Italy, Rocking

With his new restaurant, Ava Gene’s, Duane Sorenson gives indie dining an Old World polish.

By Karen Brooks March 15, 2013 Published in the April 2013 issue of Portland Monthly

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Ava Gene's owner Duane Sorenson

Historically, grand ambition has fizzled in this town like a North Korean rocket. Reclaimed wood and concrete floors have become the uniform. We now house enough wood-fired flames to burn down the entire Northwest. We need a new idea—a bar-setter, a coherent package of passion and professionalism on a big plate, with details bolted down, from design to service, but crafted for Portland: unpretentious to the core. On SE Division Street, Ava Gene’s is making this bold run right in the heart of the People’s Republic of Portland. 

A rush of indie glamour greets you at the door. Old light tubes swarm across the dining room like crazed fireflies, casting a cinematic twinkle over low-slung, back-to-back banquettes, hand-stitched in butter-soft, brick-red leather. At the chef’s counter, tall stools, their custom pads snug as saddles, peek into a kitchen of techy ovens, leaping flames, pasta vats, and baseball-capped cooks pounding raw Tuscan kale into submission and frying Sicilian cannoli shells to order. 

Ava Gene’s is personal. You won’t find Frank Sinatra swinging on the sound system. A handpicked playlist of iconic rock—the Byrds, the Band, the Dead, rare and uncut—fills a custom-crafted room of Old World beauty, Italian grandma curtains, elegant architectural salvage, and, lining the walls, bottles of killer Barolo. Gilded Italian paintings, dark and baroque, make friends with spunky local folk-art portraits—bright-haired, pigtailed gals who look eerily like the bartenders. Marble is everywhere, including a vaulted bathroom bathed in ambient light and spilling Dr. Bronner’s liquid hippie soap into an antique sink. 

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Clockwise from left: Heirloom borlotti beans over warm toast; Ava Gene’s dining room; fried polenta and mashed salt-cod dip.

Cruising the terrazzo floor is tattoo-blazing, high-fiving, flannel-clad Duane Sorenson, Ava Gene’s owner and Stumptown Coffee Roasters’ global kingpin. He is the Dude, the essence of awesomeness—and increasingly, the culinary king of SE Division Street, where he lives, works, and invests his mega good fortune on whatever “blows his mind.” At 41, he is a man of broad and particular tastes, many on display at Ava Gene’s, named after his 10-year-daughter. This is his love letter to Italian food, and the expression of his desire to “create one of the best restaurants on the West Coast” for his neighbors in the hood that birthed the first Stumptown 13 years ago. When your $6 bread plate arrives with $40 olive oil for dunking, it’s hard to not believe him. 

Sorenson calls himself a born risk taker, with a compulsion to create. In 2008, the guy high school friends called “Duane the train” U-hauled across the country to rewire Gotham with Stumptown’s credo: “the most bitchingest coffees in the world,” farmer-respect, barista heroes, and roast-it-yourself cool. Even New York, now home to two Stumptown locations, didn’t argue. Today, as his coffee business percolates with investors, Sorenson’s focus is back at home, where he’s brewing his own vision of Portland food culture.  

Sorenson has the taste, passion, and resources to change the conversation, as he did with coffee. His first try, the Woodsman Tavern, rebundled Oregon DNA into a Jake’s Famous Crawfish for Now People, mixing Twin Peaks and James Beard, masculine booths and seafood on ice with hipster cred and cocktail-obsessive culture. While the Woodsman is a great space and essential cocktail destination, the kitchen lacks the vision and precision of Sorenson’s micromarket next door—the general store curated as art exhibit. Ava Gene’s reaches higher. The room itself already contends for the best in town. But does the food measure up? 

Ava Genes chef Joshua McFadden

Any doubts are erased two bites into thick, wood-charred bread holding little more than giant chops of soft-boiled egg, cracked pepper, and an unexpected crown of sliced bottarga—wildly salty cured fish roe somewhere on the flavor continuum between caviar and tuna bacon. Joyful simplicity, great ingredients, confident surprise, the acuity of intention. This is Ava Gene’s stand. 

The menu is not Portland’s safe, letter-perfect, clothesline Italy. It’s Duane’s world, nostalgic and edgy and channeled through the focused, cunning imagination of 37-year-old chef Joshua McFadden. You’ll find Roman tripe stew as it should be, hellacious and treacherously addictive, and primal, nonna-worthy orecchiette shells bear-hugging broccoli leaves and spicy pork crumbles. But you’ll also encounter the bastard offspring of Italy and Thailand: crisp heads of blackened brussels sprouts, each bite baptized in fiery fish sauce. 

The beauty here is found in a menu of eight little subdivisions, each housing a kitchen obsession. For satisfaction: go with friends, plan to laugh, order wide and deep. Kick off with a couple of “pane” for the table, open-faced snacks built on big-crusted filone bread. Don’t miss earth-punched borlotti beans spilling over toasty edges, or the ‘Nduja (en-doo-ya), a decadent salami paste that spreads like butter and tastes like a pork-induced wildfire.

McFadden earned his stripes in the progressive trenches that speak to Sorenson: Batali, Chang, and Brooklyn, where the critically loved Franny’s earned two New York Times stars under his watch. But what sets him apart is a farm-fresh evangelism gleaned during his time at a pioneering organic farm in Maine. Vegetables are his stars, shining in a wealth of brainy but accessible combinations all blending less-is-more Italian rigor with intense flavors and forward textures. An evening here demands a collection of them. I’d return just for the barely cooked, electric-red carrots with fresh-ground pistachio nut butter beneath rich, pungent stripes of Sardinian pecorino. 

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Clockwise from left: Exuberantly chewy sagna riccia noodles glazed with lamb ragù; broccoli fritto in a blizzard of sharp cheese; orecchiette with sausage and rainbow chard.

Camps are already forming around McFadden’s embrace of the art of al dente—a toothy, sauce-absorbing chew essential to Italian cooks but a shock to softer noodle slurpers who insist the pasta is undercooked. Count me among those who say Ava Gene’s is getting it right. Sagna riccia with lamb ragù is the pasta dish we’ve been waiting for, its meaty shreds, tomato essences, and bitter chicory notes clinging to the wavy noodles like qi to the acupuncture needle. It helps to have superior noodles—imported hand-cut Abruzzo pasta rarely seen in this country and just full of wheaty nuance and rustic definition. 

The kitchen shows inconsistencies typical of a just-opened eatery. Bland scallops plead for something, anything; blood oranges are annihilated by enough horseradish to supply all of Israel at Passover. And sometimes that pasta really is just a hair underdone, even for al dente maniacs. 

But the number of wins already impresses. Service is sharp and informed, a rarity in anything-goes Portland. Desserts are simple but lovely, from ethereal panna cotta to pitch-perfect cannolo. Gelato pops with jumbo, water-blanched peanuts from North Carolina’s United Methodist Church—just the kind of find Sorenson lives for.

From the bar comes both a Campari cocktail to write Rome about and a rare enthusiasm for little-known grappas and amaros to conclude a night of hard eating. Post-dinner espresso—surprisingly, often an afterthought in this coffee-mad city—is pulled by a trained hand. Meanwhile, the wine list is Italian-food-lovers to the core: nothing clever or cool, just an awesome library of great finds from great vintages, the best hunted down in fine cellars, but with a good number of terrific choices in the $30 range. You can soak in a $450 2001 Giacomo Conterno Barolo, or a $36 Fiorenzo Nada nebbiolo for a lively taste of the Piedmont. At either end, a score.

Ava Gene’s looks like a million bucks—and it probably cost a good deal more. Neighborhoods rarely get this kind of personal investment. From the luxe Ann Sacks tile covering walls inside and outside to the sidewalk marble benches that greet you, Sorenson took no shortcuts. And yet prices are modest, with most pasta options under $18. It’s not the end of his ode to Division. Come spring, his Roman Candle bakery and eatery will rise next door, with “flour everywhere,” long Roman pizza bianca flat breads, and a coffee bar fueling meals day and night. Up the street, behind the Woodsman Market, a smokehouse is coming to spin out handcrafted sausages and aged meats for all of Sorenson’s restaurants. 

Still, Sorenson downplays his ambitions, noting, “I don’t do anything seriously.” He insists he’s not looking to be the Big Dog of Portland’s food scene—he just wants to give back to the city he loves, to share the things he’s discovered on his travels with his neighbors. But don’t underestimate him. A night at Ava Gene’s leaves no doubt that Sorenson plays for keeps. After all, tattooed across his belly: a battleship.  

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