October 7, 2012

Dine Out Maine: At Eventide Oyster Co., Hugo's team sets the bar high

By SHONNA MILLIKEN HUMPHREY

Remember the adage about only eating oysters in months that contain an "R"? The warning's premise is based on the historical lack of refrigeration, but interestingly, many still maintain that the best oyster eating happens in fall and winter. Why? Because oysters tend to spawn in the warm spring and summer months, making them watery and less flavorful.

click image to enlarge

At Eventide Oyster Co., wooden sticks mark the varieties like a bivalve garden plot. Diners can try a half- or full dozen ($15 and $27), grouped by “Maine” and “From Away,” accompanied by Mimosa Mignonette, Tomato Water or Horseradish Ice.

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

"DINING REVIEW

EVENTIDE OYSTER CO.

86 Middle St., Portland. 774-8538; eventideoysterco.com

HOURS: 11 a.m. to midnight daily

****1/2

PRICE: $4 to $32, with oysters priced at $27 per dozen and $15 for half-dozen

BAR: Full bar with specialty cocktails

CREDIT CARDS: All major

KIDS: No children's menu

RESERVATIONS: Only for parties of six or more

WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: Eventide Oyster Co. is impressive for its variety of oysters and clever oyster accoutrements, as well as the carefully prepared non-oyster menu items. The Eventide oyster bar concept is as cool as the team of owners, and I recommend this restaurant for any oyster lover seeking a step left of ordinary. The price point skews a little high, but so does the quality.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service and value:

* Poor  **Fair  *** Good ****Excellent *****Extraordinary.

The Maine Sunday Telegram visits an establishment twice if the first dining experience was unsatisfactory. The reviewer dines anonymously.

Whether legend or biologically argued, now is the perfect time to consume oysters, because Portland's Eventide Oyster Co. offers a perfect oyster bar experience.

Clean, abundant, carefully prepared, attention to decor, knowledgeable staff -- these were the notes I scribbled between bites. I hesitated at the cocktail prices (seriously, $9?), but as soon as I tasted the Bloody Mary, I happily laid down my cash. The Bloody Maria, made with tequila, is the actual menu item, but I opted for the off-menu purist approach.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Eventide sits next door to Hugo's, now run by original staff members Arlin Smith, Andrew Taylor and Mike Wiley, and the oyster bar represents the team's newest venture.

(A note about the Apple device-carrying server and her efficient finger tapping: I suspect this is a glimpse into the future of waiting tables, absent the numbered guest checks this former server recalls counting in my front apron pocket.)

At any given moment, at least one of the three owners stood in shucking position at the bar, ready to mix drinks and talk shop in an atmosphere that found a balance between urban hipster and just hip. The fun '80s music was a bit loud, but it made for great spontaneous dancing (by other customers, not me) and terrific people-watching.

The pottery, iridescent and oyster shell-inspired, comes from Yarmouth ceramic artist Alison Evans. The high ceiling and blond wood accentuated the wall colors, a paler version of not-quite-Tiffany blue. Reclaimed nautical ephemera and a restroom sink, also by Evans, made the space clever, not kitschy.

Because the visit happened during Sunday brunch time, my husband Travis chose a Murphy's stout ($5), which prompted a conversation with co-owner Mike behind the bar, who noted its deliberate presence on the beer menu. While Travis and Mike talked beer ethos, I worked my way down the line of the House Charcuterie ($12) and its sampling of six house-cured meats, of which the prosciutto was the stuff of shaved paper-thin meat dreams.

The corned beef, topped with spicy mustard, led to a description of Maine's meat-curing scene (yes, there is a meat-curing scene), and I learned that some European meat masters have years-long wait lists for their products. The discussion segued to the ethics of responsible meat eating, and rather than intrusive, it felt like chatting with a well-informed friend.

Mike directed our attention to the custom-made cement bar, overflowing with oysters and constantly being refilled with ice. Little wooden sticks marked the varieties like a bivalve garden plot, and it works like this: Pick either a half- or full dozen ($15 and $27), grouped by "Maine" and "From Away." Mixing and matching is encouraged. There were 16 varieties listed on the chalkboard, but the rotation varies, and the popular oysters can sell out quickly.

Favorites from Maine include Bath's Winter Point and the Pemaquid from Damariscotta. From away favorites were Washington's legendary and petite Kumomoto, as well as Beau Soleil from New Brunswick.

Oyster enthusiasts maintain that to fully experience oysters, you must chew them, and I agree. Describing the taste is tougher, and even expert Rowan Jacobsen notes, "Something about oysters resists every attempt to describe them." Jacobsen explains that "oyster flavor, like perfume notes, comes in three stages, and texture is part of stage two. The first stage involves salt, the second stage body and sweetness, and the third floral or fruity finishes."

(Continued on page 2)

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