It’s no surprise that Kevin Gibson can make an epic burger. What's surprising is that he's serving it.
Consider this: Gibson doesn't especially like burgers. For twenty-odd years, while helming various Portland gems, Gibson has been a steadfast keeper of calmly sophisticated plates and seasonal integrity, widely admired by other chefs. Still, during the aughts, Gibson conjured a Portland burger legend at the now-defunct Castagna Cafe. This beefy wonder burst forth from a homemade brioche bun, sided by haystack fries and zucchini pickles.
The only problem? Gibson's true love was big sister Castagna, where food was art. While Gibson fretted over the perfect agnolotti, customers clamored for his great burger next door. Frustration mounted (for various reasons). In 2007 he departed, never to make a burger again—not at his dearly departed Evoe, not at his wine-bar haven, Davenport, opened in 2013 on E Burnside.
Until now. Six weeks after quietly reopening (following a 16-month pandemic hiatus), Davenport is vying for Portland's best new cheeseburger crown. For me, it's neck-and-neck with the creative wonder at Oma's Hideway, laced with chile jam. But it's a clear No. 1 for gastronome Gary Okazaki, a member of PoMo's Burger Cabal, which ranked the city's best classic cheeseburgers in 2020. “This is Portland's best burger,” says Okazaki. “It's clearly made by a pro's pro.”
To be clear, unlike most hip cheeseburgers these days, this is not a smash burger (thinly smashed, literally, and fast-griddled), and unconcerned with prescriptive condiments. So no ketchup, no relish, no American cheese, no secret sauce. And note: it's only available twice a week, for lunch, Wednesday and Thursday.
Gibson, ever the perfectionist, just lets good ingredients do the talking. Think: 1) Heavenly meat, cooked perfectly—dry-aged, grass-fed and delivered fresh from Eugene's Laney Family Farm. 2) Ossau-Iraty cheese, a rich, slightly tangy Basque sheep's variety more typically found on a fine cheese plate, oozing over the patty like a gleeful fondue. 3) One mondo farm-fresh tomato slice etched with Italian sea salt and fresh cracked pepper. 4) A lightly toasted potato bun, thin-thin red onion slivers for crunch, and a creamy schmear of fresh-made sherry mayo.
I'm still dreaming about it, and I'm not alone. In a text exchange, Simpsons writer and PoMo Burger Cabal member Bill Oakley, the iconoclastic fast-food reviewer weighed in: “This thing was spectacular. It's totally different from a classic burger so comparisons are hard. I will say the burger meat itself was possibly the best and most delicious I've ever had.”
Since reopening, Davenport—previously only open for dinner—feels looser, more akin to Gibson's freewheeling Evoe days, with a trio of sandwiches and a half-dozen seasonal inspirations as they come. Watch for soup, a Gibson signature, especially rabbit agnolotti in broth, coming this fall. As with Evoe, there's no time table for when a dish might drop. But on a lucky day you might find duck sided by a persimmons so ripe you'd swear it's custard; creamy scrambled eggs and chanterelles on toast; or some giddy, horseradish-snorting deviled eggs, seared upside down on a grill with buttered brioche crumbs.
The current menu's fideos and squid is a dish of super-thin noodles, coated in olive oil and roasted, then cooked like risotto as it bakes. A crown of aoili and grated tomatoes is browned on top, all puffy and crispy. It arrives in a cazuela set over a folded linen napkins a plate — a fond reminder of how we dined before take-out boxes. And it leaves no doubt: Davenport is Portland's best lunch right now.
Meanwhile, the wine is flowing again, from one of the best lists in town, after the sudden death of business partner Kurt Heilemann last year. Staffer and wine lover Jeremy Byrd has taken the lead and is busy digging out the inventory left behind.
As for that burger, the style may change once tomato season ends. Gibson is already eyeing hatch chiles as a possible flavor note going forward. So how does he feel, all these years later, if we come pouring in for his burger?
“I'm over that,” he says with a wicked grin. We'll find out soon enough. Get it while you can.
Davenport, 2115 E Burnside St., davenportpdx.com; indoor dining only for now, with garage doors open for fresh air.