Sunday, March 9, 2014
Hugo’s reopened last week after nearly six-months under renovation wraps to reveal a makeover that has transformed one of the dowdiest dining rooms in Portland into a polished big-money vision of a culinary powerhouse. That said, this may also prove to be one of the most difficult critiques on which to expound because the newly ascendant Hugo’s is so complex that to rely on the old totems of critique would be akin to extracting glad rags from the gloriously dead.
A pivotal corner where the Eastern Waterfront neighborhood meets the Old Port, Hugo's is strategically located
After my first dinner there I thought, how do I begin to explain the astonishing layers of flavor of each dish that comes out of a kitchen that sparkles and shines in full view of every diner in the room? It’s not just an open kitchen concept but rather an otherworldly vision of a laboratory where food is finessed into its finest form.
The line chefs, in full view in their open kitchen, work intently on a variety of amuse bouches that are served to diners; here an undon salad is ready to go
A small-plate of wall-eyed pike
The western sun streams into the room before sunset
At night the room sparkles
Consider a dish on the menu called potato puree. It’s a silken wreath across the plate momentously gilded with a glorious duck egg, spiced spinach and diamond-cut flecks of pistachio. It’s beautiful to look at and wondrous to savor. Or you try the duck Bolognese, an obtuse reference to a pasta sauce that in reality bears no relation to the specie. The kitchen is cunning and brilliant in its devise.
AKA, potato puree
Predecessor wunderkind Chef Rob Evans with his James Beard award and Chopped championship, and 10 full years at the top of his game, bowed out to sell his restaurant last year to his trio of chefs, Arlin Smith, Mike Wiley and Andrew Taylor. Did he therefore already know that they’d carry on with such bravado? Or was he merely thinking that his reputation would reside peacefully in the new regime as he tended to his farm, his wife and is other wildly successful endeavor, Duckfat, down the street?
The trio proclaimed that they wouldn’t change Hugo’s one bit. After all, Rob had stopped cooking there several years ago, passing that baton to his disciples whose creative embers presumably were aglow in his manner. After the sale, they opened Eventide next door, and it became one of the most talked about restaurants in Portland, with well deserved national acclaim.
With Eventide under their belt the profits gushed in, enabling them to take Hugo’s beyond to the next level and to house it in a conceptually bold interior space that has given us this new venue at 88 Middle Street. Here, in Portland, is where our very own hallmark to fine dining in the Northeast is sure to extend the culinary landscape.
You walk into the new Hugo’s and are immediately struck by its audacious change. It’s not really predictably beautiful. Instead it provokes and excites, with a kind off-beat sex appeal.
The bar counter is full and the evening is only at half throttle
Five Fifty-Five's chef-proprietor Steve Corry and wife, co-proprietor, Michelle Corry, check out the new Hugo's
Two diners seriously involved in their meal
There’s a small entry area with a reception desk and a half wall that defines this posh foyer into which diners arrive. Beyond, the main dining room is dominated by an enormous semi-circular bar outfitted with about 20 high-back leather chairs, where you dine to face the theatrics of the open kitchen. (Primarily the bar counter is the main dining area.) Behind this along the side wall are raised booths for four, the idea being that no diner has his or her back to the kitchen.
The reception area is discreet and simple
Finally, a stunning, though typical, Eric Hopkins seascape presides over the room.
It's early, but the dining bar will fill up fast
The kitchen staff is young and very able
The restaurant, however, has its eccentricities. At my first dinner I was taken aback when the waiter tapped me on the shoulder to discuss the menu.
This happened because waiters can’t face you from behind the bar since that space is taken up by the kitchen staff. It’s peculiar but it works.
Waiters approach from behind
The menu has its quirks, too, divided into three columns: Foraged & Farmed, From the Sea and Forest & Field. You’re meant to pick one from each column, reading across It’s confusing, and I’m not sure if I even had the drill right.
These pleasures are not insignificant. Diners have two options: a 5 course menu for $90, which includes dessert and a 2-course menu for $45 plus a $10 dessert course. Extra courses post a $22 surcharge.
A divine amuse of cauliflower puree with a texture as light as sea foam aloft
But there are a lot of extras reflected in the tab. The kitchen sends out an array of amuse bouches, some of which are as substantial as main courses. The peas, for example, with house-made lardo accented with electric blue flower buds was one of the most striking dishes of the evening.
A stunning dish, peas with house-made lardo and wild flowers
Another amuse bouches, the focus is beets
With the focus being caviar, another amuse bouches; but notice how the restaurant uses a variety of plating styles, from modern to fine China
There are even multiple bread courses. In Rob Evan’s day he created the little buttermilk salted biscuit that was divine. Their version is just as precious with a more assertive texture. After that is the pretzel bread that’s so good you want to nab it to take home and nibble on in bed.
The pretzel bread served with farm butter is incredible
Those perfect biscuits and delicious butter
The range of entrees is fairly extensive but they’re small portions in multiple succession. Roast venison and turnips, asparagus with borage, oyster and pickled shimeji or smoked swordfish belly with beach rose, sea vegetables and kohlrabi are some of the highlights. The dessert list is short but swoon-worthy. My favorite was S’More—smoked chocolate ice cream with spruce shoot and toasted marshmallow.
Asparagus with borage, oyster and beef x.o. and pickled shimeji
From Foraged & Farmed, peppermint fields flank steak with pepita, mole and jalapeno
Belly of swordfish with beach rose, sea vegetables and kohlrabi
The Cochise County Cabernet from Arizona went perfectly with this Smoked king salmon
Korean BBQ with fried rice cake, pork belly and maitake
The wine list is a fascinating compilation. I had a good bottle of Sancerre to last through our first dinner. At the second dinner to accompany the lighter 2-course menu, I ordered an unusual cabernet from Arizona, Cochise County. I chose it to go with my salmon and it had as much depth and complexity as a fine California cab or Bordeaux.
The coffee selection is worth mentioning. The restaurant brews are from Tandem Coffee, the specialty roaster in East Bayside. Depending on the bean selected, it’s brewed either in a French press, pour over (Chemex style) or siphon. This costs a whopping $10 to $15 depending on bean and brewing method. Fortunately, at those prices the coffee was flawless.
S'More, a beautifully presented dessert with smoked chocolate ice cream, spruce shoot and toasted marshmallow
The $15 brew
...but worth it
Hugo’s is expensive. The two-course menu for one with all the included extras came to $75 before tip. For two dining on the 5-course menu with a cocktail each and bottle of $40 wine, the tab easily sailed past $300 including tax and tip. Still, it’s an enlightening experience and one rarely duplicated in places near and far.
John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.
In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.