A Chat with Chef Sarah Pliner of Aviary in Portland, Oregon
Portland, Oregon is known for its inventive restaurants and inspiring chefs, so the fact that Aviary is brilliant in so many ways may not be a surprise to some. But no matter how immersed you are in all things culinary, what the Aviary has to offer is still likely to surprise you, especially in its innocuous seeming Alberta Street location.
The menu is like a treasure chest filled with the most-clever concoctions each brought to the table almost too picturesque to eat. Pork belly katsu, prawn salad, charred octopus. You just never know what you might find. But you can be sure you will be delighted.
In 2011, chef Sarah Pliner opened Aviary with co-owners and co-chefs, Jasper Shen and Kat Whitehead. They have since left the restaurant and she now runs the kitchen solo and is the chef/owner. We caught up with chef Pliner to find out what makes her and her food take flight.
The Daily Meal: How would you describe Aviary?
Chef Sarah Pliner: Eclectic modern food in a relaxed atmosphere.
Where did the name Aviary come from?
Originally the restaurant was going to be called Little Bird, after the little bird on the one bamboo tile in Mahjong, and our LLC name was Aviary, because we thought someday there might be more little birds. Then Gabe Rucker opened Little Bird downtown, and we had to think fast, so we just went with Aviary.
What was the inspiration for creating Aviary?
Jasper and Kat and I were all working in restaurants in New York City, and each for our own reasons, had had enough of it. I was thinking of moving back to Portland, though I wasn't sure where I would work or what I would do; Jasper and Kat were working at another restaurant, with a friend of mine who had also lived and worked in Portland, and the three of them were all talking about moving to Portland and trying to start something.
Jasper happened to call me one afternoon when I was having a particularly hard time at work, and asked what I was thinking about, and I said, I'm moving back to Portland and I'm going to start my own thing. He said, "Hey! Kat and I have been talking about the same thing. " So we agreed to do it together.
How would you characterize the menu? Does it rotate?
It changes seasonally, and also if I happen to get a good idea for a new dish. S o there's about four major shifts a year, and then a few smaller changes in between.
What would you say is your food philosophy?
I think eating out should be a treat.
Most people don't get to eat out every day of the week, and when they do, it should be special in some way. For me the most exciting thing is trying something new, either an unfamiliar ingredient or a technique I haven't encountered, so I try to have each dish at the restaurant offer something surprising or interesting to our guests. I also think it's easy for a chef to get carried away by their own ideas and maybe forget a little bit about the pleasure principle (that everything has to taste good), so I work hard to remind myself that in addition to having something interesting about each dish, there has to be something, some flavor combination or ingredient in each dish that is really delicious.