Davenport's Food Nerd Paradise

At Davenport, two shy dudes geek out on pristine ingredients, insider wines, and the coolest glasses on the planet.

By Karen Brooks September 26, 2014 Published in the October 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

Fifteen years ago, as Portland restaurants dabbled in hollow concoctions and theatricality, chef Kevin Gibson cooked Castagna into a high-end haven of beautiful simplicity. Then, in 2008, he joined the DIY movement, turning the bare-bones counter at Evoe into a destination for hyperlocal eating. With Davenport, opened last November on E Burnside Street, the setting has changed, but the impulses remain. Standing in the wood-framed kitchen, Gibson (near right) is all lank and introspection, precision and nuance. While other cooks dream of modernism’s deconstructions and edible illusions, Gibson is still searching for the perfect porcini and forecasting the peak ripeness for each tomato like a soothsayer.  

Sous-vide cooking has never reached his kitchen. Foil, parchment, and cast-iron pans are Gibson’s tools of choice. At Davenport, you won’t find chef signatures or house statements—just a sensibility, a purity, a celebration of the tangible in an era when you often have no idea what’s on your plate. 

What separates Gibson from Portland’s hordes of seasonal cooks? Attention to detail. Thinly sliced duck arrives like a calculus formula: rubbed with licorice-y spices, cooked to a razor’s edge of perfection, and served at room temperature, which lets the game and funk shine. The snap of green beans, a hidden cache of foie gras bits, and a concentrated cherry relish illuminate the clarity of the moment. A Spanish stew shows just how satisfying food can be when you can actually taste everything—not just the clams and tingly chorizo, not just the earthy liquor extruded from simmered tarbais beans and really good tomatoes, but Italian parsley, treated as a true ingredient and part of the team. As for the fritto misto, it’s ultra-crisp and hot enough to blister your fingers. You couldn’t find a fresher version if you walked into the kitchen and pulled it out of the fryer yourself. 

2215 E Burnside St

The spare approach isn’t for everyone, and diners uninterested in old-school European romanticism might miss the magic altogether. Thrill seekers need not apply: the former June space is grown-up, pleasant, and comfortable, but fun is not on Davenport’s menu. I miss the sense of adventure at Evoe, where a diner could cull an ad hoc feast from every corner of Gibson’s brain—not just his seasonal beauties but crazy deviled eggs crowned with changing whims, textbook French omelets, and a killer lamb meatball sandwich. Davenport’s 20 dishes of the moment can feel expected (do we really need another helping of padron peppers in Portland?), and at times, the line between calm perfection and boredom is thin indeed. Still, after shaky opening months, Davenport is finding that Gibson groove.  

Duck breast with haricots verts, fried potatoes, and cherry relish

The front of the house belongs to Kurt Heilemann, who ambles to your table in khaki shorts. You could easily mistake Davenport’s co-owner for a busboy. Then he opens your wine bottle. The last time I saw a whip and twirl of this magnitude, Clint Eastwood was dispatching Lee Van Cleef on a dusty western street. Nothing about this house of modesty suggests his zeal for wine until you encounter the trove of esoteric trophies he’s amassed: 150 value-driven bottles typically known only to informed hunters. There are hard-core Loire Valley discoveries, Sicilian gems, the Piedmontese producer with one great plot, and some elegant Oregon pinots—bottles that skew more pure and alive than big and bold. Stare long enough and the “extended wine list” will be quietly slipped onto your table, with hundreds more finds for the splurger. This is wine-geek paradise par excellence, assembled with rigor and ambition but not a drop of tinsel.   

Order a bottle, and Heilemann pours it right into the heart of Davenport: mouth-blown Zalto glasses from Austria, with ballerina-thin stems, artful curves, and willowy rims that somehow double the drinking pleasure. Zaltos don’t come cheap. Call it revenge of the nerds, or just two guys on Burnside blowing their allowance on the same coveted glasses found at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry and Manhattan’s Michelin-adorned Eleven Madison Park. Either way, break a few and Davenport’s bottom line for the night is shattered. No matter. The values of the house are made clear on the tables here. And as each night draws to a close, Heilemann washes every glass by hand while Gibson does the dishes nearby. It says everything about this bashful dining room. 

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