The other day I found myself at a restaurant I hadn't expected to visit for some time. But back in December I read they would be serving a vegetarian dinner for the first time.
So I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and drove over to Alberta Street in Portland on a rainy night. Thankfully it wasn't too difficult to find my way there since I had not been in that area before. Aviary's decor was rather modern and subdued but not in a bad way. I felt it meant to focus dinners on each other and on the food being served. Behind one wall was a long bar with more seating. I wish I had taken a better look since it looked like a nice area for a meal with someone special.
The servers were congenial and I was placed at a low counter with a partial view of the kitchen. I thought the mushroom sculptures along the top were rather neat.
Pop-up dinners are not unusual at Aviary. Known for it's good food it's a popular place to eat at. But for tonight it was all vegetarian as the menu spelled out.
First up though was ordering something to drink. I liked that they provided a bottle of chilled water at each setting. But I decided to check out one of their mixed drinks so I ordered an Orchard Keeper. Buffalo Trace bourbon, ginger beer, apple cider and Peychaud's bitters almost glowed in the glass. At first I could really taste the ginger beer but over time this became less strong. I think it was a good choice for the meal.
For starters each table was provided with artisan and olive breads to dip in a butter reduction with sherry and miso. I do believe there was a little garlic in there. This was so delicious that I had to force myself not to eat it all right off.
First course arrived and it was leek soup with creme fraiche topped with dried olives, crispy shallots and candied fennel which provided a slight anise flavor. I was a little worried since milk based soups are not always agreeable for me but there was a whipped texture to this which made it light in my mouth. I will remember this for when I make soup in the future.
Second course was silken tofu topped with sweet hot bean paste, scallions, sesame seeds, peanuts, lime, little bits of cantaloupe and I thought I could taste shiso. Nice balance between the more savory components and the soft tofu. I wanted to eat this with chopsticks but settled for the provided fork.
One of the dishes I was looking forward to was the shitake chawanmushi. Not many places serve it which is too bad because it makes a nice alternative to soups or other starting dishes. Aviary's version not only had shitake in it but also gingko nuts and chestnuts. Really nice flavor from the dashi used to make this. On top were lightly cooked sugar snap peas. Definitely met my expectations.
What was a surprise to me was the warm vegetable salad. With romanesco, pumpkin, brussels sprouts with pumpkin and pomegranate seeds I saw this served to other diners and though I would probably not eat as much so I would not fill up. Instead I found this one of the best salads I have ever eaten. Dressed in a delicious lime pickle vinaigrette the vegetables were just right. Underneath were warm sweet spoonfuls of pumpkin. A smear of black garlic added an artistic element along with the black garlic chip which I broke up and ate with the salad. Truly a wonderful dish that I am happy to see on their menu. I will order this again.
Even though it was a set menu there were pauses in being served since I think there were no empty tables. It was obvious their first set Vegetarian Dinner was a success. My seat at the counter gave me an opportunity to watch the chefs and servers at work. I believe that is two of the co-owners and chefs Jasper Shen and Sarah Pilner working hard at pleasing their diners.
Another dish I was looking forward to was their chanterelle ravioli. Made up with fresh ravioli containing a smoky filling which must have been the smoked tapioca. The dish included quince, celery root along with the chanterelles dressed in an herb jus topped with crispy sage leaves. I love mushrooms with pasta and this was a very nice plate.
Nearing the end of the meal was a Butternut Squash Roulade filled with mushrooms and sugar snap peas. A bit of dairy was added with parmesan cream and a fresh egg yolk along with a little fennel. The dark bit is a black vinegar gelee which added a touch of acid. I have found squash is not an easy vegetable to make a whole dish out of. For me it's filling and a little heavy. Adding the black vinegar gelee was a good idea to add more flavor since none of the other ingredients stood out for me. The dish was well made, looked interesting and I know they can cook squash because the pumpkin in the salad was wonderful. It's not the first time I've found butternut squash to be rather substantial.
The dinner ended on a positive note with this delightful citrus salad which was created by pastry chef and co-owner Kat Whitehead. Bits of fruit were well balanced with creamy poppy seed ice cream and melt in the mouth baked meringue. Along with the wonderful huckleberry sauce there wasn't a sour note to this dessert. I loved it.
I'm glad I went to this dinner. The food was really great and I thought the service was good. I look forward to eating at Aviary again.
If you want more information, Aviary's website is here. It is located at
1733 Northeast Alberta Street, Portland, OR 97211
I would suggest making a reservation. Parking is on the street but I was able to park near the restaurant that night. It's located in the Alberta Arts District where they have events like Last Thursday so it's a good idea to check for events since that would affect parking.