Saturday, December 7, 2013
When Hugo’s closed in the spring for renovations and a reconsidering of the menu, the owners of the restaurant promised that things wouldn’t change too much.
They eased the minds of their fans by promising to stay true to their culinary ideals, while at the same time dragging the décor of the space into the 21st century.
I was fortunate enough to attend a last-minute staff training on Saturday night that included a dry run of the tasting menu, and I can happily report that they have succeeded on both counts. (The restaurant at 88 Middle St. re-opened to the public on Monday. ) The décor is warm, inviting and hip, but not annoyingly so. The food is as outstanding as ever.
Hugo’s has always been known as the place that served you art on a plate. In the past, a server might set something in front of you that you just wanted to look at for a while before taking a fork to it. Eating there was not just going out to dinner. It was an experience. Once you did stop looking and start eating, it wasn’t unusual for a dish to, well, just kind of blow your mind with unexpected flavors and textures.
Saturday night showed that chefs Andrew Taylor and Mike Wiley are as inventive as ever, and their dishes have evolved into something that is not so much fine art on a plate but food that makes you think and interact with the ingredients. I know that sounds a little woo-woo, but what can I say? I had something of a religious experience with my plate of roasted venison.
Let’s backtrack a moment, though, and talk about the space. There’s a lot of brown, and a definite masculine vibe, but in a good way. It feels as if you’re in the presence of a loving old boyfriend, not that testosterone-filled jerk who treated you poorly until you wised up and moved on.
Here’s the waiting area, featuring a Thos. Moser bench and chairs:
There are four booths covered in brown leather (you could take a nap on them), and two four tops. All the tables are handmade from 160-year-old red birch reclaimed from Moosehead Lake.
That’s it for “traditional” seating. The rest of the seats are “bistro-style” seats at the curved bar overlooking the huge open kitchen. These seats look comfortable and have plenty of back support, which you’ll need for a tasting menu that takes 3-4 hours to finish. It will be interesting to see if there’s enough booths and tables to suit people who want to dine out with friends and family and talk to each other during their meals, once the novelty of watching the kitchen staff has worn off.
Here's chef Andrew Taylor (center) putting the finishing touches on a dish:
And chef Mike Wiley:
Other interesting details: The original tin ceiling has been exposed and painted brown.
Visit the restroom, and you’ll wonder where the sink has gone to. It’s actually outside the restrooms – a long, funky concrete sink from Jon Meade Designs that is unlike anything I’ve seen.
The art in the space is stunning. My friend and I were convinced that the collections of leaves and sticks in a series of sculptures along one brick wall were collages made of actual natural material gathered on the forest floor. We were told that, no, the leaves were aluminum and the sticks were something else, but not natural. They were all made by artist Toni Wolfe.
Hanging on the back wall, providing a gorgeous pop of color, is a scene of North Haven island. It’s an original Eric Hopkins oil painting:
Now, on to the menu, which is what you really want to hear about, right?
There are three five-course tastings to choose from, labeled “Foraged & Farmed,” “From the Sea” and “Forest & Field.” You can order your entire dinner from one of these menus, or mix and match, for $90. (Beverage pairings are $45 extra, and wine pairings are $60.) I was sorely tempted to just go with “Foraged & Farmed,” but swapped out the third course. My friend and I ordered different things so we could share and try as many dishes as possible.
General manager Arlin Smith told me that guests will also have the option of picking two courses for $45, and every additional course after that will be $22.
My friend started off with the Chawanmushi from the Forest & Field menu. It was served in a ceramic cup that’s part of a signature line created for Hugo’s by local ceramicist Allison Evans.
I confess I don’t remember much about it because I was so enamored of my own choice, the “Peppermint Fields Beef Tartare” from the Foraged & Farmed menu. The beef had been mixed with nasturtium oil, and topped with king trumpet mushrooms, a silky and unusual cheddar custard, and “beef crumble.” If you are one of those people who are turned off by raw beef, you have to try this version. It’s one of the best I’ve had.
My second course was Duck Bolognese. Our server placed the bowl of duck and orecchiette pasta in front of me, then poured what he described as a duck fat jus over it. Broccoli and some rustic-looking carrots provided a bit of crunch and color, and a few slices of shaved bonito, a cured fish, topped it all off. This one dish, generously portioned, would have made a meal in itself.
My friend ordered the smoked swordfish belly for her second course, something we both wanted to try because it was served with beach rose (as well as sea vegetables and kohlrabi). The swordfish practically melted in your mouth, and it was a gorgeous dish – it looked like a painting - but for flavor, I preferred my Duck Bolognese.
For my third course, I skipped the recommended rabbit dish on the “Foraged & Farmed” menu and went for the poached black bass on the “From the Sea” menu. It was served with eggplant that had been topped with a crab mixture. The bass was not very exciting, but oh, the eggplant. The eggplant completely stole the show, and I wasn’t the only one who thought this.
My friend’s third course was a dish I can’t wait to try again. It was simple, but so delicious. My reaction to it reminded me of Bresca’s Tuscan kale and 6-minute egg dish – so good you could lick the plate when you’re done. It was a bowl of potato puree served with spiced spinach and pistachio. That little bump you see under the mound of white potato? That’s the yolk of a duck egg, and I almost fought my friend for the pleasure of sticking a fork in it for the first time and swirling the yolk into the potato. (It was her dish, so I let her do it – this time.)
Then came the roasted venison. It was cooked perfectly and served with molasses in liquid and dry forms (the crunchy sweetness mixed with a bit of walnut crumble); a warm, buttery clump of escarole; and thin slices of Hakurei turnip scattered on the plate like fallen leaves on the forest floor. For a moment – and I’m being totally serious here ¬- that visual, combined with the flavors and textures, transported me mentally to the forest where the animal might have once lived (had it not been farm-raised, that is).
My friend got the Korean BBQ with fried rice cakes and pork belly, topped with garlic scapes, and found it too spicy – she has a sensitive palate when it comes to spice.
I tried a taste and liked it, but didn’t eat enough to say much more than that. By this time we were becoming uncomfortably full because we had been sampling each other’s dishes all night. Plus, there were all these little extras sent out from the kitchen that, of course, we couldn’t resist:
This is a mackerel sabayon, served in an eggshell on a bed of coarse sea salt in a tea cup:
Cauliflower mousse with nori dust and shaved hazelnuts:
Korean BBQ-style rabbit drummer on pickled white onion puree, served with a dusting of chives and puffed rice:
Hyssop ice cream served with a mint-flavored aperitif:
Fried dough with birch meringue, served with a little bottle of birch beer – how cute is THAT?
Desserts are $10, or included in any tasting menu. Our dessert courses were the Strawberry Tartare, a take on strawberry shortcake served over a sourdough sponge cake, and a S’More made with smoked chocolate ice cream, little toasted marshmallows, and a chocolate crumble “dirt.”
Hugo’s is also kicking its coffee service up a notch, serving blends hand-picked by Tandem Coffee Roasters. Each roast is paired with a brewing method – press, pour over or siphon. I loved the Sitio Sao Gabriel roast brewed with the siphon method. It’s made in a flask that looks like a Bunsen burner in a science lab. This roast cost $15 for service for two. (The press is $9 and the pour over is $12.) Smith told me he believes Hugo’s is the only restaurant in New England offering a siphon brew.
Meredith Goad has harvested oysters on the Chesapeake Bay, eaten reindeer in Finland and sipped hot chai in the Himalayas. She writes the weekly Soup to Nuts column and enjoys a good cocktail.
Susan Axelrod's food writing career began in the kitchen; she owned a restaurant and catering business before turning to journalism more than a decade ago. To relax, she bakes, gardens and hikes with her husband and their two dogs. A newcomer to Portland, she is an online content producer for the Press Herald.
Susan can be contacted at 791-6310 or saxelrod [at] pressherald.com.
On Twitter: @susansaxelrod