Portland Monthly's 2018 Restaurant of the Year: Canard
Wine bars, burgers, neo-bistro cooking. If Portland 2018 has a culinary mission statement, this is it. And then there’s Canard, where Gabriel Rucker, the city’s most gifted chef, bar none, riffs on those themes like a Tupac lyric: “Ain’t no stopping at the red lights. I’m sideways.”
Since April, the short-order kitchen has pulsed nonstop, morning to midnight, changing menus throughout the day, as Rucker—best known for his rule-breaking destination Le Pigeon next door—freely mixes experimental French, up-jumped Elmer’s, and crazy party snacks. Drop by for a White Castle homage, stumble on soft serve–soaked French toast, or assemble a lo-fi fancy meal, washed down with savvy wines chosen by business partner Andy Fortgang.
This is the food we actually want: no tiresome deconstructions, no mental jousting—just delicious fun, surprising but understandable, and everything $20 or under. Is every dish a slam dunk? Of course not. But at 37, Rucker is still an original, and no one is better at triggering our lizard brain. Here’s how he, and his merry Canard kitchen crew, did it again.
Inside Rucker’s Food Brain a.k.a. where the hell do these ideas come from?
1. Gabriel Rucker’s best ideas go down around 4 a.m., when he’s alone in the kitchen, fueled by bad coffee and ’90s trance music. He loves the crunch, drip, and ooze of nachos. He loves surf clams, straight from the can. He loves to booby-trap a plate with acidity and hidden heat. And one night he wondered: “Can I put it all in one dish?” Predawn, he headed to Canard, stopping for ritualistic gas station coffee on the way. Good things happen when he’s alone. “Just me, my music, my coffee,” he says. “I love shitty coffee.” Two hours later, Clam Ceviche Nachos rose with the sun: imagine the immeasurable pleasure of an East Coast white clam pie twisted with nacho joy, as marinated clams seep into crisp, hot chips. The glue: fontina-jalapeño fondue sauce, all creamy luxury and funk. Rucker describes it like a toss-off, but don’t be fooled: chefs work a lifetime to produce something this perfect.
2. He speaks his own food language. Gallic dishes are perversely sensual and spiritual, what the French call volupté. But no exact word captures Canard’s self-styled “wild French bar food.” Bistro iconology is in the mix, but from there, no idea is forbidden. Years ago, standing in Le Pigeon’s kitchen scanning the pantry, plastic bin in hand, Rucker confided his secret philosophy: “I just grab a tub of shit and go.” He’s all gut instincts: this savory note, that sweet edge, this crunchy thing ... then, boom. At Canard, this translates into pastrami-wrapped veal terrine sided by blackberry sauerkraut mustard, or perhaps the famed Paris–Brest pastry ring remastered with a PB&J in mind. Instead of duck à l’orange, we get a righteous Duck Stack of duck-fat-seared hot cakes and duck gravy, best knocked back with whiskey. And what might Escoffier make of chewy, umami-smacked foie gras dumplings, parked alongside changing landscapes, perhaps green apples and miso-roasted shallots. As a friend remarked: “If I could turn those dumplings into a coat, I’d wear them.”
3. He is one-half of the best buddy cop movie in town. Rucker struts about Canard with his party vibe charm, hailing customers as “you guys.” Wine director Andy Fortgang could be mistaken for your shrink—calm, eloquent, and very deliberate. I’m guessing he does the books. Somehow it works: Canard, like the duo’s Le Pigeon and Little Bird, is fun and serious, backed by a wine list that makes grape insiders applaud. Rucker once confessed to me: “When Andy came to Le Pigeon, I was utterly shaken by his professionalism. I constantly worried he wouldn’t find us professional enough. Without him, we’d be lost.”
4. Rucker’s death row meal will surprise you. No Michelin-starred, butt-numbing tasting menu extravaganzas for Rucker. His last-meal death row request? “If I’m executed in California? In-N-Out Burger. If I go here, Taco Bell.” But alas, now sober and doing push-ups, he’s sworn off fast food for 2018. Today, you might find him lunching (may the Crunchwrap Supreme gods forgive him) at a plant-based joint. Perhaps that explains how a quinoa veggie bowl, rocking fiery carrot purée and tangy Indian raita, elbowed its way onto Canard’s menu—humiliating, we might add, the kitchen’s truffle ranch chicken wings.
5. Rucker’s secret weapon: kid food, for grown-ups. Breakfast is Canard’s under-the-radar triumph. It also prompts the question: Did Rucker pull a Freaky Friday with an 8-year-old? Consider this: French toast pre-soaked in vanilla soft serve, gloriously deep-fried, then crowned with Grand Marnier–splashed “Cadillac oranges.” (It’s what your brother might griddle after picking the lock on dad’s liquor cabinet.) Or Funfetti pancakes, the rainbow sprinkles melting directly into a stack of buttermilk beauties. Or, yes please, heavenly chocolate butterscotch pie, for breakfast. If Mom weren’t looking, every morning would look like this.
6. He has your burger password. Rucker has never actually eaten a White Castle burger, famously griddle-steamed with a whiplash of minced onions on a dinner-roll-ish bun. But he’s tasted them in his mind, thousands of times. And one day, for a Le Pigeon staff meal, he just had to make them. He ran to Safeway for King’s Hawaiian Rolls, not just White Castle soft but sweet. He grabbed onion soup mix, to fold right into the beef along with fresh onions sautéed in beef fat—a Ruckerian double-down. On top: sweet relish, mustard, and American cheese, weirdly compelling in its plasticized drape and cling. The Canard steam burger was born. Sharing them, he swears, is the no. 1 reason he took on a third restaurant. Other chefs make fast food as a joke. Rucker is dead serious, and you can taste it.