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Little Bird speaks French bistro well

Bread and Brew
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Little Bird is a new French bistro created by Le Pigeon chef Gabriel Rucker, with daily specials including the roasted marrow bones.

Everyone loves Little Bird. Even the crowd in the narrow foyer looks happy, although the wait for a table can be up to two hours. Glasses of beer and wine help them bide their time.

After making a name for himself at Le Pigeon, chef Gabriel Rucker is heading up this second spot, which is in every way more accessible than the first. There's more elbow room, cushier seating, a central downtown location, and a menu that allows you to play it safe - if you want to.

The space is charming, high-ceilinged and glowing in shades of red and silver, with little birds hidden here and there, as if by children. The bar is topped with copper and equipped with a dapper bartender and a tome on the cocktails of New Orleans.

A drink called a Carciofa started with a base of gin, made bitter by the Italian liqueur Cynar, and balanced out with sweet vermouth and orange bitters. It was an invigorating aperitif, while the rye-based Ten Two Four was a sweeter, mellower transition into dinner.

Little Bird could have been merely a way for Rucker to move the burger-lovers off of valuable real estate Le Pigeon. It does that - the Le Pigeon burger is available here all day and all night - but also a lot more.

The language is French bistro: rillettes, frog legs, mussels with fries. The escargot is impressively succulent. The tender black squiggles are presented daringly nude on the plate, circled around a frisée salad and paired with cunning gougères that are crisp and melting and light as a puff of steam.

A crepe with Gruyère cheese, chives and brown butter got another meal off to a good start. So did the crab with celery root and carrot in a tangy dressing, although it could have had more crab and less salad.

The butter lettuce salad, by contrast, is a paragon of generosity. A lofty pile of green leaves supports and hides enormous chunks of creamy blue cheese, offset by some tartly dressed diced tomatoes. This salad is big enough to share, but more importantly, it makes you want to share. You want to hand a forkful to someone else and say, 'Here, taste this.'

It's a mood that continues throughout the meal, creating a sense of comfort that easily overrides the occasional misstep.

I am thinking of the coq au vin, which ought be a cinch for a place like this. The chicken should be tender, but instead it was mushy. It cringed away from the bone and tried to hide itself in a watery potato puree.

Instead, get the duck confit, a beautifully cooked leg, richly dark with a crisp, fatty skin. The hefty pork chop is a winner, and the steak frites is among the best in town. A plate of luxurious gnocchi was a little different with every bite, thanks to meaty seared mushrooms, dabs of musky, mouth-filling goat cheese, and bits of pickled squash for a vinegary bite.

Dessert wines

Desserts are also rich yet balanced. Tiny slices of kumquat top a super-buttery financier, a little cake served with smooth praline ice cream and a deep pool of dark chocolate syrup. The chocolate-caramel croquant marmelade layers crunch and cream with a light touch. The plate of house bonbons is a fun if not harmonious collection: a peanut butter cup, a peppermint patty, blonde fudge, and a memorable pistachio bark that shatters into toffee shards and a powder of pistachio.

There's a nice selection of dessert wines by the glass. A group with a little cash to throw around could have a lot of fun with Little Bird's wine list, starting with the champagnes. Red and white French wines are listed by region - from Alsace to Burgundy and Bordeaux - but with Oregon wines of the same style under the same headings. It's a clear assertion of the belief that Oregon wines can hold their own in such company. Perhaps it's a message to the out-of-towners who are likely to flock here, along with everyone else. But popular as it is, Little Bird won't make you stand out in the rain; it takes reservations for parties of all sizes.

Little Bird, 11:30 a.m. to midnight Monday-Friday, 5 p.m. to midnight Saturday-Sunday, 219 S.W. Sixth Ave., 503-688-5952, littlebirdbistro .com, entrees $16-$23

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