In Portland, a New Orleans native cooks up his hometown’s oh-so-good comfort food.

By Michaela Cavallaro
Photography by  Greta Rybus

Sometimes, going out to eat should feel easy, like having dinner at a friend’s house. That’s the vibe at Eaux, a New Orleans–inspired spot tucked between an Indian restaurant and a lingerie shop on Portland’s upper Exchange Street. Eaux doesn’t take reservations, but a friend and I showed up early on a recent weekday and had our pick of the 14 tables in the narrow dining room. The young servers dressed casually, in jeans, T-shirts, baseball caps — whatever they might wear were they not working.

“It’s pretty chill,” says Evan Richardson, the 27-year-old chef and New Orleans native who owns Eaux (pronounced like oh — French for “waters”). “The space is like a shotgun house from when I was growing up. We just put on a little hip-hop, keep the wood grain showing, and keep it relaxed.”

That attitude extends to Richardson’s dishes, which toe a line between chefy and homey: chicken and waffles topped with crisp apple slices and drizzled in Louisiana cane syrup, jambalaya garnished with pickled trinity (the onions, celery, and bell peppers that anchor Cajun cooking), and gumbo that overflows with chicken, tender Baja shrimp, homemade andouille sausage, mussels, and, on the night I visited, flaky haddock. The gumbo’s glossy, brown, roux-based sauce is just spicy enough to balance out a sweet Chicoree & Cream cocktail, which combines house-made cream soda and chicory liqueur.

On my most recent visit, the succinct menu comprised seven snacks, seven entrées, and a single dessert. At $26, that heaping portion of gumbo was the priciest item. Most entrées clocked in under $20, relative bargains on a Portland dining scene that has no shortage of other great restaurants, many of which will put a much bigger dent in your wallet.

90 Exchange St., Portland. 207-835-0283.

Price Range
Starters $5–$12, entrées $14–$30.

Meals on Wheels
Before Evan Richardson moved into his brick-and-mortar space last year, he was serving up New Orleans­–style eats from a food cart. You can still catch him — and the cart — at Austin Street Brewery most Mondays.

Lunch and Brunch
At lunch, sandwiches anchor the menu — po’boys, pimento grilled cheese, root-beer­–braised pulled pork. Sunday brunch features eggs Benedict with Louisiana tasso ham, plus pancakes with pecan butter and rum syrup.

A couple at the next table, who’d earlier hung out at the bar while waiting for friends, raved about one of their cocktails, the Sweet Tea Pain. Made with sweetened iced tea and Hennessy cognac, it’s thirst quenching and dangerously easy drinking. I haven’t spent much time in the South, but give me a rocking chair on a porch, a cool breeze, and a Sweet Tea Pain, and I suspect I’d acclimate pretty quickly.

All the faster if I were additionally fortified by Eaux’s pimento-cheese toast, a thick slice of house-made boule topped with what Richardson modestly calls a “simple pimento.” He combines roasted-garlic aioli, pureed pimento peppers, smoked Gouda (instead of the more traditional cheddar), and Crystal hot sauce (Richardson prefers it to Louisiana’s more famous hot sauce, Tabasco), then tops it with purple daikon radishes and herbs. “We’re cooking the food and flavors I grew up eating,” he says. “It’s not necessarily orthodox, but it’s an honest depiction of New Orleans flavors.”

When it came time for dessert, our server claimed that the solitary menu item was so good that the kitchen didn’t need to offer anything else. Richardson’s riff on bananas Foster, a New Orleans classic, sees sweet, sticky buttered-rum sauce spooned over a sautéed cross section of banana atop a thick slice of banana bread that’s warm and just slightly crunchy from the griddle. Bits of candied pecan and sea salt are scattered on top, and the whole thing is accompanied by a mound of Hennessy whipped cream.

We scraped the plate clean, leaving nary a crumb. “Hit the spot?” our server asked, then answered her own question. “It always does.”