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Portland Bar Scene: Canicule at AviaryPDX

Canicule at AviaryPDX
Canicule at AviaryPDX
Hoke Harden

Try to put bartender Ross Hunsinger into a neat and tidy category and you’ll have a flashback to your childhood when you were vigorously pounding a square peg into a round hole. He just doesn’t fit. And he doesn’t want to.

Ross also likes to challenge boundaries, open envelopes, and create epiphanies with his cocktails. He is very, very good at it.

If ever there was a perfect fit of bartender and host restaurant, though, Aviary and Hunsinger would be the cover photo. His instincts and sensibilities seem to mesh closely with the creative and imaginative chef-designers at work in the kitchen; there’s clearly a symbiosis here.

At Aviary, always be ready for an adventure, whether in food or drink, because you never know what to expect…unless you expect to be surprised. Dishes are constructed and presented here with sometimes interesting, sometimes amazing, and often seemingly wildly contrasting combinations that play on various unexpected themes and whimsical presentations.

There’s a zany beet and asparagus salad, for instance, that needs deconstruction, a literal un-peeling or, um, deflowering prior to consumption, almost like unwrapping a pretty present to find the prize inside. Then there’s a classically presented dish of venison flavored with…oh, juniper jus, or strip steak roasted over Douglas Fir? Hmmm. Or you could go with a plate of pan fried sweetbreads with…wait, what?...kimchi, green apple yogurt, peanuts and mint.

The cocktail menu echoes the theme with unexpected touches, surprising twists, and unique quirks---but always with a carefully precise foundation of flavors which, while they might be unusual, seem to work well together.

One of Hunsinger’s more successful cocktails is his riff on a classic Manhattan, wherein he floats a layer of rich and slightly tannic cabernet sauvignon on top of the drink. It’s a bit of a shock at first, but trust me: it works. If you’re more in the classical cocktail zone, there’s the robust, full-throated Brix Layer with leathery Bulleit’s Rye, Fernet Branca, angostura bitters, and lemon---nothing exotic, just forceful and bold and tasty.

One drink that gets a lot of attention on the list, and even more attention on the table because it’s just impossible to ignore, is the Canicule, a tall glass of brilliant neon green compiled of Bombay Sapphire “East” Gin (a delicious new Asian take on Sapphire with the flavors of Thai black pepper and Vietnamese lemongrass), the complex and utterly delicious locally made Ransom Dry Vermouth, sauvignon blanc, pineapple shrub, cilantro and jalapeno.

The taste is as bright as the neon color---it is undeniably green--- and while fruity, finishes dry and tart. In lesser hands, quite frankly, this concoction could easily be a disaster. It requires careful calibration, with the last two elements, cilantro and jalapeno, being the most difficult to bring into balance.

The cilantro requires heavy maceration and double straining (despite the mojito, Americans don’t generally like floaties in their fancy cocktails), and the jalapeno demands a delicate hand. Pepper heat is one of the hardest things to use in a cocktail; the slightest bit too much will utterly destroy the drink, banish all the other flavors and leave you with nothing but burn. There's many a craft bartender who has hoisted himself on his own petard of pepper.

Hunsinger manages to pull it off, and that’s a testament to both his sensitive palate and his restrained skill.

The Canicule has it all: fruit, spice, herbaceousness, the tart sour smack and the slightly sweet kiss, finishing with the icy dash and mingled with a suffused peppery warmth, along with that familiar yet odd-in-context sunny cilantro. With that bold color, everyone in the room will notice you have one, and several people might call the waiter over and ask for one too, so you might be the trendsetter for the evening.