March 11, 2010

Best of the best

— hen I dropped by to visit with Rob Evans last week, he was chatting on his cell phone with his biggest fan -- his mom.

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John Patriquin/ Staff Photographer: Thursday, May,7, 2009. Chef Rob Evans of Hugo's in Portland, received this award for the best chef in the Northeast at the James Beard Foundation Award ceremony in New York City monday night. Seen here in his kitchen at Hugo's.

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer: Sam Hayward, chef at Fore Street restaurant in Portland, won the James Beard award in 2004 and is a fan of this year's winner, Rob Evans.

She was the first person he called from the Lincoln Center after he won the James Beard Foundation's award for Best Chef: Northeast last week in New York.

''She said, 'You don't need my approval any more,' '' Evans said.

Hugo's, the Middle Street restaurant owned by the 45-year-old Evans and his wife and business partner Nancy Pugh, probably will be tough to get into in the coming weeks, at least on the weekends. Calls for reservations are running four to five times higher than normal for this time of year, and foodies from New York and Connecticut are booking tables well into summer and fall.

Duckfat, Evans' other Portland restaurant, likely will be another beneficiary of the James Beard afterglow. Evans already has plans to open a new version of Duckfat in the Old Port that will serve gastropub fare along with the restaurant's signature Belgian fries. (More on that new venture later.)

With Evans' win, Portland now has two James Beard ''best chef'' awards under its belt, a situation that will likely draw renewed attention to the city's dynamic food scene. Portland chef Sam Hayward won the best chef award in 2004, and his restaurant, Fore Street, was up for another Beard honor this year -- Outstanding Restaurant, a category in which Fore Street competed with the likes of Jean-Georges, a New York City establishment owned by renowned chef Jean-George Vongerichten, and Babbo, owned by Mario Batali. Jean-Georges won.

Two Portland chefs also have taken home the coveted ''Best New Chef'' award bestowed annually by Food and Wine magazine on the top 10 up-and-coming chefs around the country. Evans won in 2004, and Steve Corry of Five-Fifty-Five won in 2007.

''I think people are really noticing what's going on up here,'' Evans said, ''and I think it's the state that drives it, meaning the product. I mean, that's one of the reasons we're here -- the amazing seafood, and the organic farmers' coalitions up here are really good.''

But winning a James Beard award is a challenge, no matter how much local lamb or Maine-grown mussels there are on the menu. Chefs Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier of Arrows Restaurant in Ogunquit have been nominated for Best Chef: Northeast six times now without hearing their name called.

The pool of voters for the James Beard awards (Beard Foundation members and past award winners) tend to be concentrated in big cities, notes Hayward, and voters are only supposed to mark their ballots for chefs whose food they've eaten. Put those two factors together, and ''it's really surprising that Mainers can win,'' said Hayward, who was so stunned by his own award in 2004 he didn't even attend the reception.

''When I won, I hadn't even thought about what I was going to say if I won,'' Hayward said. ''I just thought it was out of the question.''

Hayward said the fact that Evans garnered enough votes to beat out the other four nominees, which included three chefs from the Boston area as well as the Arrows chefs, is ''a real testament to Rob's imagination, commitment, and the kind of connection he makes with his diners.''

Just what is it, from a fellow chef's perspective, that makes Evans' food worthy of a James Beard award?

Hayward says Evans combines ''flawless technique'' with a willingness to experiment. Evans incorporates new ideas into his cooking in interesting ways without ever jumping out too far ahead of his Maine audience, Hayward said, and he does it ''in a style that is still really true to the natural flavor of the raw materials.''

Even when using the contemporary techniques of molecular gastronomy, which have so enthralled chefs around the country, Evans' food still comes out tasting like it was prepared in a kitchen and not a laboratory.

Perhaps the biggest compliment Hayward could pay his colleague is this one: He says he'd rather eat at Hugo's than at the French Laundry in California, long considered to be one of the best restaurants in the country. (Evans once worked at the French Laundry and has a deep admiration for its owner, chef Thomas Keller.)

''My impression of French Laundry,'' Hayward said, ''was the food was so hyper-refined, things were strained and polished so many times, it may be that the veal sweetbreads came from a terrific local dairy farm 20 miles away from Napa, but the reality was it had been so refined and so washed of its natural state there was no sense of terroir or origin or source at all.

''It could have come from anywhere,'' he said. ''And with Rob's food, the taste of place always seems to come through, even though he's using pretty advanced techniques.''

Both Evans and Hayward think that this latest honor for Portland will result in more restaurateurs wanting to set up shop here, including more high-caliber chefs looking for fertile ground.

''I think it raises the bar for all the restaurants, and the level of expectations on the part of the audience, which may not always be a good thing,'' Hayward said. ''I think trying to do Alinea (a Chicago restaurant known for being in the forefront of molecular gastronomy) in Maine would be a mistake.''

Not to mention there's only so many diners in the Portland area to fill seats night after night, and as more restaurants open, that will become even more of a challenge.

LINEY HERYER EYEY

Even in this rough economy, there are numerous restaurants at the starting gate, just opened or waiting to open. Chef Jeff Landry recently opened the Farmers Table on Commercial Street. El Rayo Taqueria, a new Mexican place created by chef Cheryl Lewis, is set to open this month on York Street. Eric Simeon will be the executive chef at Grace, a soon-to-be-opened restaurant in a remodeled 19th-century church on Chestnut Street. Chef Harding Lee Smith is working on his third Portland restaurant, the Corner Room, a rustic Italian-inspired place on the corner of Exchange and Federal streets.

''There's 65,000 people, and there's restaurants popping up everywhere,'' Evans said. ''Even if you're good at your game, you're scrambling for customers in the winter time because there's only so many people out there. These new restaurants did research that I didn't see.''

But Portlanders love their food and still show up for something special. A $125-per-person ''Guest Chef Dinner'' at Hugo's this Sunday has long been sold out and has a lengthy waiting list. The guest chef cooking with Evans will be Masa Miyake, who will be preparing duck and flying in eel from Japan. Chef Masa is bringing along his old friend Shinji, one of the top-rated sushi chefs in Japan, who has been working with him at Miyake on Spring Street.

Evans himself is planning more restaurants, including a new Duckfat gastropub in the heart of the Old Port (think Wharf Street or Commercial Street) sometime within the next year, as soon as he and Pugh can find the right property to purchase. The original Duckfat will remain open.

They're also looking for a place to open a Duckfat in Burlington, Vt., hoping to cash in on the college-town vibe where french fries and beer are considered staples.

''Duckfat, we feel, is our future,'' Evans said. ''It holds great potential in the future for us, doing more of them and setting them up around New England.''

Evans' big dream? Retire to a hobby restaurant where he can cook part of the year, then travel and eat the rest of the year, searching for inspiration. No menus, no pressure of the bottom line.

''The true definition of a hobby restaurant is I don't have to make a living off of it,'' he said. ''I can just cook for 12 people and I can charge whatever I want and cook whatever I want, and hopefully people hop on board.''

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

mgoad@pressherald.com

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