Ava Jean’s. Portland, Oregon.

September 2018.

This Italian spot was recommended in review websites, and we chose it as one of a couple of destinations on a weekend in this famously groovy town. The Uber ride over was like something in Latin America or the Middle East which you retrospectively consider an adventure. The fat middle-aged guy had no clue how to find places or operate his GPS, and at times we weren’t sure he was completely able to steer the car. Anyway we made it and escaped. The other people that were picked up on the way also got out of the car quickly at the same place but I’m not sure if that’s where they were headed…

Ava Jean’s is in a foodie neighbourhood called I think Richmond across the river from downtown, and there must’ve been a dozen little bars and restaurants within a block. It’s a noisy rectangular room completely full at 6:15, and very efficiently organized and run. Hostess seated us and server arrived immediately, deferring to a manager or owner who showed up in half a minute when we seemed to want to talk in detail about wine. Service was quick and friendly, and even with my hearing aids defensively removed I could hear the brief clear descriptions of the dishes as they arrived.

The wine list is impressive with selections from minor as well as the big Italian regions and nods to famous American and European locations. We happened to have tried the obscure red varietal teroldego in a now-defunct Charlottetown restaurant of all places, this grape native to the north-Italian area just east of Barolo. There were three teroldegos on this list and we went for the cheapest (US$60), a Foradori 2015. It started out pretty absent but developed in the glass into an austere round experience a bit similar to nebbiolo.

We shared a salad and two pastas. Salad was based on corn with chanterelle, walnuts, provolone and basil. It was dazzlingly soured by a perfect flat white vinaigrette, and flavours and consistencies were clear and contrasting, including and especially the sharp fresh basil. Just delicious. First pasta was a gnocci, milky with tiny tomatoes smashed and exploding with garden flavour, basil, and garlic (I don’t see it on the menu today), the gnocci soft and perfectly cooked. Another taste and consistency homer. Finally, agnolotti stuffed with corn and cheese, in a butter-based sauce with lemon overtones. It may be because we were hungry to start and never got completely stuffed but this too tasted beautifully subtle but separate in its flavours and completely satisfying. Great food.

Our fairly light meal and reasonably-priced wine came up to US$161 including a 20% tip. There are hundreds of restaurants in Portland and who knows what we miss just sampling two or three on a weekend, but one could certainly do much worse than this wonderful Italian spot. We were particularly impressed with the smooth quick service alongside the high-class cuisine. If you go, consider sitting at the bar so you can hear one another speaking. The place, sadly commonly these days, is noisy. Highly recommended.

Food 9.4, service 9.3, ambience 8.2, value 8.2, peace and quiet 6.0.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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