Posted 22 July 2005 - 04:27 PM
I just realized I never actually posted back about our meals, but the whole time I was at Hugo's I thought about how you should be working there, Siren, even if only on your day off, because if you are in food, and hope to continue to make a career of it, you need to see what this place is doing--it's interesting, full of finesse, and its experiments with flavor, which might seem contrived or calculated on paper, actually work, all of them. I think they've gotten better, even with Chef Evans positioning himself as more edgy and eclectic, they've remedied the few minor concerns I had from the last time I was there--the main one being improving their dessert program, and frankly you'd have to say Hugo's rivals the best restaurants in the country now. (I had written on eG previously that it just might have become the most interesting restaurant in New England, pulling even with Clio.) I can't wait to go back in August, when I'll again be visiting the culinary wasteland known as the White Mountain Valley.
Everyone posting here either living in Portland or planning a trip to Portland, I hope you realize how lucky you are: Portland, already a dynamic scene, is still on the upswing, it hasn't reached anywhere near its full potential yet, there's this hip, edgy vibe that blends well with the tourists and the shopping and yet ties in the older neighborhoods--and that doesn't happen everywhere. This visit, it struck me there was a lot more development going on over on the East side near Hugo's--I wandered by a new bakery/patisserie space, not officially opened yet, maybe called Fat Cats--my memory now is really weak--but I think they sold some pies at Standard Baking. Going east down the Hugo's street there was this stuck-in-time Italian grocery--Grimaldis or Grucini or ? (a little help here...) I hadn't noticed before and a BBQ place and Ribollita and Duckat, which we did not get to go to after all for their fries--I misread when they opened and just couldn't wait an hour. This is going to be a happening culinary scene, a nice mix of old and new, high and low. And you can park right out front.
Also, I noticed a few other changes down in the touristy waterfront: wasn't Mim's once a tapas bar--and now it's a brasserie? What happened--ownership change or concept change? Has the food here ever lived up to its location? And what happened to that gem of a place: the Portland Greengrocer? It looks prettier but it's a shell of its former self in terms of depth and selection of products. Still, I like their wine buyer's taste--when I'm visiting in NH I always come over here to buy wines for the week--but so much was lost with their remodel.
What we ended up doing was 555 for brunch one day and Hugo's for dinner on another. I've had so many perfunctory brunches in NH that I was determined not to have another one, so we took a gamble, and a drive, to Portland. My impression of 555? Very committed, very professional, very strong service that wasn't rushed--in a relaxed neighborhood atmosphere--I was impressed they had 4 cooks in the kitchen for brunch even though only that little area on the ground floor was open--and everything we had was perfect, especially the hangar, the grilled caesar, and a bunch of cheeses, my favorite a double cream quebec cheese. I can't recommend this place enough, it's less expensive than you'd expect, it's welcoming rather than stiff, and I'm definitely going for dinner next time. I drank a nice microbrew at this brunch but peeked at the wine list: first impression it didn't seem anywhere near as interesting or well-chosen as the Hugo's list.
Back to Hugo's and Siren, sneak into there by hook or by crook for inspiration: if money is an issue, don't hold out for the full multi-course tasting: you should just go in to the bar, sit at those cafe tables along the window and spend $9 on a different single dish whenever you can, it'll be worth it for any budding cook.
What didn't change from previous visits to Hugo's? Service was still superb, and very good food wines can still be had for $24 to $30 or so. What did change? I thought his plates were even more beautiful than before, it seems to me he's made more of a conscious effort to appear experimental with exotic or seemingly disparate ingredients, and while that can come off as too precious in the wrong hands, it doesn't here. He's learned his lessons well, and he's a good judge of himself: everything he and his team had on the menu holds up taste-wise. The desserts on previous visits were always weakpoints and he's straightened that out, too: all of the current desserts are excellent (and I hardly ever say that, even about my own stuff.) We had everything on this menu when we dined except the trout, and though the menu has probably changed by now, I would order everything again--and share less with others:
F I R S T C O U R S E
Maine Raised Rabbit Charcuterie
grainy mustard mousse . pistachio . celtic vinegar. salted lavash
Shiitake Mushroom Terrine
locally foraged vegetables . parmesan ice cream . stinging nettle coulis
Chilled Melon Soup
imported prosciutto . hand dipped ricotta . grilled watermelon gelée
Cold Smoked Hamachi
sushi style potatoes . key lime compote . sweet soy
S E C O N D
Flash Fried Scottish Salmon Cake & Carpaccio
cucumber & radish . cilantro emulsion . sesame
Warm Asparagus & Sunnyside Duck Egg Salad
white anchovy . pasta . puffed lobster cracker . orange-coriander vinaigrette
Red Beet Risotto
tempura pickled fiddleheads . westfield farm capri . grapefruit hibiscus soda
Honey Mead Glazed Pork Belly & Baby Back Ribs
rhubarb relish . cocoa nibs . chipotle emulsion
T H I R D
Chorizo Crusted Atlantic Halibut
potato brown butter galette . multiple onion preparations
Sous Vide Lamb Loin & Caramelized Shoulder
savory buckwheat carrot cake . vanilla walnuts . birch essence
Maple Glazed Tasmanian Sea Trout
fennel & pineapple cannelloni . tomato salad . horseradish . smoked trout roe
Crispy Skin Duck Breast & Slow Cooked Leg
licorice stick bread pudding . bing cherry relish . orange emulsion
L A S T
Mita Cana Spanish Sheep’s Milk “Cheese Cake”
golden graham tuile . poached grapes . tarragon syrup
Rhubarb & Yogurt Panna Cotta
deconstructed strawberry pie
El Rey Dark Chocolate Fondant
tonka bean milk shake . chocolate crisps. cherries . long pepper
Foie Gras Ice Cream Float
orange infused saba soda . foie gras beignet
I especially liked this last dish, the foie gras in dessert concept. Liked it more than merely a concept, though, it was delicious.
I'll hit Duckfat in August. Oh, another thing I was impressed with: I pulled the above menu off their website the day before we arrived, and it actually reflected what was being offered in the restaurant, with a very minor tweak here or there once the dishes were served. That demonstrates a commitment from beginning to end, and it's something that small restaurateurs sometimes overlook as they get a little fame, a little media, and begin to grow their empire. I'm happy to say that hasn't happened yet.
Steve KlcPastry chef-Restaurant Consultant
Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleochef@pastryarts.com