Ok, catching up to the last burger I had in May.
I really wanted to like Little Bird Bistro, the newest restaurant by James Beard Foundation's Rising Star Chef of the Year 2011 chef/owner Gabriel Rucker. The menu sounds promising, and it seems to be geared specifically towards being more accessible then Le Pigeon but with the same affection for spotlighting the savory depths of being a carnivore. The downtown area now has a bistro to compliment its offerings of American and ethnic foods (ethnic greatly bolstered by the various cart pods), so for its great location and namesake, and as it is riding the current trend of French bistro in the restaurant scene (St Jack's, Brasserie Montmartre reconcept, Cocotte Bar and Bistro, probably more recent other buds I don't know about), Little Bird will be probably successful.
But for my first visit we walked away with the taste of the bad experience from the service rather than the food. For my other visits, the bartender offered the kind of bar care to mend over the initial roughness in my memory, and the waitress was cordial and attentive enough- but the food didn't consistently rise to what I had been hoping for. For the price, there are other restaurant choices whose food is just as good or better just north on Burnside... though admittedly just not French (I have not been to Brasserie Montmartre yet). I have to admit their definitely steps it up- and that difference is appreciated and noted- but it just didn't always come all together for me as a whole experience.
For my first time, our group of 12 couldn't reserve a table until 8:30 as the restaurant doesn't want large parties to hold up the tables (you can get a table earlier but you put down a $1000 guarantee deposit, as I understand it from our dinner organizer). We were seated in the upstairs section and then joined by all but one late guest and so we sat, with our menu and little juice-glass size glasses of water... and sat, and sat.
Some of us had put in drink orders within the first 10 minutes of being seated, but we before our drinks arrived it was another 15-20: so 30 minutes after our reservation, the first thing besides water appears. Whenever anyone ordered a drink throughout the meal, it seemed to take an inordinate amount of time- such as ordering it when a course arrives and then the drink not appearing until halfway or more through the dish being eaten. Maybe it's the fact that our table was upstairs and those narrow slightly steep stairs are a pain to go up and down. I wouldn't sit up there again, despite the view overlooking the rest of the restaurant and the street.
I had a long time while waiting for my meal to start to look at the restaurant and decide my favorite bird motif in decor was this little red guy on antlers that hang over the opening to the kitchen, which essentially takes up the space next door.
About 40 minutes in, despite the interesting conversation our stomachs were empty and we asked if we could order appetizers at least. We were told that since one of the ten of us were missing (car trouble), we had to wait as they couldn't put any of our order in until everyone was there in order to time everything correctly, and that appetizers and mains go together, period. All she could do was walk around the table answering questions on the menu- not even to pre-emptively write orders down.
This created a lot of unnecessary drama. I understand the desire to time all the plates, but it was one person, not half the table missing and we even said we were willing to let her dish be off timing if the majority could please please be served. Why the waitress couldn't take that statement gracefully by saying "hm, let me ask the chef or manager" instead of instantly shooting it down verbally right then or there just aggravated the situation. I thought that maybe I was misreading the whole concept intended with Little Bird Bistro- maybe they are taking it all the way to include a side of just slight disdain because they know more about food then you to go with your polite service and your pleasant but eventually overwhelming heavy dishes to really give you that French experience.
Overall, the lack of smooth communication and the actions they took to serve us gave a very mixed feeling of thoughtfulness and thoughtlessness.
- She continually filled our little water glasses for us, but it was not until her trip up for taking our order that she thought to bring bread for the table- which was all devoured in 5 minutes since everyone had already been drinking on an empty stomach.
- When one guest gave feedback to the manager that one of the dishes was salty, she said that the dish was supposed to be salty and that's the way it was done, so there you go. Meanwhile, another guest who only ate a third of his gnocchi was asked what was wrong with it and if it was anything they could do about it (he had never had gnocchi before) and was apologized to multiple times (we did not ask for anything either time btw).
- It was very long to be waiting to finally be allowed to order- but the check came quickly and were done individually... with a 20% automatic gratuity (more typically for groups there is automatic 18 with the additional tip write in line).
But onto the food. If it has been incredibly wonderful, maybe we could have still left the table with a good feeling- Screendoor's long wait is all forgotten when you first start biting into your food, same with the wait at the Bellagio buffet... Not so much here with Little Bird. It's not bad, and it's a definite positive to have this French option in the downtown area and so conveniently located. But it's also not so overwhelming or consistingly good that your mind can just be swept away by the food and ignore the "by the rule book no exceptions" service or an encounter with some who embodied the slight disdaining but polite French waitstaff stereotype.
My appetizer at of Escargot, garlic cream, lightly fried gougères was my favorite dish of the 3 I had that initial dinner. The sauce was much lighter then what you find in normal butter bathing escargot, but did the job, and a I appreciated this take on escargot in terms of the snail and sauce and gougeres. The dish came with a small topping of salad with vinaigrette to try to counter the richness of the rest of the dish- but it was over the top with vinegar, and it distracted from the otherwise wonderful dish. Also, the thoughtful gesture with serving escargot- that's always the time to refill the bread basket, so the guest can dip the bread in and wipe up all the delectable sauce from the plate. The gougeres were nice on their own, I wasn't going to make them sponges and cover up the point of the gougeres which is the cheese inside. This is a good dish if you carefully spread out the acid of the salad, though not necessarily a good value.
Entree at this outing was the famously raved Duck Confit with little potatoes, asparagus, orange glaze. The crackly skin was the best part, the dark meat underneath was a wee bit overdone but not dry (though approaching that state at certain parts) and overall a little salty but not inedibily so- though another person said hers was like licking pockets of salt at times. At least all the meat was able to come off the bone... since they never gave anyone at the table any knives besides the butter ones that were at the original place setting. I wish it had come with more side vegetables to balance the dish. The duck at Burnside Brewing was better in flavor (though not in skin texture) and priced lower, so I didn't understand the fawning over the duck confits in other reviews, based on this experience. It looked so promising, and so were the first bites, but not after you get under the skin and into the real meat. That seems to be appropriate given how this night's dining experience went.
My side of Potato, bacon, morbier cheese, didn't appear at first... just like with two other guests who had ordered sides and had to ask what happened to them. They appeared after we asked- individually, so it entailed three separate trips down the stairs because as soon as one guest mentioned the lack of side, the server was on their way down before checking the whole table so that us other two could mention our needs as well. As a side, it wasn't bad, but nothing special either. The side dish was priced pretty dear- I think steakhouses are more generous with a side at that price- this is barely enough to share, but so rich you only want to eat so much of it yourself.
I want to believe it was just an unfortunate case of an off-putting experience because of a bad service night (the reviews on yelp also seem to plead this case- at times service is pointed at being inconsistent and timing being off, but others didn't notice). I would never recommend a group here.
I have been to Little Bistro a few other times thanks to its proximity to my regular bar- all of those visits all were for weekday happy hour time/right at the start of dinner time, and besides one booth visit I also sat at the bar where Tom took care of me and was the attentive barman in terms of service. Each visit he cheerfully described my drink options, letting me know about the Happy Hour prices right away, and put food into the system as soon as he turned away with my order. On both visits, when another group appeared close to end of happy hour/beginning of dinner service, he told them so while presenting them with both menus and asked if they wanted to order off that HH menu really fast. As soon as a drink was poured he offered bread with butter- and even when I refused him at first during one visit as I was waiting to be joined by another, he still asked multiple other times to make sure I wasn't starving while I enjoyed waiting with two drinks.
I first came back for the roasted marrow bones, which were fun though extremely rich, even for me. They come in an intimidating plate of two giant bones in a size that you would normally see in plastic bag to feed a large dog or maybe the Flintstones. It's definitely a conversation piece. They come with a little bit of tart bright orange marmalade to counter the heaviness and a few pieces of overly toasted bread carefully allocated on the plate as well (on a later visit I saw they had switched this to mushroom and balsalmic vinegar instead). You use the spoon to pull the fattyness out and plop on the bread (mine was not going to spread), maybe put in a tip of orange marmalade- not too much because it will overwhelm the marrow and you only want the teensiest smidge as it is very strong in flavor profile. I think one bone would have been enough for me- this is a dish to share since it's so rich. Value-wise for the price, only the "early/late" price of 25% off seemed to make sense to me for what this dish offers. Normally, this is the same price as the Le Pigeon Burger you will see later in the review...
Meanwhile, the salad of "Field Greens, banyuls vinaigrette, Le Chevrot" were nothing special, nor were the fennel au gratin or ham sandwich of "Baguette, Jambon de Paris, gruyere, dijon, green" which greasy rather then rich- it was better as a leftover cold the next day. I would prefer a baguette sandwich from Best Baguette over ordering this sandwich again, I suppose I had been hoping for something a bit more like a Croque Monsieur and this was twice as heavy. Everything was decent but not memorable.
The famous Le Pigeon burger was a really decent burger. The burger is named for the original restaurant, "Le Pigeon" which offered limited quantities of this burger (they only serve five a night at the original)- but here at Little Bird it is a normally available menu item. When it arrives at the table, it does look amazing, coming with a knife solidly speared through the middle because honestly, you're going to need that knife to eat this. The fries stayed crisp but didn't have much flavor that took it anywhere special, and even were overly salty in one certain corner- that was one of the two detriments of the dish. I really was disappointed by the fries.
The meat patty is a housemade thick and a great combination of juicy Cascade beef without being greasy. I really really liked the treatment of the lettuce into slaw of being cut and dressed because it made sure it was a crispy counterpoint to the richness, even if it made the entire experience extremely messy. The burger is topped with Tillamook aged white cheddar which is needed to stand up beside that beef and slaw. The grilled pickled onion was sweet but in a huge chunk instead of more spread across the entire burger so with one bite I would get no sweetness, and other bites I would get more onion then beef- the other detriment of this dish when I had it- I hope this just was an execution mis-step. The grilled ciabatta bun is solid enough that it holds everything in with its thick crusty outside and doughy inside but is also very filling. I wasn't surprised to see other burger eaters taking off the top and just eating the insides like a steak with extra toppings- which actually is quite a compliment to their burger.
The favorite dish I had from the menu was the Gnocchi Parisienne with peas, roasted portobello and pistou. The gnocchi were light and pillowy and melted on my mouth while also having a bit of crunch from a slight sear, and the peas and portobello offered good chewy texture and bursts of flavor. A pistou is a simple sauce made of just garlic, fresh basil, and olive oil, and it tasted very fresh and like they were great quality base ingredients.
During my visit at a table for early dinner, the service was blazingly fast- I only ordered a drink and an entree, so pretty straightforward order. The bread with salted butter arrived at the same time of my drink, and I was still on the last piece of bread when the entree appeared only 10 minutes after I ordered it and overall I was in and out within 30 minutes or so. That kitchen's ability to execute is nimble. But, I never felt rushed during my meal- though I definitely felt their bustling from all on the first floor to serve which is at the expense of helping guests feel relaxed and that little service illusion that they enjoy tending to us as guests and having us experience their restaurant.
The check always comes with a complimentary mini macaroon. Each time I went, the flavors varied- this one was a banana nut one. You would think that this touch at the end of every meal would make me feel pampered and be a gesture of small care. Yet each time the way it was presented, instead of coming from a desire of Little Bird to ensure the meal ended with just a touch of sweetness, it was just a box to be checked off for "mignardise" like part of the formula for fulfilling the concept.
It's a small restaurant, and when you enter, it seems to bring up a bistro air immediately- loud but cozy, the little decorative touches of a small bird here or there and the shiny tin ceiling, the chalkboard of specials looked beautiful with art carefully drawn on the borders. The atmosphere is charming. The space has been put together well to feel elegant but not stuffy.
Me, I take the word Bistro in the name to mean food probably with too much butter but also a comforting local part of the neighborhood that has some continental classiness going for it to make me feel a bit fancy and I can have escapist fantasies about having once spent a nostalgic semester in a romantic Paris. Little Bird just isn't generous enough to fulfill that as every dish is rich but not every dish is comforting or makes you feel cared for. It looks appealing and finds that line between luxury and homey charm, but then isn't inviting enough to feel casual and local like a neighborhood friend. But it can have its moments if you choose carefully, and don't come in a large party, and aren't looking for your bistro to become personal. It definitely offers French food that aspires to be extra decadant, but just not the nourishment I was hoping for.