One champions the hard art of French technique; the other prowls the French underbelly, gleefully. They are two celebrated local chefs from two generations, a one-time teacher and his student with radically different ideas about cooking. What binds them is a drive for excellence and a restless wanderlust to stretch and create. After five years of taste bud–pushing originality, Le Pigeon’s Gabriel Rucker once again conjured the city’s most thrilling meals in 2012. Meanwhile, instead of commissioning a rocking chair at veritable institution Paley’s Place, farm-to-table icon Vitaly Paley embraced risk and gambled it all on Imperial, his just-opened adventure on the ground floor of downtown’s Hotel Lucia. This year, they reminded us what Portland aspires to be.
Top 5 Imperial Intrigues
1. THE TATTOO WALLPAPER Pigs, roses, salmon, and, yes, a blindfolded queen march across a flesh-colored tableau in a brilliant synopsis of Stumptown spackled on a wall.
2. THE EATING NOOKS In a remake of a historic room, every turn offers a mood change: animated nighthawk bar, commanding booths, communal table, and cozy chef’s counter with front-row seats to the wood-fire cooking show.
3. THE COLLABORATORS James Beard’s spirit, the Oregon Historical Society, local farmers and fisherman, and not least, Paley’s rebel understudy, executive chef Ben Bettinger, shaped a wide-appeal menu that looks backwards and forwards at once.
4. DESSERTS Rising talent Michelle Vernier has already unleashed a sit-up-and-notice lemon meringue pie, deeply puckering in a flaky crust, and a cult-worthy chocolate icebox cake beneath torched marshmallow.
5. THE PALEY PHILOSOPHY “We can’t know who we are if we don’t look at our past.”
Top 5 Le Pigeon Moves
1. DON’T TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS The weirder it sounds, the bigger the payoff. Smoked rabbit pie with gooey cheddar and savory mustard ice cream? You’ll still be dreaming about it a year from now. One recent out-of-towner summed it up while stumbling out the door: “Peanut butter and turnips? Crazy fucking genius.”
2. SAY HELLO TO YOUR NEIGHBOR The communal seats and alt-Paris vibe are more spontaneous dinner party than restaurant. Le Pigeon is a magnet for food lovers and globe-hoppers ready to share notes on life, Portland, and the evening’s meal.
3. WHEN IN LE PIGEON ... If you see the word “pigeon,” you want it. Rucker’s favorite ingredient turns up in wildly nuanced salads and toast-centric installations holding the house signature—a darkly humorous claw.
4. SIP Ask ace sommelier and co-owner Andy Fortgang to pair outstanding sherries, small-grower Champagnes, and other pitch-perfect companions from his ever-changing arsenal of intrigues.
5. SURRENDER Just let the man fly. Five-course tastings go for a very reasonable $65.