It’s new year, new menu at Gabriel Rucker’s Little Bird Bistro, the downtown sister restaurant to East Burnside’s beloved Le Pigeon. Executive Chef Erik Van Kley has introduced a number of new dishes in 2014, including black cod with sweet clam Parisian gnocchi, a crispy fried shrimp sandwich, and a roasted Tails and Trotters pork foreshank meant for sharing.
The change that has some diners alarmed, though, is the burger: Van Kley has swapped out the famous Le Pigeon burger, of which there were once only five available per night across the river, for a new offering he believes is more in line with the restaurants French bistro inspirations. With any New Year’s resolution, there are some people bound to think you were more fun before the change. But are the haters right?
The new burger is significantly gamier than the Rucker classic; it smelled so intoxicatingly meaty that I completely forgot to take a picture of it before I started eating. The sheer beefiness of the beef paired wonderfully with the goat cheese for a funk-on-funk combination that brought out the best in both ingredients. As for the veggies, the grilled onions aren’t caramelized enough to stand up to the double-whammy of meat and cheese, but the butter lettuce is a vast improvement over the Le Pigeon burger’s slaw-like shredded iceberg, mostly because it doesn’t immediately fall off the sandwich.
Topping slippage, though, brings us to perhaps the most notable improvement over the old standard: the bun. Can we all agree that ciabatta, while being an undoubtedly delicious bread, makes for a poor burger vessel? Its sturdy crust virtually guarantees that toppings, and in some tragic cases the beef itself, will slide out of the bread the moment you bite down. The bun ought to support, not combat, the beef—a task that the new seeded brioche number nails perfectly. It’s sturdy enough to soak up the beef’s juices without disintegrating, while the dense inner crumb (the perfect sponge for that fatty deluge) avoids the cloying sweetness of many brioche buns.
That’s not to say that switching out the bun has made this a clean-eating sandwich. Power-lunchers who prefer their lapels unadorned by beef fat or the odd spot of "chevreau" dressing might want to stick with the moules-frites.
The real improvement here might be lower demand. The last few times I had the Pigeon burger at Little Bird, during the weekday lunch rush, it bore the signs of mass-production: a too tightly packed patty, slightly overcooked, with haphazardly placed toppings. It made you realize why Rucker limited sales to five a night in the first place. Freed from the burden of turning out countless orders of an “iconic” sandwich every meal service, Little Bird is instead turning out a great one.