Gabriel Rucker's Canard Is 2018’s Best Restaurant (So Far)

From funfetti pancakes to rare Burgundy wines, Le Pigeon's sister spot is a gloriously odd duck.

By Karen Brooks July 17, 2018 Published in the August 2018 issue of Portland Monthly

Canard’s rich, wild Duck Stack—pancakes piled high with duck gravy, Tabasco onions, a duck egg, and (why not) seared foie gras.

In 2006, aspiring chef Gabriel Rucker posted up in a corner space on gritty East Burnside, age 25 and a virtual unknown. Swooping up his arm: tattooed birds with no apparent flight pattern. He called his place Le Pigeon, named for the park bird, yo: no French accent, no affectation. Almost overnight, with nonconformist French cooking and a raucous party vibe—not to mention long-toed pigeon claws rising from plates like a chortling Crypt Keeper—the restaurant embodied Portland’s embrace of food and fun, its utter rejection of culinary expectations. Twelve years and two James Beard medals later, Le Pigeon is still the best table in town.

So, I always wondered: What would a Gabriel Rucker breakfast joint look like? Here’s what greets you at 8 a.m. at Canard, opened in April next door to Le Pigeon: a marble eating counter flanked by high-back chairs peeking into an alley of stainless steel, where cooks hand over dishes, short-order-style; the French triumvirate of half-shell oysters, rabbit terrine, and Champagne cocktails; but, also, a steam-grilled, fast-foodie breakfast sandwich that squooshes house sausage, Tabasco onions, and the plastic ooze and cling of American cheese on a teeth-sinking soft bun. (“Oh God,” murmured a friend, “I could eat 100 of these.”) And, if you ask, an off-menu stack of Funfetti pancakes, vibing with gorgeous griddle bronze and a 5-year-old’s birthday smiles, a rainbow of sprinkles skipping inside and out, right over a cloud of whipped cream. Take note: the “kids” wolfing them down are unusually tall.

The revelation is French toast soaked overnight in soft-serve ice cream—soft-serve!—then deep-fried just until the edges acquire a thundering caramel crunch to frame a delicate center. All around, drizzles of crème anglaise announce cinnamon excitement like Neil Young, live and all worked up. Two bites in, and you’ve tasted the missing link between Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal and a French kouign-amann pastry.

A Canard bonanza of fries with Green Goddess dressing, Funfetti pancakes, oeufs en mayonnaise, steam burgers, smoked mackerel “chips & dip,” and cocktails

So what’s a Rucker breakfast joint? I didn’t see this coming, but here it is: a cool Elmer’s on Paris’s Left Bank. This is midlife Rucker, in dad mode, sans crisis. With Canard, he’s still bending rules, still surprising us, still just cooking what he loves—without a wink of irony and with nothing to prove.

The mood continues nonstop for 16 hours daily. (They finally collapse at midnight.) No off hours, no “sorry, losers, no food for you at 3 p.m.”; no crime or punishment for arriving to dine with the gray hairs at 5:30 p.m., when, as it turns out, the place is thumping.

Menus move seamlessly from breakfast to lunch to the weirdest collection of dinner options assembled under one roof—everything under $20. The ménage runs from bistro mash-ups to holy-schnikes-good pancakes under a sloppy-joe heap of duck gravy to a cult-in-the-making White Castle homage. Salads might sport crunchy quinoa or cheddar cheese. Also in the mix: peanut-sauced foie gras dumplings, and a buxom Paris Brest pastry. Interestingly, in a Rucker v. Rucker smackdown, the tony duck rillettes lose, handily, to a party dip of smoked mackerel and cream cheese, dispatched with lemon-pepper jam and fresh, warm tortilla chips.

Clockwise from left: Canard chef and co-owner Gabriel Rucker on the line; the wine-obsessed spot’s lovely horseshoe-shaped bar; a ridiculously rich chocolate butterscotch pie

Rucker’s neo-diner funhouse vibe suffuses Canard’s back half. Up front, it feels like another world: a tiny wine bar that taps the eloquent, nerd-magnet mind of his longtime business partner Andy Fortgang, one of the best sommeliers in the biz. Together, they create Canard’s dynamic high-low tension, the perfect odd couple roommates sharing a cramped space. Options include roughly 20 wines by the glass; most little known, not a bad one in the bunch. The introductory page in Canard’s bound book of bottles proclaims: “We weren’t thinking too deeply about this list....” Don’t believe it for a second. Rucker may riff, but Fortgang’s approach is very carefully sifted.

Some dishes I thought I’d love flailed. Steak in onion soup sauce, for one, is simply too sweet and too heavy—le bum steer. Anticipation for beef tartare mingled with Chinese sausage and broccoli quickly went to mush. And the morning omelet is a wuss, with a generic gestalt veering a little too close to an actual Elmer’s dish.

Other dishes, I wholly underestimated: who would have thought a swoop of sweet pea hummus and crinkle-cut roasted carrots could steal the night, with its devilish radish honey heat and schload of sesame seeds?

To understand why Canard is (so far) the year’s best new restaurant, one need only look around: In front of you, a 50-something gentleman at the counter, happily lost in the licks of a soft-serve cone clad in peanut butter magic shell. Nearby, punk-rock kids in studded vestments swirl wines that would be at home on a Michelin-starred menu. Canard defies expectations, theirs and ours, without ever losing its point of view. I could eat here every day. I’d die, of course, but with a smile.

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