Hugo's: In a Class of Its Own
Hugo’s chef extraordinaire and co-proprietor Rob Evans has in the last decade presided over the gastronomies of big city culinary standards in our small metropolis of Portland. It’s an amazing accomplishment. The dining public, especially in Portland, expects a lot of its often heralded local chefs. But Evans delivers more than anyone from a gene pool of excellence that’s unmatched.
While Portland has a solid reputation as a food-centric city, Evans' brand of cooking goes beyond just being good. It’s world class. In the last ten years I’ve never had a meal there that wasn’t grippingly special.
What has never jived though is the restaurant’s lack of interior decor. It’s a dour space that gives no hint that you’re about to eat the best meal ever.
The room is just plain awkward. Evans and co-proprietor Nancy Pugh have made some efforts to make the dining room attractive. But the space has no inherent charm. It is, however, eminently comfortable to dine there as the food rolls effortlessly from such a seamless kitchen.
Service is flawless from a wait staff who have been there for years and who can expound knowledgably about the evening’s menu.
The tables are large and well spaced. And the table settings and accountrements stand up to the high caliber of the food.
In the end I suppose it’s best to think of the restaurant as a citadel of gastronomic pleasures and décor be damned.
Evans', like many Maine chefs, uses local produce only. From the organic vegetables culled at nearby farms to free-ranging meats and poultry to local seafood, the quality of the food plays a big part in why it’s so good.
Some of his preparations have become signature dishes. Regulars would certainly complain if those cheese puffs or buttermilk biscuits took leave.
But the core of Evans' cooking is the incredible quintessence of flavor that he imparts to each dish. It’s an alchemy that goes beyond mere culinary largesse. His practice of sous vide accounts for a lot of his style and the rest is a magic wand of creativity that leaves one almost breathless.
For a while Hugo’s was off-limits to many because to eat there was expensive. But the menu format has changed making it more approachable. You can still order a 10-course wine and tasting menu, but what generally prevails is a list of dishes from small to medium size that range in price from $12 to just over $20. You’re encouraged to order three or four dishes for a full meal.
I found myself at Hugo’s the other night quite by chance. I had been to a reception, which I sneaked out of early and tried to figure out where to go for dinner. Why not Hugo’s?
The restaurant was just filling up at 7 pm, but I sat at the bar, which was nearly empty. In about 15 minutes every seat was taken. Not surprisingly the dining crew were all Hugo’s regulars: a couple from Portsmouth who eat there at least once a month and a group from LA who seemed very familiar with the restaurant.
I started with those incredible cheese puffs that are served in a paper lined basket mounded like jewels. The preparation is choux pastry flavored with Asiago cheese and truffle oil and offers the most incredible flavor and texture.
Then came a small oblong platter of Hugo's perfect buttermilk biscuits, salty, crusty, and rich with butter and buttermilk. These were a little dryer than I remembered but slathering them with the excellent house butter sufficed beautifully.
I went on to a salad of lobster and kelp with touches of sesame seed, jalapeno cream, and miso. This is not lobster at a pound or picnic but a highly wrought dish whose incredible flavors are complex yet simply delicious.
After that I chose a pasta course, agnolotti with a filling of local spring-dug parsnip puree. Filled pastas are often disappointing, flavorless, and dull. These precious pillows of dough glistened with intensity; the parsnip puree was overwhelmingly good. With it was a garnish of ramps and fiddle heads, and I finally experienced good use for these two elusive finds of the forest.
As a main course I had local hake with pickled fennel and red pepper. Accompanying the fish was an incredible rendition of brandade: the filling enclosed in a beautifully wrought breaded coating. The fish was perfectly cooked and it made me a fan of hake forever.
I vowed to return to Hugo’s more than just every once in a while. It weaves its way into the fabric of the Portland dining scene, standing apart from lesser mortals but easy enough to like anytime.