“Would you drive over 180 miles just for dinner?” I’m asked, incredulously.
“Depends on the meal.”
And so, I decide to drive down in late December, 2015 through a deluge, to eat beef cheek bourguignon at Le Pigeon, one of my favorite restaurants in Portland, with no reservation.
What makes this bourguignon so special? No one uses beef cheeks. No one makes the impossibly concentrated reduction to accompany. And, no one serves it on Époisses risotto. (Are you kidding me?)
Why play the reservation version of Russian roulette with PDX haute cuisine on top of a 3-hour drive through horizontal rain on I-5? They change the way they make this particular dish every year–and they’re known for it. It’s almost the end of the year, and thus, end of this version of this dish–an oversight on my part.
But why would I drive that far without reservations, for a restaurant that’s notoriously booked? Ten seats at the kitchen counter, available on a first come, first served basis. Arrive early.
FRONT ROW SEATS
I’m diner number six–sitting front-and-center–surveying all the action. I ask chef what he’s doing, how, and with what. It’s a singular experience. The level of skill and activity–yet calm–is astounding in such a tiny kitchen.
Chef Andrew Mace is humble, thoughtful and careful, composing each diner’s dish–with his staff darting around him–gathering proteins, sauces, garnishes. Their precise movements look like a well-oiled pocket watch. Amazing to behold such artistry–my dishes are nothing short of profound.
Foie gras & uni: Wild rice pancake, sour cream, soy maple jus
When asked how my foie & uni dish is tasting, I respond: “I might need a moment…” As I eat each bite, I don’t realize I’m being observed.
“It’s really that good?”
“Yeah. You might need a cigarette, after.”
If you’re going to eat the best bouguignon, a fine red Burgundy is required drinking. My 2009 Premier Cru is lovely. Sharing a glass with chef, he grins approvingly.
Now, chef is finishing the touches on my second dish as his staff swarm around him.
Beef cheek bourguignon ‘2015’: Époisses risotto, red wine demiglace, oyster mushrooms, Dijon pickled onion, sweet herbs
The viscous demiglace is poured, tableside. Whoa. When I think of best meals I’ve eaten in America, this one’s at the top. The depth of flavor, texture, and complexity are otherworldly. Everyone around me is in awe after I eat every bite, observing my visceral reaction. “I’ll have what he’s having!”
Chicken-fried lamb neck with herb grits, Habanero honey, spiced carrot, dill are assembled. Gorgeous. While the lighting is perfect for dining, it’s terrible for photography.
Showing his crew how to plate the grilled NY strip with wild mushrooms, bacon, charred onions, and Dijon herb butter–though I never saw anyone else plating.
Fried Gingerbread: Coconut ice cream, grapefruit, kaffir lime rice pudding
Wow. So many different flavors, textures. This night is wonderful–far beyond expectations.
Would I drive back just for that dish?
Get the car.
UPDATE: Since Le Pigeon creates a new version of this dish every year, I suggest you get down to Portland soon for yours. Then, try next year’s version in January. And also note, Andrew Mace is no longer at Le Pigeon, but creator chef Gabriel Rucker is back.
IF YOU GO
Le Pigeon is a wonderful if tiny restaurant. If you have no reservations, just hope to get in by waiting around early enough. I show up at 4:40pm, and already am SIXTH in line for only TEN seats at the kitchen counter. They open at 5pm. Good luck.
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