Le Pigeon: Cooking at the Dirty Bird

I once -- only once, thankfully -- watched a man stomp a pigeon. This was years ago in New York City's Central Park. Clearly very hungry, he looked at me with bleary eyes and said, "Good lunch," or something like that. This wasn't the random or disturbed act of a down-and-outer. It was putting food in his stomach, food he identified, monosyllabically, as "squab." Never heard of it. The bird looked like the familiar rat-with-wings to me, though flattened, having been administered a primitive version of the culinary technique known as pressing. I'll say.

Had the man lived in Portland, Oregon, he might have brought his catch to Le Pigeon, whose chef, Gabriel Rucker, sometimes refers to their cooking as cracked-out mountain food with refinement, and one of whose many mottos is, "You kill it. We grill it." Rucker strikes one as big-hearted, broad-minded, and unflappable. He wouldn't have blinked at the bootkill. He might have turned it into a signature dish: Pigeon Crudo, Figs, Bourbon (if you think I'm making this up -- the "crudo" and especially the bourbon -- see page 92). Good lunch.

Seven years ago, Le Pigeon had a reputation as "an offal den"; yes, the chefs were fans of offal, but, handily, it was also a way to make ends meet. Yet this was indeed an offal lover's offal den, something Fergus Henderson, who popularized nose-to-tail piggery, would be proud of: Elk Tongue Stroganoff, Duck Heart, Green Bean Casserole, Pork Cheek, Ouzo, Feta, Lamb Belly BLT, and a Rabbit and Eel Terrine to rival French maestro Marie-Antonin Carême's coulibiac.

There are about 150 recipes in Le Pigeon: Cooking at the Dirty Bird, inventive though not desperately so: chapters on salads; little birds (Quail, Pine Nut Risotto, Marmalade); big and small fish; pork and rabbit and lamb and bigger game (Venison, Creamed Spinach, Yorkshire Pudding); desserts (including zucchini donuts); and lots of what my mother called "variety meats," though here that includes foie gras, which I don't remember having making it to our family table. But, as with the well dressed, the accessories are vital. Rucker has a lot of fun with the sides, and not just the food, though it is difficult to shake the Cauliflower, Aged Gouda, and Mashed Potatoes from your mind, but with the fleeting anecdotes about himself -- "For many reasons (including, perhaps, that I was drinking a bottle of Pernod every night, thus being knighted 'Pernod-chio' by my peers), [the restaurant] Gotham failed" -- and the road to a successful restaurant being paved with land mines. He is an intuitive maverick without wearing it on his sleeve, and generous to the point where he is lauding the quality of the restaurant next door and the alchemical talents of his refrigerator man.    

The food is all wonderfully resourceful and ingenious without sacrificing taste or time, twisting and reworking classics like macaroni and cheese or pork chops. Rucker radiates a bumptious yet enticing aura, as beguiling as an invitation to a sideshow -- and what could be more fun than a sojourn under the big top with grilled romaine and preserved lemons, razor clams and habanero buttermilk, lamb brains and lamb's lettuce, and foie gras profiteroles (or maybe the Peach Napoleon).

July 25: On this day in 1834 Samuel Taylor Coleridge died of heart disease at the age of sixty-one.

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