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Ava Gene's keeps life, food in balance

Bread & Brew


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Owner Duane Sorenson (right, working the wood-fired oven with a chef), has emphasized the meats and cheeses of Virginia, California, Spain and, of course, Italy, at Ava Gene's on Southeast Division Street. Don’t come to Ava Gene’s in a hurry. Everything is geared for a meal at a considered, stately pace — this is special occasion Italian, not weeknight Italian-American. Here, pasta is a course, not a meal.

You may go through more than one set of silverware while still exploring the appetizers. And it appears that the owner did some exploring to assemble them. He is Duane Sorenson, first and best known for Stumptown Coffee, which roasts beans that he sought out all over the world. Now he’s set his sights on Italian food, and the cured meats and cheeses come from Virginia, California and Spain, as well as Italy.

The cocktail menu is essentially an aperitif menu, with drinks based on gin, rum, Campari and other liquors that lean less toward the boozy and more toward the herbal and the bitter.

The unrefined, coppery taste of liver also works best at the start of a meal. Here, chopped chicken livers are piled on a big, fresh slice of crisped bread, and sweetened with raisins and Marsala. The flavors come on strong, messy and exuberant.

A salad of oranges, by contrast, is arranged like a still life. Glowing sunset orange and dark red, thin-sliced wheels of fruit glisten with olive oil, offset by black, salty olives. It’s juicy, salty and sweet, with here and there a jolt of horseradish.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Ava Gene's has an interesting, description-starved menu that includes Blood Orange, Cara Cara, Cerignola, Horseradish.Another excellent salad is a big platter of new green and purple chicories. Their mildly bitter leaves curl around melty chunks of poached egg and thin, crunchy strips of pancetta. But what really makes this salad jump is the dressing, a tart, bright vinegar with real sparkle. It’s a late harvest sauvignon blanc vinegar, from the estate of Katz & Company, who make artisan vinegars in California. A full paragraph on the menu is dedicated to their story.

Ava Gene’s kitchen also uses their Italian-style olive oils. Some of the pasta is imported from Italy, and some is made fresh in-house. Some of the preparations are traditional, and some are unique to the restaurant. The menu attributes orecchiette with pork sausage and rainbow chard to Portland, Oregon, while a nut ragu comes from the Abruzzo region, east of Rome.

Like a lot of fine Italian food, the ragu’s roots are probably in poverty: nuts to stretch out a meager portion of meat. Here they add a meaty crunch to buccatini — basically, a very fat and chewy spaghetti, cooked to a T, and rounded out richly with tangy pecorino romano.

Meat courses range from the light white fish barramundi, to a steak for two (or possibly three) for $70. Between is very nice lamb leg, sliced over a bed of tiny lentils. Disks of white and orange carrots are pickled, rather than braised, so that they stand out briskly against the savory backdrop. Somewhere in there is also a fillip of mint.

Like everything I tried here, the lamb is an expertly balanced dish. This is a mature rather than a risk-taking restaurant.

The look is an almost-ironic take on a fine Italian restaurant circa 1980, with brass fixtures, a torrone-patterned floor, red upholstery and lace curtains. There are even a few Chianti bottles tucked away up in the corners. The bathrooms look like minor, forgotten Romanesque chapels — you wash your hands in a sink that looks like a holy water stoup.

Overall, Ava Gene’s feels so put-together that a few small off details are even more jarring. The music is terrible, a irritating blend of mid-tempo rock that is sorely out of place.

Another off note is the un-translated, description-starved menu, which requires several rounds of explanations from the server. It feels unfriendly, like it was intended for some other, more knowledgeable guest than yourself. It also slows down the ordering process considerably — although you can’t help but wonder if that’s intentional. It’s not easy to get people to slow down, eat with thought and stay for a while.

Ava Gene’s, 5 to 11 p.m. daily, 3377 S.E. Division St., 971-229-0571, www.avagenes.com

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