Looking back on 2018, one place ruled Portland’s food scene: Canard. Chef Gabriel Rucker and longtime business partner and wine lord Andy Fortgang reimagined a diner, wine bar, and pancake house in one little East Burnside space. In short order, it grabbed a rave review and then was named our Restaurant of the Year. Meanwhile, next door, their Le Pigeon continues to rock as one of the city’s defining restaurants for 13 years running.
For all this, the duo’s Little Bird Bistro, open since 2011 at 219 SW Sixth Ave, just steps away from the MAX line downtown, has never quite soared. The two-level space is terrific, just the right blend of sexy and Northwest noir, and the playful bistro menus, through several chefs, have always been solid (and sometimes more). What’s missing? That Le Pigeon touch: confident food, backed by dialed-in flavors that you crave the very next day.
The restaurant has been closed since late December for the company’s annual holiday break. During that time, chef Marcelle Crooks, on board since 2016, has moved on. When it reopens January 8, Little Bird Bistro unveils a new, streamlined lunch and dinner menu—mostly new dishes, with three signature holdovers—and a new cook, 30-year-old Xander “Xan” Gilmartin, a Le Pigeon vet who has cooked and prepped alongside Rucker for seven years. Also new: As a reminder that Little Bird prides itself as a wine haunt, the restaurant will unleash half-priced bottles—bottles!—during happy hour and again from 10–11 p.m., plus all night Sunday. This may be the Portland’s best steal, with a list strong in French regional wines.
As for the food, it’s not a radical rethinking, but less experimental and more focused—a sweet spot, perhaps, between Le Pigeon and Canard. Cider-glazed salmon with creamy spätzle, chestnuts, and shaved Brussels sprouts; steak frites (flat-iron or New York strip) with cognac-green peppercorn hollandaise, balsamic onion jam and herbaceous fries; foie gras terrine with gingerbread spices and ginger toast.
As Rucker describes it: “I want your brain to tell you … ‘I have an idea what that tastes like.’ Not, ‘What is that?’ I already have a place that challenges diners: Le Pigeon. Diners just trust it be good. Canard is an adult playground. But Little Bird needs to taste like it reads and deliver more than you think. Like, ‘This is fucking good!’”
The signature Double Brie Burger will remain, as will the popular macaroni gratin and chicken-fried trout. But the house charcuterie list will have a new look, with fewer bells and whistles, and more focused flavors: boudin noir sided by potatoes and apple butter made from cooked down baked apples (an homage to Thomas Keller); “ham and honey” that layers whipped brie, warm prosciutto, and lemon-pepper honey on grilled toast; and Pigeon croquettes mingled with date curry and jalapenos.
Gilmartin is most excited about his fried rabbit cassoulet, which subs black-eyed peas for beans. The whole thing is tossed with steamed rabbit, then topped with a fried leg and mustard-apple butter. “This is Le Pigeon stomping its foot on Little Bird,” says Rucker, still the only Portland chef to win two James Beard awards. Meanwhile, oysters will also catch that Le Pigeon vibe, with fine-chopped saucisson salami dancing in the mignonette.
Desserts, under new pastry chef Sarah Hill, will also get more classic, along the lines of a warm chocolate chestnut torte. Rucker is moving over one of Le Pigeon’s classics: crème brûlée sided by pot de crème. “My second job was in Santa Cruz. I had to come up with a dessert. I wasn’t even 21. So I made vanilla crème brûlée with pot de crème on the side. Been on Le Pigeon’s menu forever, but it belongs on Little Bird’s menu. This is what I want at Little Bird: simple and nice.” I’m guessing (hoping?) it will be much more than that.