Explore Portland’s most daring dinner at the newly reopened Hugo’s.

By Will Bleakley
Photographed by Douglas Merriam
[B]etween Hugo’s Restaurant and Eventide Oyster Co., owners Arlin Smith, Andrew Taylor, and Mike Wiley have Portland’s split personalities covered. The establishments sit right next to each other, serving as the yin and yang of Middle Street. Where the bar ends at Eventide, it begins inside Hugo’s, forming a semi-circle separated by a wall. On one side is Eventide. It’s the extrovert. At night, the interior lights and the glass façade showcase a sort of large-scale diorama of Portland’s hip upper middle class for all passersby to see. To dine at Eventide is to split oysters and stand elbow-to-elbow with thirty-somethings in well-fitting plaid shirts all while not spilling your celery gimlet.

On the other side is Hugo’s. It’s the introvert. Inside, couples carry on hushed conversations while observing the chefs in the open kitchen and taking long moments to savor each course. The leather booths, lounge music, and wooden bar, made from a 160-year-old red birch tree scooped from the bottom of Moosehead Lake, create a warmer and more personal atmosphere. It’s less about meeting up with friends than it is about having time to comfortably relish one of the best meals in the entire state.

When asked to describe the food at Hugo’s, co-owner Arlin Smith pauses. “Umm. Man, this is always a tough one,” he says. “I consider it American . . . contemporary.” Hugo’s cuisine somehow manages to contain hints of a home-style family dinner while also being exotic. Here’s a smattering of items you might encounter throughout the five-course tasting menu: a mini grilled cheese, matsutake-mushroom-flavored ice, a cilantro crepe, garlic biscuits, a doughnut hole, chawanmushi, and popcorn. The ingredients are from Maine, yet the influences are so varied that each dish is an original creation.

This genre-defying cuisine isn’t anything new for Hugo’s, however. Former chef Rob Evans won a James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Northeast in 2009. While he and his wife Nancy Pugh continue to run the casual sandwich shop Duckfat down the street, the couple sold the restaurant in 2012 to Smith, Wiley, and Taylor — the restaurant’s general manager, chef de cuisine, and sous chef.

The trio’s first order of business was to open Eventide. “We followed the Duckfat model,” Smith says, meaning that they wanted a casual and more inexpensive joint to sustain and complement the pricier Hugo’s. Then they remodeled Hugo’s by breaking down the kitchen wall, adding bar seats, and transforming the way customers order food. When the restaurant reopened last July, it retained its award-worthy cuisine, but it had the reinvigorated attitude of three young pros daring to see how much fun they could have with a ninety-dollar meal.

Hugo’s now allows the customer to choose five courses from three different tasting menus — Forest & Field, From the Sea, and Foraged & Farmed. A single night’s tasting menu has 324 possible combinations (and menus change daily). “We don’t want people to feel like they’re walking into a factory and we’re just going to pump out the food and be done. Every ticket is different,” Smith says.

Hugo’s has the reinvigorated attitude of three young pros daring to see how much fun they could have with a ninety-dollar meal.

It’s hard to take your eyes off the plate in front of you. But if you look towards the kitchen, you’ll witness what looks like a meticulously choreographed scene from a Wes Anderson film. Chefs artfully arrange each dish in total harmony. A young pastry chef with a tattoo of a rose on her right arm scoops goat cheese ice cream into tiny glasses. Next to her, a line cook adds a delicate spread of dark green nori with a quick flick of his wrist. A bearded waiter weaves around the kitchen carrying custom-made plateware and presents a dish of bonito-crusted quail. He describes the dish in detail before pointing at its leg and adding: “And this leg pokes out for an intimidation factor.” He smiles playfully and walks away.

The quail, crusted with flakes of dried bonito, sits beside a deviled quail egg and dollops of kimchi puree. That dish followed the lightly pickled local mackerel served with bits of matsutake-mushroom-flavored ice. It can all seem a bit precious, but a sense of whimsy in each dish deflates any of the stuffiness attributed with fine dining. An everything bialy with butter is served between courses of poussin (young chicken) and chawanmushi (Japanese egg custard). For dessert, a doughnut hole and bits of popcorn balance apple foam and caramel mousse. The bits of popcorn will linger in your teeth until after the bill is paid. But that’s not such a bad thing.

“We cook how we want to, which is to have fun,” Smith says. Whether it’s the yin and yang of a Maine potato chip next to swordfish belly, or a casual oyster bar alongside an intimate upscale restaurant, Smith, Taylor, and Wiley have crafted something all of Portland’s introverts and extroverts can savor.

88 Middle St., Portland