Amid Portland's D.I.Y. restaurants, where a ventilation system can double as decor, Ava Gene's is provocative precisely for its polish. As I wiggled into its long, double-sided banquette, the room fairly glimmered with soft, brass lamplight and shimmery teal tile. Even the servers, inclined toward beaded clothing and glossy hair, gleamed a bit, though with a certain punky slouch.
From the first coupe of prosecco to the last lingering glass of amaro, my dining companions and I felt a warm and winning showmanship that made the visit less a meal than an evening. The restaurant is the production of the Stumptown founder Duane Sorenson, who is using his coffee profits to help remake Division Street, a formerly gritty strip of southeast Portland, into a gourmet wonderland of taverns, specialty markets, coffeehouses and Roman Candle, a bakery and pizzeria that opened this month.
Headed up by the chef Joshua McFadden, who comes to Portland by way of Brooklyn (where he was chef de cuisine at Franny's), the kitchen offers not-too-doctrinaire Italian fare. The prosciutto might be Parma, but winks to Portland's lively farmer's markets are evident in dishes like a deliciously playful ruffle of batter-fried sprouting broccoli and kale rapini, ready to be dunked in creamy tonnato sauce.
Pastas are surefire: we dug into paccheri - think Paul Bunyan-scale ziti - jacketed in a velvety lamb ragu, and earthy-delicate ravioli stuffed with beets and ricotta. Our shared secondi, wood-grilled lamb leg and sausage, was capable, but less distinctive. By then, however, we were well into the evening - drinking fresh country wines - like a slightly effervescent freisa from Piemonte - and thus untroubled. More than anything, we discovered, Ava Gene's is a place to linger, well cared for, and so we prolonged our evening with dessert, including a perfect gelato meditation on salted peanuts. We didn't clock out until just shy of midnight.
Ava Gene's, 3377 Southeast Division Street; (971) 229-0571; avagenes.com. A three-course meal for two, without drinks or tip, is about $120.