Nothing about Eaux’s Exchange Street interior screams “New Orleans.” No Mardi Gras beads dangling from light fixtures, no green-purple-and-yellow bunting, no gaudy artwork of trumpet players leaning against lampposts in the French Quarter. But look again. The visual reference is a little more subtle, but it’s there in the shape and design of the dining room. Simple, unadorned wood two-tops, a skinny bar and an uninterrupted stretch of banquettes elongate your perspective, tugging your eyes towards the back wall. “It’s a New Orleans shotgun house,” I whispered when I stepped inside.

That’s exactly the reaction executive chef/owner Evan Richardson (Mash Tun, Portland Harbor Hotel) wanted. This spring, when he took over the dark, Deco-esque former Crooners & Cocktails space, he reconfigured the layout, emphasizing narrowness as a callback to the slender, single-family homes of his hometown. “I liked the shotgun idea so much, I was going to run a seven-course walk-through of the menu like they do at Izakaya Minato and call it a ‘Shotgun Tour,’ but I thought that was a little vulgar for 2018,” he said.

The rail-thin space plan extends to the kitchen, where it is also functional, allowing Richardson to turn around orders quickly (he has a firm, seven-minute “pickup” rule for his back-of-house team) and to oversee each dish personally. “I never want to have more than about 30 seats because I want to cook every plate,” he said.

Eaux has a few more than that – 38 – but the extra seats are at the bar, usually occupied not by diners, but by patrons sipping local draft ales, stouts and IPAs, as well as cocktails like the classic Sazerac ($10), washed with Pernod and perked up with Peychaud’s bitters, or a very sweet Chicoree & Cream ($12) made from amaro-like chicory liqueur and prickly, effervescent, house-made cream soda.

While I’m not a fan of sugary cocktails, I can appreciate their capacity for blunting spicy heat. There’s plenty of it in the corn-on-the-cob riff on maque choux, a traditional Creole corn salad. Here, raw ears of corn are oven-roasted until charred, then blanketed in two sauces: one garlicky with a steely acidity from dry vermouth, and the other a fruity pimento coulis. Each ear gets showered with fiery house-pickled Serrano peppers and topped with a lip-coating crumble of crushed Zapp’s-brand potato chips.

“My street corn maque choux wouldn’t be too well-received in Houma (Louisiana),” Richardson said. “But Portland responds well to versatile concepts. I like taking the cuisine and taking the handcuffs off it.”

In practice, that translates to a menu that isn’t strictly Cajun, Creole or even Louisianan. Take the chicken and waffles ($8 half/$15 full) – a Southern dish, but not particularly a Bayou State specialty. “It is not a New Orleans staple, but there’s a whole lot of chicken and waffles there. I like making the kind of food you’d actually eat if you were in New Orleans.” Richardson said.

To make Eaux’s version, Richardson marinates boneless thighs in buttermilk and vinegary brine from the flash-pickled Fresno chiles that garnish each plate. Before deep-frying, he breads the chicken in flour, cornstarch and a hefty dose of his signature spice mixture, one he has been “perfecting since I was 11 years old.” Each serving gets layered into a shallow bowl with bubbly quarters of Belgian-style waffle dripping with cane syrup and garnished with fried sage leaves. Whether it’s a true New Orleans dish hardly matters; it is phenomenal.

You could/should make a meal of that chicken and a glass or two of wine. Eaux offers seven (mostly Old World) pours, all sold by the 500 ml carafe for under $20. There’s enough smoky paprika, oregano and cayenne in the chicken’s crust to stand up to Puglian berry bombs like the 2015 A Mano Negroamaro ($8/$18). An Italian red with Southern food? Yes, please.

Richardson’s roasted Delicata squash ($11) is also a little iconoclastic, with musky, complex caramelized whey, supremed orange slices and crunchy salt-and-vinegar toasted almond slices. But it’s the sort of rebellious, boundary-pushing dish we need in Maine just as the chill in the air starts to take its first menacing nips of the season.

You’d think that the more classic roast beef po’ boy sandwich ($14) – slow-braised brisket stuffed generously into a garlic-rubbed roll imported from Leidenheimer Baking Company in New Orleans and saturated with an intensely beefy debris gravy – would be just as perfect for this time of year. But on my recent visit, my sandwich was soggy along its seam, mushy from weeping raw tomatoes, and nearly impossible to pick up. I had to eat it non-traditionally: with a fork and knife.

Luckily, the gumbo ($21), perhaps the most iconic of all Louisiana dishes, was rock-solid. Eaux’s version on the night I visited arrived overflowing with seafood: flaky, plancha-seared, dry-brined catfish and coils of yielding pan-seared shrimp, as well as a glug or two of Upstream Seafood’s oyster liqueur for extra minerality. As I ate, I unearthed dime-sized coins of homemade andouille sausage hidden by the rice and slightly over-thickened gravy that Richardson enlivens with an extra dusting of aromatic filé (sassafras powder) before serving.

Yet of all the dishes I tasted, Eaux’s riff on Bananas Foster ($10) best showcases what Richardson means by taking the handcuffs off New Orleans cooking to let it roam free in the wilds of Maine. No trilling blue flames flicking manically up the side of a bowl here … no ice cream either, since the restaurant has no freezer. In their place, a thick slab of gently salted banana bread (Palace Diner-style), two sautéed banana slices, a lagoon of buttery brown-sugar-and-lemon-juice sauce and a frilly mound of Hennessy whipped cream. Look at the plate from a distance and you might never guess what it was, but take a spoonful with all the components, and the Bananas Foster snaps into clear focus. It’s New Orleans in a Maine disguise.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. Contact him at:

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Twitter: @AndrewRossME