Reality bites. No rewind button is coming. Pre-pandemic dining, as we knew it, is gone. Just ask acclaimed chef Gabriel Rucker and wine pro Andy Fortgang, owners of Le Pigeon and Canard, the side-by-side restaurant destinations on E Burnside.
In the ancient days, Le Pigeon—opened in 2006—welcomed us in for a wild ride from Portland's most gifted chef. We ate elbow-to-elbow at crowded tables, eating eclectic send-ups of French food and beyond. We could mix-and-match, spring for a tasting menu, or just beach up to the cinematic chef's counter for a burger. We named it one of Portland's best restaurants in 2007. Next door, Canard took Portland by storm and was named PoMo Restaurant of the Year in 2018, a subversive all-day diner mashing up White Castle and Funfetti pancakes, France as Escoffier never imagined it—essentially, kid food for grown-ups, backed by terrific wines.
Now, both restaurants are rethinking their identities after a year of pandemic-fueled starts and stops and stopgap takeout measures. As PoMo has learned, Le Pigeon plans to reopen May 4 as a tasting menu restaurant, with two seatings Tuesday—Saturday. Diners can choose from a five-course vegetarian or non-vegetarian menu, $115 per person. One of the evening's wine pairing options will come from Fortgang's reserve list.
(For now, Le Pigeon's tasting menu will be served outdoors, per the government's new mandated indoor dining shutdown, beginning April 30).
On the chopping block for now: the Le Pigeon burger, an icon of Portland eating, bodacious and beastly, a knife plunged through its ciabatta-crusted heart. It simply doesn't fit with the new format. Nor can it move next door to Canard, which has its own iconic burger—a glorious, steamed White Castle homage. I suspect we will see it again, somewhere, maybe even as a pop-up. But for now, the fate of the LP Burger is unknown.
“Some things we loved are not possible now,” says Rucker. “It's not the time to have that boisterous place, everyone laughing on each other. It's ‘come on in, we have a few seats, we'll give you a special curated experience.’”
Once inside, expect tables spaced for socially distanced dining. Rucker, ever the optimist, sees an upside: flaming foie-gras crepe Suzettes. “We couldn't have done this in these cramped quarters,” says Rucker of the upcoming tasting-menu dish. “I would have leaned over and caught a customer's hair on fire.”
Meanwhile, Canard will reopen April 28, serving dinner only for the foreseeable future. No more non-stop action, breakfast, lunch, dinner, late night, with changing menus throughout the day. “We don't know the identity yet,” says Rucker, “It can't be what it was … everything for everyone.”
Before we despair, and I admit to 1) hating change and 2) my own deep sadness and attachments, menus at both places look exciting.
At Le Pigeon, the mode seems pure Ruckerland, the kind of fine dining we need right now—weird and wonderful. Among the kick-off options: strawberry mezcal gazpacho and duck confit sided by honey-drizzled green garlic baklava, with rhubarb juice flying everywhere. As Fortgang puts it: “We always felt this was the best way to experience the food, to get that progression. It's something we missed during the pandemic; it's not easy to recreate this kind of experience at home. With the wine pairings, I can open that special bottle, the ones I only have two or three of on hand. That creates energy and surprise, for us and you.”
Over at Canard, the streamlined menu replays some casual favorites: oeufs en mayonnaise, duck stack pancakes, foie gras dumplings and, natch, that steam burger. But there's also some fun new flights of fancy, like steak tartare with pimento cheese, ramp pesto, and wheat thins. I also spied some fancy-ish plates, including duck frites or scallops and caviar, both $28.50.
Canard, adds Fortgang, will also have “an unreasonably large wine focus.”
Veteran Canard chef de cuisine Taylor Daugherty is still holding down the fort, adding his ideas to the mix. The wondrous Funfetti pancakes live on—on the dessert list, alongside Daugherty's latest brainstorm, a pine nut Buster parfait, layering vanilla soft serve, pinecone-syruped fudge, and pine nut butter.
And how ready are we all for a “banana hammock,” a boozy float sporting banana liqueur, rum, and horchata soft serve?
Meanwhile, Rucker will continue his in-demand “chef for hire at home” project, launched during the pandemic. 'If you asked me a year ago if I'd cook in someone's home, I would have said no,” says Rucker. Now, he loves the connection and banter, the idea of bringing Le Pigeon to someone's home. (Minimum price: $1,500 for four. Email [email protected] for details). Over at Le Pigeon, chef de cuisine Chris Neal will execute the tasting menus.
All guarantees are off, need it be said. During our Monday interview, Rucker and Fortgang looked like shell-shocked veterans heading to a chopper in Platoon as word circulated that Gov. Kate Brown might issue another indoor dining shutdown. “Another closure would be debilitating,” says Rucker. Sure enough, a new order has gone into effect. Canard will now open for limited indoor seating on April 28, then revert to outdoor seating on the 30th.
But even if the government tells us to “go back to normal,” does Portland want to be eating in a cramped and crowded place? Rucker and Fortgang think not. “We're thinking positive,” says Rucker. “To be successful, you have to make the best of a shitty situation. We just took five steps backwards and now it will be six steps forward. We're making lemonade.”
Le Pigeon, opening May 4
737 E Burnside St., lepigeon.com
Canard, opening April 28
734 E Burnside, canardpdx.com