Ava Gene’s is a pretty hot restaurant currently- being crowned #5 Best New Restaurant of 2013 by Bon Appétit, recently named by several food experts as one of the top newcomers of 2013 in the Eater article The Experts Name Their Top Newcomers of 2013, and Portland Monthly’s Restaurant of the Year. It’s a very intimate but very boisterous restaurant with dim lighting and tables close together, with lots of 2-tops, prime viewing of the open kitchen at a dozen counter seats, and only a handful of larger 4-top tables, with a capacity of only 50 some guests overall in the restaurant. You can see more of the interior at this Portland Monthly Ava Gene slideshow.
Thankfully Ava Gene’s does accept reservations, though you have to plan ahead of time if you don’t want to be dining after 9pm. I also recommend going with several friends- 4 is best so that you can try lots of dishes from their small plates menu which changes seasonally, as you would expect from a restaurant who has a a “Giardini” section of 9 items, aka items from the garden. Go very very hungry.
The menu may appear confusing at first because of the usage of Italian. Let me break it down for you and offer my opinion of how to order at Ava Gene’s. Here is my Guide to Ava Gene’s menu.
First, props to Ava Gene’s for continually updating their menu on their website, so you can look ahead before you go (it is a pdf). On the very left side are all the small plates for sharing, all enclosed in a box border. Within this box border are 4 main sections. The first 2 sections include a Salumi section that are all various sliced meats sourced locally and from Italy of course, and the Formaggi is the cheese section (all Italian when I looked, with one notable exception- the burrata from Los Angeles).
You are certainly welcome to try out some meats and cheeses, from what I saw at other tables they look incredible. I have to note but with the exception of burrata with is a fresh cheese that is harder to find, unless you have a group of 4 or more I don’t think it’s worth it. Not to say the salumi and cheese are not tasty, but they aren’t uniquely Ava Gene’s, and it is possible to to get amazing charcuterie and cheese plates at several Portland restaurants, unlike some other items on the menu here that are uniquely Ava Gene’s. On the other hand, if your group is starving, these plates come out very quickly and might be an option to order immediately with a drink while you peruse the rest of the menu.
But as I said, the burrata is the exception. Get it. Get the burrata. It is reminiscent of a mozzarella (it originates from it) but creamier, softer, more melt in your mouth. Too often fresh cheeses like mozzarella, ricotta, and burrata are not enjoyed as they should be- fresh, without having ever seen more than a few days before it is devoured. Burrata is harder to find because it’s lifespan is the fastest. We started with burrata, which in the winter season we are now in was served with chestnuts, chestnut infused honey, and homemade foccacia breadsticks. By we, I actually only mean me because I totally did not share this dish with F at all.
Sort of in no man’s land after the Salumi and Formaggi section are options for other small snackitys- olives, and a bread. But if you are going to get bread, I direct you to the Pane section, which offer half a dozen more unique open faced topped breads to try, ranging from those with beans and rosemary to those with wild mushrooms or with pork liver, mustard and chocolate. I went with pane with squash, mint, ricotta salata, barrel aged colatura (a fish sauce), carta di musica (a crisp, cracker thin flatbread). If this sounds unique, you’re right- you should probably get at least one pane.
There is one last appetizer section here in the box- Fritti, with their three dishes of Fritti (fried stuff): fritti of beet arancini, humboldt fog, a fritti of cauliflower, brussels sprouts, lemon, chiles, tonnato (tuna sauce), and finally fritto misto, bee pollen, carrot honey, sarvecchio. We went with all three during our dinner because I really wanted to try the arancini and I’m a sucker for brussels sprouts, and F surprised me by ordering the third dish. The arancini is a lot more beet than humboldt fog if you are worried about how tangy and funky it would be inside with that soft ripened cheese (an unusual option for an arancini), and I’m a fan of beets. You can see 2 of the 3 came with a fistful of freshly grated asiago. Unlike us, you probably don’t need this many fried dishes on your table, and the arancini is the winner in my opinion here.
I direct you to basically the star section of the menu- the Giardini section (Garden). If I came back again, I would probably order much more from this section than any other. As it is, we only tried one as we both had our eyes on the fresh pasta this visit, so we went with a dish of beets, celeriac, pistachios, golden raisins. This was the best dish of the evening, really unique in its raw but bold flavors.
We only had room for primi (first courses, aka pasta) left: a fusilloni with nut ragù and a Ricotta cavatelli with lamb neck ragù in bianco. Expect the pasta to be pretty toothsome- when I make mine at home F sometimes complains they needed a minute or so more to really reach al dente, but I like my pasta firmer– and that’s what both these dishes were like from Ava Gene’s.
That meant we skipped the large secondi section with its big protein dishes- of the 6 they offer, half the dishes are large enough that they specify “for two” or “for the family to share” and range in price from $30-$75/market. See why you need a nice party of friends to divvy up all the various dishes with? Dining with vegetarian F I didn’t consider it an option to order from this section since we couldn’t share, so make sure you invite meat eating friends.
That’s not even counting the last section on the right hand side besides the primi and secondi- the contorni vegetable sides to accompany the secondi! If you get a table at Ava Gene’s, shore up and save your appetite to get through this side of the menu if you also want to dine from the left side! We didn’t even look at the separate dessert menu with its more than half a dozen offerings, or the excellent wine list of solid Italian wines.
As you can see, this is not your typical Italian restaurant- and you should be prepared for that mentally in what you plan to order and the portions/price. You aren’t going to find meatballs, lasagna, or anything parmigiana here or in a sea of sauce or garlic. I’ve heard Ava Gene’s described as rustic and Old World, and by that they mean eating the whole animal and any animal and whatever is seasonal- you will see beef tongue, pork and chicken livers, goose and fish in roe form and in sauces. It seems each dish has only a literal handful of ingredients, but they are the best ingredients.
This is also not a place you should expect to be in and out within 30-45 minutes. Our dinner reservation at 7:45 on a Wednesday night ended with us leaving 2 hours later, and it was just two of us. Dishes came as they were ready- the pane I ordered actually came to our table at the same time as our pastas.
I hope this is helpful in giving you a little idea of what you’re in for. F, as a vegetarian, had several options, but not as much as a meat eater. Even the Pane and Giardini sections had lots of hidden meats in the sauces, and a vegetarian should be prepared to order a lot from the Giardini section. Our server was very considerate and aware- when I ordered the pane he immediately pointed out the colatura is a fish sauce so it wasn’t vegetarian, and one of the fritti sauces also was not vegetarian. They do offer a glossary at the bottom right corner because of all the Italian terms, which unfortunately are not in alphabetical order but based on reading the sections left to right, top to bottom. Do not be too intimidated to ask your server for help and guidance.
It will be unfamiliar- just like I would imagine my or your first day or so if you were to visit Italy for the first time, and you sit down to your first dinner on your own. You should do what I do whenever I am traveling and dine- soak up that foreign atmosphere, looking all around at everyone’s dishes to get some bearings of what looks appealing. You are not the first and not the last to be confused. Of course, let me point out, everyone here speaks perfect English when you ask for help in translation or for their recommendations. And all without the costly airfare and hotel logistics of traveling to Italy since you can return to the comfort of your own home after your adventure, carrying maybe a few boxes of leftovers that you are really looking forward to.