Choice Bites

At Evoe, a new eatery next door to Pastaworks on SE Hawthorne Boulevard, diners can discover the true art of snacking.

By Camas Davis May 19, 2009 Published in the February 2009 issue of Portland Monthly

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Chef Kevin Gibson, the one-man show in Evoe’s kitchen

It’s rare that I enter a grocery store with no list in hand and nothing in mind to cook, then come out with the makings of a brilliant meal. Except, that is, when I visit Pastaworks, the specialty food store that has held court on SE Hawthorne Boulevard since 1983. Wandering through the store’s European-style layout, ogling the cold cases of homemade pasta, perusing the butcher’s case of fresh pork shoulders and smoked sausages, and gazing at lush displays of lacinato kale, thick leeks, and other local, seasonal vegetables, my recipe-addicted self melts away and I simply follow the desires of my stomach. I’ve conjured some of the most memorable meals I’ve ever prepared while shopping at Pastaworks.

So I was somewhat envious when I heard that Kevin Gibson, formerly of Castagna, had been hired as chef at Evoe, a relatively new “enlightened snack bar” that serves as an eating annex to Pastaworks and a kind of clearinghouse and test kitchen for many of the goods sold there. With his easy access to such fine gourmet ingredients, Gibson’s formula seemed positively charmed—especially given the refined artistry and technique he’d exhibited in the nine years he’d worked as a chef at Castagna, which he still co-owns.

As it turns out, the menu at Evoe, as well as the service, is almost as meandering as the aisles of food at its neighboring market—an entirely good thing. Sitting down to a meal in the small, open kitchen with its smattering of stools requires diners to give themselves over entirely to whim—both theirs and the chef’s. The prolific chalkboard menu hanging above Gibson’s cooking perch will guide you, but so will the bowls of artichokes and fennel and Meyer lemons on the wooden counter, the only thing separating you from the kitchen; as will the jars of pickled vegetables and the prosciutto-and-butter sandwiches stacked nearby. Eating at Evoe means being wooed by the purely tactile nature of scratch cooking: it’s just you watching Gibson, one of the calmest and kindest chefs I’ve ever encountered, chop and pour and drizzle. And you won’t have to empty your wallet for such an experience—most dishes run between four and ten dollars.

On one of my visits to Evoe, a name taken from the opening invocation to Bacchus in Virgil’s Aeneid, I was greeted by a curious perfume. I smelled something hot and musty like paprika, something wintry like cinnamon, and a scent akin to apple blossoms. Gibson, just a foot away from me, told me it was the merguez cooking on the grill alongside slices of toasted baguette smothered with quince purée. Placed on top of the sweet toasts, the aromatic sausage became a savory dessert. I ordered a glass of crisp prosecco to go with it and watched Gibson masterfully slice a raw delicata squash and toss the slivers with olive oil, mint, sea salt, and black pepper before handing the salad to me. That was the extent of my “enlightened snack” that day, and I was completely satisfied.

On other visits I’ve ordered a speck-and-arugula sandwich or a mere plate of deviled eggs. I’ve watched a group of four attempt to order almost everything on the menu, and couples sip wine and nibble olives. I’ve tended to wander in by myself in the late afternoon on weekends (Evoe is open only from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday), and several times I’ve run into people I know. I sampled the duck breast one friend had ordered—cooked to a perfect medium-rare, and crowned with sweet, honeyed persimmons and peppery arugula—and on another visit I opted for house-butchered pork loin from Pastaworks that came sliced over a bed of tender chickpeas and steamed kale. Though it was slightly too salty for my taste, accompanied by a glass of Spanish godello (an oft-overlooked, minerally white wine recommended to me by Gibson’s gregarious “front-of-house” assistant, Jon Hart), the combination sang.

With each visit, I’ve stayed longer, tried more dishes, and chatted with the chef, who cooks with a kind of rare, meditative precision that’s rarely seen in the frenzied, machismo world of restaurant line-cooking. I lingered, in other words—something that most restaurants these days don’t necessarily inspire or encourage, but that, at Evoe, is the guiding mantra.