: Rucker's apricot cornbread with bacon and maple ice cream is hands down one of the best desserts I've ever eaten. Other items gracing the dessert board might include a chocolate tart with sea salt and mint pesto, or peach upside-down cake with goat cheese ice cream. Rucker acknowledges that these combos are unusual, but maintains that if they'll just trust him, "people walk away really happy having just had bacon for dessert." I second that.
Le Pigeon also churns out a quite civilized brunch on weekends, the highlights of which have been the duck confit hash, and the enormous, iceberg slaw-topped Strawberry Mountain burger. Be warned, though, that your French press of Stumptown coffee might get cold while you wait: Brunch can suffer from lengthy wait times.