At Hugo’s the food and wine are lavish and spectacular. The setting is dramatic and stylish. And the service is flawless. There are also degrees of fineness that make it sometimes inconsistent, but these minor digressions are not major faults by any means; rather, it’s more like comparing the luster of diamonds to to that of rubies.
What was so noticeable at Hugo’s on a recent Saturday night visit was the average age of the diners. It wasn’t the usual gang of affluent baby boomers who populate such expensive fine-dining establishments in cities across America. Instead, mostly 30-somethings were seriously contemplating the stunning progression of dishes on parade.
Ever since the dynamic trio of owner-chefs Arlin Smith, Mike Wiley and Andrew Taylor bought the restaurant from their brilliant mentor, Rob Evans, they have re-positioned Hugo’s into a remarkable dining establishment that debuted last July in a bravura performance of gastronomic perfectionism. The décor bespeaks a renovation with a no-money-spared patina including a luminous Eric Hopkins seascape that dominates the space.
What the new ownership has also accomplished is to showcase modernistic dining beyond conventional ebb and flow. Conceptually it’s more like theater in the round, as 20 high-backed leather seats grouped at the grand dining bar allow diners to watch the performance-art machinations in the open kitchen. Seating also includes leather booths along the side wall and two strategic tables fronting the floor-to-ceiling windows facing the street. From each vantage point you see the line cooks preparing plates of amuse bouche as precursor to more complex preparations that follow from another battery of chefs manning the stoves and kettles.
The menu is prix fixe with several options: $45 for two courses or the larger five-course menu for $90. Or you can mix and match as you please at $22 per plate. Extras – and it’s a shame not to order a few – pad the final tab, which can range from $100 per person to over $300 for two depending on menu selections.
At the first of two dinners at the bar we combined the two-course and five-course menus for a total of seven to share, including dessert.
On a subsequent night a single repast of the restaurant’s two-course spread was an unexpected multi-dish extravaganza.
That happened because at the kitchen’s whimsy, these extra courses (amuse bouche in size) are sent out arbitrarily. There might be only one bread course, as we experienced; but at the second dinner there were three (biscuit, dinner roll and boule, all house-made) and many more small plates.
At the first dinner we began with an amuse bouche of shrimp puff to tease our palates along with perfect buttermilk biscuits and farm butter.
Then we were presented with a glistening consommé of local pheasant. The breast meat was wrapped in nori and a confit of leg flanked by gossamer-light potato gnocchi. This was a wonderful beginning.
With this we had a glass each of Carneros Reata Chardonnay ($14) from California that was as smooth and buttery as a French Meurseault.
Next was a mussel salad mixed with the intensity of Brussels sprouts, and flecks of chorizo lending another flavor component that made quite an impression.
One of our favorite dishes was the glazed parsnip, embellished with mussels, coated with toasted rice powder and cilantro. It took a far flight of fancy to conjure this spectacular creation.
For wine we switched to a by-the-glass pouring of an unusual cabernet from Arizona, the Stronghold 2010 ($10). It was amazingly complex, rich with berry and smoky nuances.
A stunning looking dish then arrived that was described as cornmeal mousse. It was more like a polenta soup in beef broth with Treviso, green tomato jam, baby mushrooms and pickled radish artfully combined in a beautiful china bowl. The layers of flavor and texture were brilliantly suave.
The star of the show was a whole bass presented on a gold-leaf platter. The fish was prepared sous vide, boned and pan fried. The flesh was as fresh tasting as if it were just plucked from the sea. Set over cauliflower puree and garnished with house-made prosciutto, this was an ambrosial preparation beyond compare.
Our waiter suggested that we try a glass of the Betts and Scholl Grenache ($15) from Australia. The perfume and delicate texture went perfectly with the fish and lingered nicely with dessert.
Dessert choices were enticing, though out of the four offered we chose the most esoteric – New England cranberry with cheesecake ice cream (beautifully creamy) and cranberry compote with candied walnuts under a sheath of cranberry leather. This last component proved to be a fatal flaw – a dried cranberry “blanket” as tough as the proverbial shoe leather.
At the second dinner several nights later, a solo event at the bar, the two-course menu was augmented by a parade of amuse bouche that were spectacular. These were followed by that delectable cornmeal mousse. The main course was utterly tender slices of local lamb over aromatic black lentils. Wines choices poured by the glass at this seating included a repeat of the Reata Chardonnay and a wonderful Owen Roe Sharecropper Pinot Noir from Oregon, Willamette Valley ($13)
For dessert this time the Maine apple was a far better choice than the cranberry dish at our first dinner. Here was a spectacular creation of cider donuts, apple foam and caramel mousse. It begged for a touch of sparkly, and a Shramsberg Blanc de Noir Brut 2007 ($12) helped to conclude another exquisite meal.
The menu is tweaked nightly with new dishes, and this fact is certain: The dining experience will be unique and nearly perfect!
John Golden, who lives in Portland, writes about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for local and national publications. He can be reached at: