“There is, you will agree, a certain je ne sais quoi — oh so very special — about a firm, young carrot.”
So says the delightfully absurd character Uncle Monty in one of the most widely quoted lines from the cult British film Withnail & I. He also happens to “find the cauliflower more beautiful than the rose.”
A similar exaltation of the ordinary to the level of the sublime occurs at Birdsong, Chris Bleidorn’s prose-poem to the culinary heritage of the Pacific Northwest. Bleidorn, a New England native who’s worked at Saison and Atelier Crenn, uses lots of elemental cooking methods like fermentation and fire to turn the space in SoMa that used to be AQ — which was hardly a slouch in the high-concept department — into something very special. Just as integrated farming goes beyond mere organic certification to heal a given ecosystem and restore its soil to a pre-19th-century state, Birdsong’s ambition is to rekindle something primeval in its diners. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was silent because pesticides and poisons had killed off the feathered creatures. Birdsong can be understood as a response: Re-create the conditions that fill the skies with birds, and eat accordingly.
Its insignia looks like the Twitter bird drawn in the style of Kim Alter’s Nightbird icon, but originality prevails at every step of this tasting menu, starting with the cylindrical walnut-and-brass spoon rest and the stunning Shigoku oyster amuse-bouche. They’re served with an heirloom pepper vinegar on a chilled vessel in the shape of a red-blood cell and paired with a tangerine-y Gruner Veltliner from Salem that the sommelier said would “get you salivating.”
A mini fish-and-chips bite was like a pure tartar-sauce bomb, and while the stealth burst of caviar in the bacon-and-eggs was welcome, the order of this initial trio felt reversed. Going from lightest to most intense flavor also meant stepping away from the wine’s powers.
Then came the “trout sequence,” a wonderful term and the point at which the structure of Birdsong’s kitchen comes into view. There aren’t servers in the strictest sense. Instead, it’s almost as if everyone in this hyper-open kitchen has a handful of specific tasks, and they present the fruit of their labors to you. It’s nowhere near as hammily theatrical as it might sound, and you feel a genuine connection to everybody and their craft.
Those hanging trout aren’t just ornamental, you learn. The sequence is a tripartite course that makes use of every part of the fish, the star of which is a spectacular fillet smoked, cured, and placed inside a tied-up bundle that’s lovingly placed on cedar boughs, like Christmas at Mt. Rainier. It’s too hefty a portion for omakase, although the texture is of that caliber. However tasty, a horseradish-forward sandwich made from skin and roe can’t compete with that. The third part of the trout sequence, a custard fashioned from dried bones and scraped belly meat, encompasses a range of textures of its own, Sadly, it was tepid and subtly flavored — undersalted, even. Birdsong can be in love with its own upcycling.
Maybe relatedly, it’s a little tight. The wine pairing is $110, but the pours are stingy. And the atmosphere is balanced between relaxed and polished, although the restroom plays pre-recorded bird sounds, which is almost as silly as circa-2010 restaurant websites that autoplayed the background murmurs of a dining room.
But then the server explains with infectious zest that the boar whose fat goes on the Parker House roll comes from a ranch in Texas where there’s no human contact, so hunters shoot them from helicopters. Accompanied by a giant clam and buttermilk whey onto which a broth was poured, that was the first moment of unadulterated decadence.
From this point on, the execution never falters, but the rhythm of the meal decouples from what you expect from a $220 tasting menu. Yes, the buttery cornbread is filling, but it’s that rare moment when you can hold generosity against a kitchen. Four pieces of cornbread for two people feels calculated. This is a quintessential side dish being presented, cast-iron casserole dish and all, as if it were a main — although the exquisite squash blossom stuffed with lamb and grilled olives that goes with it is best left just the way it is.
Bleidorn loves morels and boar, but autumn burst out of August’s sternum in the form of piece of duck aged for 30 days. Apart from being very concentrated in flavor, it’s offal-heavy, with heart, gizzard, and liver proudly written out on the menu, and the broth is made from grilled bones. (The curved bowls’ mouths are a tad awkward to drink from, so I sipped from the side. The presenter caught me, and I explained, but immediately got lost staring at the incredible skeleton-shaped spoon she, a gift from Bleidorn. Wow.)
The last savory course was a barbecued carrot with elderberries and pickled ramps. This set in motion a debate: Je ne sais quoi or not, it’s a carrot. The final savory course is a carrot. Yes, but it’s probably the most magnificently flavorful carrot in carrot-dom. Fine, but it’s still just a small, monochromatic root vegetable. OK, yes, but please reference the above remark about how it’s the best carrot you’ll ever taste, and this place is sure to earn a Michelin star. You could go on and on, indefinitely. Whatever conclusion you land on, it’s hard not to shake the notion that this is a side dish that should accompany an ingenious preparation of some terrestrial beast. We’ve left Portland and entered Portlandia.
The dual desserts, though, were exactly right. A panna cotta with a layer of plump blueberries above it and well-tweezed chamomile petals and bee pollen was perfect in every way: beautiful, acidic, full of contrasts, gratifying. And a labor-intensive, pine-needle-infused marshmallow and yogurt finale with strawberry and sorrel granita nested in it was good enough to justify sticking with the overall plan. There’s no cacao in Cascadia, after all.
Birdsong, 1085 Mission St., 415-369-9161 or birdsongsf.com