I finally made it to Hugo's ! I have long been aware of it, having lived in Maine for the last 15 years. I've watched Rob Evans rise meteorically in fame the last few years until he won the James Beard award this year (2009) for Best Chef Northeast.
So it was with great anticipation that I sought out this place in the 'Old Port' district in Portland to see what he offered.
We were greeted warmly and sat in a room that was dark blue and sparsely furnished or appointed. I believe good food is theater and too much outside distraction takes away from the food. At a high level the food is what should command the attention. The room accomplished this, it was attractive but not demanding.
Our waiter was certainly very in touch with the menus, ingredients and preparations. I did find him a little robotic, and sensed that he had recited these same descriptions verbatim many times before but considering the complexity of the menus he sold them well. We went for the 'Chef's Blind Tasting' menu which included wine and beer pairings. I wanted the best he could offer, thats why I was there.
Here is the menu from that night:
St. Hilare Brut N/V, Blanquette de Limoux, France
Citrus Cured Scottish Salmon & Fried Tartare
fennel & beet salad ~ horseradish ~ smoked roe
Maine Shrimp Flan
proscuitto dashi ~ scallion ~ shrimp toast
Rijckaert Chardonnay 2006 ~ Arbois, France
Casco Bay Cod Cheeks & Tempura Fried Tounge
cauliflower ~ capers ~ brown butter
Colterenzio Pinot Bianco 2007 ~ Alto Adige, Italy
Roasted Duck Breast, Duck Leg Pancetta & Cured Foie Gras
farro ~ candied spaghetti squash ~ warm spice gastrique
Clos Mimi Syrah 'Petite Rousse' 2006 ~ Paso Robles, California
Shelburne Farms 2 year Cheddar ~ VT
poached raisins ~ verjus gelee ~ caraway lavash
Unibroue La Fin du Monde ~ Quebec, Canada
Lime Semi Freddo
vanilla infused buttermilk ~ rum roasted pineapple ~ anise hyssop
St. Supery Moscato 2007 ~ California
The highlights of this menu for me were:
The amuse, I love oysters, this one was impeccably fresh, the St. Hilaire is always good if not a little simple. The opening course sets the stage and this was a simple course that relied on the ingredients to carry it ... worked.
2nd course - Maine Shrimp Flan
Fabulous textures, creamy flan, crispy toast, a dollop of umami from the dashi, really great textures/flavors. The Rijckaert Chardonnay was a precise expression of Chardonnay that had purity and impact with this dish.
Cheese and beer. Who knew? I enjoyed the change of pace here. The sharp cheddar and the malty sweetness of the beer(and the fizz) all worked together in a nice symbiosis that was really satisfying. Almost like and end of meal intermezzo.
Overall, I enjoyed my experience here. I liked Rob's sense of flavor. timing and deconstruction. A couple of things were surprising here though.
The lack of patrons. For a current James Beard Award winner for Best Chef in the Northeast, the restaurant had 8 people in it the entire 2.5 hours we were there. We had gone to the popular Fore Street for a drink previous to dinner and it was on a waiting list, two blocks away.
Price. I have no problem paying like there is no tomorrow for a great meal. It is my entertainment, passion and muse. I felt like the pricing here was high (maybe it explains the sparse customer count that night). This is not Per Se or Arpege, although my credit card felt like it was.
Is Rob Evans the best chef in the Northeast? MAYBE the best NEW chef in the Northeast. In Maine alone there are the likes of Sam Hayward, Melissa Kelly and the sleeping giant, Tom Gutow who could be the Alice Waters of New England. This doesn't account for the many great newcomers and veterans in the Boston food scene.
Hats off to Hugo's and Rob Evans.
Welcome to the radar!