Bread and Brew
The new Alberta Street restaurant Aviary had the misfortune to hang its sign - three little birds in silhouette on a branch - just as the TV show 'Portlandia' was making 'put a bird on it' Portland's joke of the year.
It's not a complete coincidence. Aviary is very much a product of its time. Design-wise, we've seen it all before: the exposed ductwork, the polished cement floor, the bare walls, the hard surfaces and clean lines. No tablecloths, no curtains, no upholstery.
If you eat out much in Portland you'll also recognize the cocktail menu, where St. Germaine, Campari and Meyer lemon syrup make appearances. A vodka mojito that uses the Japanese herb shiso instead of mint, and adds cucumber, presages the Asian touches that flit through the menu.
It's a menu divided into three categories: small plates, seasonal, and larger plates. This also looks familiar, although there are many unusual ingredients and unique juxtapositions here.
For instance, Aviary is the only place I can think of that's serving roast goose. It's in an appetizer called goose salad, although I was advised by the waiter to eat it as a sandwich. Two miniature rolls, the soft sweet Hawaiian kind, sat beside two wedges of goose, dark and chewy and rimmed with layers of fat and skin. In the background was a tiny pile of greens. It was the first of many dishes to be more interesting than satisfying, to play more to the head than to the gut.
In this category, the worst offender is the pea and barley salad, a flurry of ideas in need of a good editor. Brilliant green pea puree frames an elaborate arrangement of snap peas, tiny hon shimeji mushrooms, barley and lily bulb. A brittle, flavorless barley wafer slants over the top, while below, there are orbs of liquid held in suspension by some chemical trick. The orbs of plain white yogurt contrast nicely with the sweetness of the peas. But yellow spheres - which look like quail egg yolks and are a mixture of orange juice and rosewater - have absolutely no business on this plate.
This salad looks fit for the cover of a food magazine, but tastes musty and soggy. A few tiny purple flowers scattered across the plate don't help. More of the crisp, fresh pea pods would have been better. Like most of the ingredients here, they are excellent alone.
Pieces of plush orange pumpkin are fried in tempura batter, but not quite long enough. They're matched up with a Thai curry that has the heat to contrast with the pumpkin and the coconut milk sweetness to match it, but the sauce should be served on the side. Instead, it's at the bottom of a bowl, with the tempura on top, soaking it up, so that it all gradually cools into a sad mush.
Very good halibut, cooked just right, is allowed to shine through a casing of crisp brioche. Like sushi, the fish is served in upright cylinders, dabbed with plum sauce. Dungeness crab receives a similar treatment. Wrapped in strudel pastry, it's a crunchy, savory way to start a meal.
An entrée of tai snapper, from New Zealand, consisted of two dainty pieces of fish, seared to a crisp on the skin side and served with mustard greens.
New York strip steak was tender and juicy. My friends who ordered the steak had high hopes for its condiment, something called ham marmalade. It turned out to be a bland sauté of sweet onions, flavored with small specks of ham.
Similarly, the written dessert menu is more alluring than the actual desserts.
Chocolate cake is dressed up with port sorbet, spiced pears and a cinnamon cookie, but the cake is dry.
The beer ice cream doesn't taste like beer, although that may be for the best. It's good ice cream, buttery and silky, topped with sugary, salty nuggets of pretzel. Around it is a moat of some bitter, gelatinous substance (coffee gelee, when I reread the menu), and on top is a parchment-like oblong item (milk tuile), which actually tasted like paper.
Creativity is the No. 1 quality demanded of serious chefs, and Aviary has three chefs - hence the three birds on the branch. All three have impressive credentials, but they seem to be so focused on originality and visual presentation that something more basic is lost.
5 to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 1733 N.E. Alberta St., 503-287-2400, aviarypdx.com, entrees $12-$16