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At Davenport, fish makes you smart

Bread & Brew


by: TRIBUNE PHOTOS: JONATHAN HOUSE - The Davenport restaurant features a wide open dining area, with lots of clean lines and light. Its a new restaurant that is elegant, upscale and relaxed, an example of a top-end Pacific Northwest bistro.My new favorite restaurant is Davenport, and my new favorite fish is smelt.

Rarely served in restaurants, and with an extremely limited season, Columbia River smelt are usually discussed by historians and biologists, not food writers. Smelt are oily, pungent fish — a friendlier version of a sardine. In the wrong hands I could see them tasting pretty awful.

At Davenport they’re roasted and served whole, their delicate flesh turned slightly smoky. Chef Kevin Gibson may be the first person in smelt’s venerable history to serve them with sauce gribiche, a chunky French condiment made with hard-boiled eggs and capers. It was a perfect match.

Years ago, Gibson was the founding chef at Castagna, which is still going strong, but in a different direction. Now a destination for modernist cuisine, Castagna used to be known as an understated, almost austere chapel to super-high-quality local and seasonal products, before that was a cliché. I still remember a Caprese salad served there at the height of the tomato season of 2004.

Gibson moved on to Evoe, the mighty little lunch counter inside Pastaworks on Hawthorne, and bided his time. This winter he opened up shop in the former June restaurant space on East Burnside Street. The space hasn’t changed much, but it’s more well-upholstered, with a warmer feel and less noise. There’s natural wood everywhere, and gentle, tempered lighting — no exposed filaments, here, thank you very much.

Overall, seafood is a highlight at Davenport.

A half-dozen oysters offered a chance to compare and contrast Washington and Massachusetts shellfish. All the oysters were exquisitely fresh, briny and luxuriant, but the West Coast oysters were better. A simple presentation added to their charm — a plate with a napkin, a scattering of ice, a wedge of lemon and a small white pile of shaved horseradish. It was brilliant with the oysters, bringing out the best in them and ending their run with an exclamation mark.

Cuttlefish, with the firmness of calamari, was grilled and served in toothsome chunks swimming in salbitxada, a Catalan sauce made with mild peppers and almonds. It takes a certain kind of insight to sense the kinship between the cuttlefish and almonds — and there also was insight at work in the pairing of surprisingly sprightly chard and ricotta dumplings with velvety chicken broth.

The menu at Davenport consists entirely of small and medium-size shareable plates, but a few stand out as what, in a pinch, you could consider entrees: braised chicken with mushrooms and potatoes, shepherd’s pie with sheep’s milk cheese, and grilled duck, which is not to be missed.

Rare and red, the duck breast had some of the mineral quality of a steak, but with the fine grain and satin smoothness of birds. It was accompanied by crisped Charlotte potatoes (a sweeter, yellow variety) and walnut aillade, a French sauce made with walnuts, parsley and garlic. The sweet-and-bitter quality of walnuts was a fine fit for both the duck and potatoes.

But the crowning touch for this dish came about partly by chance.

The cocktail menu at Davenport is small and classic: they mix a mean martini and one of the best Negronis in Portland, but my date wanted something new. There was a brief discussion with the waitress, who was then seen consulting with the bartender. He sent back a ruby mixture full of cherries, a cocktail that didn’t just make sense with what was on the plate, but truly added to it.

There was only one thing for dessert. We ordered it.

It was a semi-freddo layered with almond cake and bits of praline. It was Italian in its unsugary, marzipan subtleness, and more reminders of the Mediterranean came from bright apricots tinged with cardamom.

Like just about everything at Davenport, it was elegant in a matter-of-fact, slightly brainy way. This is a restaurant that is upscale and yet relaxed, confident without bluster, and intensely local without being gimmicky. I would definitely bring visitors here to give them a true sense of how good Pacific Northwest bistro cuisine can be. But don’t wait for a special occasion — just go, and enjoy yourself.

4 to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, closed Sunday-Monday, 2215 E. Burnside St., 503-236-8747, www.davenportpdx.com, entrees $16-$18

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