A pretty mean bird

There is a memorable episode of Seinfeld that revolves around a Kenny Rogers chicken restaurant. Newman loves Kenny’s chicken, and he tells Kramer, “The man does a pretty mean bird.” Well, Kenny Rogers’ chicken is nothing but dressed up fast food, and in my mind fast food is a punk. But a true Pretty Mean Bird is a stud. And I had one recently, but it wasn’t chicken. It was chef Gabriel Boyer’s pan-roasted pigeon, served in the eagle’s nest that is Cirrus at the 51st floor of the Bitexco Tower.

There in Gabe’s aerie, a well-trained waitress served me a studly dish indeed. The pigeon is a small bird, but the dish was served in pieces the size of a big man’s thumb. Each one offering at least three bites for a gentleman, or four for a lady, or one for a hungry savage. It had turned out of the pan the very quintessence of golden brown. It was cloaked in a light, warm, buttery sheen that glistened and said, “Eat me, big boy.” It thoroughly punked Rogers and that colonel guy.

I touched my knife to it, and it parted into threes and fours, suitable for sharing with Lady Constance. The colour within had gone from wild and bloody to a deep burgundy that bespoke not just a mean bird but a strong one. This was no earth-bound punk chicken, but a creature that had the power of flight. I bit into it and knew the firmness and assertive flavour of game, yet at the same time the succulence and nuance that only a man who does a Pretty Mean Bird can achieve.

So who is this Pretty-Mean-Bird man? Who is it that’s punking Rogers and Sanders and so many other chicken slingers? Well Gabe comes from Chicago. And as I remember it, Chicago is a place where women eat 16-ounce steaks and men double down on the same. It’s a city where meat is meat, game is game, beer is beer, and no punks need apply. “One of my first food memories is of venison sausage at breakfast,” Gabe says. “To this day I love anything grilled. And anything in a shell, which makes this a great city for street food.”

Though he comes from the city of big shoulders, and he’s a big guy who speaks with a big baritone voice, he learned delicacy and subtlety at the Culinary Institute of America. “My passion,” he says, “is bringing order out of chaos; to take the wild and the raw and turn them into a composition. If I can tame nature in such a way as to put artistry on a plate, then I’ve done my job.” He’s taken his skills to some of the best hash houses in America, including L20 in his home town. And several months ago he brought them to Saigon.

He has also melded a disparate group of workers into a team of kitcheneers and wait staff that is easily one of the best, most attentive and most knowledgeable in the country. This is an achievement that many an erstwhile kitchen guru has failed to meet here in Saigon. But you can see his success in the easy grace with which he directs his culinary cast in the theatre-in-the-round that is Cirrus. You can hear it in the mellow notes of his baritone as he directs, dropping to the lower registers to plumb the bass tones when he gives a food order. I asked him how he’s managed to do this. “This is a tough business,” he tells me. “And you have to be tough. But one thing I learned at L20 is that you don’t have to be a dick.” Sage words from a pretty artful punker. And a man who does a Pretty Mean Bird.

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