Tonight’s Agenda: Ava Gene’s
After multiple attempts to secure reservations at Ava Gene’s, this popular Italian restaurant finally decided to let us in. Would it be worth the wait? Located in the gentrified SE Division neighborhood, Ava Gene’s has a pleasant, though fairly typical bistro ambiance with wooden table and chairs and rustic lighting. The decor nicely reflects Ava Gene’s style of cooking that their website describes as simple, rustic, and Roman inspired. However, do not expect a quiet or romantic dining interlude; it is loud in here. While young families with young children may prefer a noisy restaurant to drown out the antics of their kids, I am at the “been there done that phase” of parenting and prefer quiet conversation with my spouse. Ava Gene’s offers a family style menu option, so their vision does not appear to be that of an intimate dining experience. If one likes a bustling, and booming dining adventure, Ava Gene’s would be a good fit.
But what about the food? Like the many other great eateries in Portland, there is a commitment here to local produce. The menu salivates with local ingredients including fresh dairy cheeses, a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables, nuts, grains, meat, and fish. While I love a menu that speaks of the Earth, when I eat Italian I want fresh pasta. I ordered the Cacio E. Pepe ($17). This is a toasted hard spring wheat spaghetti seasoned with olive oil and pepper. It was a very simple and delicious dish that celebrates the wonderful chew of fresh pasta; I loved it. I would have liked, however, to have had a stuffed pasta option of ravioli or tortellini on the menu, using some of the fantastic local produce available this time of the year.
Speaking of fantastic, the Amish Butter Corn Polenta nailed it. It was so creamy and naturally sweet that I wanted to lick my dish. We were able to finish up our evening with not one, but two desserts–the server accidently gave us the Panna Cotta with Plums, instead of the Cannoli we had actually ordered. So they gave us both desserts. I love it when servers mess up. The Panna Cotta was one of the best I have ever had with juicy delicate plums on a melt in your mouth creamy gelatin. Whereas the Cannoli paled in comparison to one I recently had at a bakery in Boston.
The service was very good, but perhaps a bit rushed. It felt more like a cafe at lunch time, than a relaxed evening dinner. Also, the loudness of the place made it difficult for someone my age to hear and chat with other diners at the table. That said, this is a terrific restaurant. The menu and food is amazing. I would not say it has been my top Italian eatery in Portland, though. I am big on ambiance and I prefer, at the price point of Ava Gene’s, to have a quieter and more intimate atmosphere. I have been fortunate to dine at some very good restaurants around the world that offered impeccable service. I have also had better service at other dining destinations in Portland and at a lower price point. So when I searching for a top restaurant, my expectations are high.
As we get near the end of trying the top 10 Italian restaurants in PDX, we decided to have our 30th wedding anniversary dinner at Ava Genes. It is a tough place to get a reservation; I looked 2 weeks in advance and they were already filled until 8:30. So I took it. It is one popular restaurant.
The atmosphere is nothing unique, pleasant, although loud. Us geezers do not hear all that well, and it is a restaurant with a lot of ambient noise from other conversations. But it cleared out by 9 so the sound improved as the night progressed.
I started with a whiskey ginger (rye whiskey, amaro meletti, ginger beer, bitters, lime zest) a drink with two words that will pique my interest: whisky and ginger. It was served in a miniature pop bottle, both cute and delicious.
For an appetizer had the deep fried vegetable, the gnocco fritto, prosciutto, parmigiano, chiles, honey. It was like the tempura I had years ago in Japan, delicate and delicious.
For the entree it was pork, a big chunk of pig meat with corn, pole beans, sweet peppers and n’duja. It is remarkable how often I need to google the ingredients of not only my drinks, but my food. It was fantastic.
I finished up with a malted vanilla gelato, a big scoop instead of the weeny scoop so often served in restaurants. Fan. tas. tic. Perhaps it would have been better with a hot fudge sauce, but you can’t have everything.
They have a panna cotta, one of my favorite desserts, but I went with the ice cream because, well, malt. Unfortunately for them, but good for us, they mistakenly gave us a panna cotta as well. I like to make panna cotts and this had the most smooth consistency I have ever had. If it wasn’t for the plums as a fruit (not a fan) it had the potential for the best panna cotta ever.
As seems to be always the case I had no issues with the service; it was fine and the server was excellent at explaining the questions I had.
So how does it rate? I am still placing Mucca Osteria as the best so far but with the worst name as I can never remember it, but Ava Genes is perhaps number 2 for food. It is just not a place for a romantic 30th anniversary dinner. Unless you have been married so long, it’s, meh, him again. Bring me another glass of wine.
We have two more Italian restaurants to try.