A Cacophony of Delight – Hugo’s of Portland, Maine

Hugos01So to make amends for my long absence from the food blogosphere I have decided to give my readers a greatest hits from my dining experiences over the past year. To give added value I will include a recipe that is associated with each meal, always looking out for my readers… what a guy.

The first restaurant I would like to promote is one of the highest magnitude. An eatery that is by no means pretentious but nonetheless very adept in its understanding of complex but satisfying food. I am talking about Hugo’s of Portland, Maine. While concurrently looking for the best lobster roll in Maine, my foodie friend from South Carolina and I wanted to take in some fine dining. Yes, we all know that NYC, Chicago, Napa Valley, are the giants of the culinary world, but is it not sweeter to find that diamond in the rough? So we said to ourselves, “why not kill two birds (hopefully a quail and a squab) with one stone”.

The plan to eat there was like something out of a Mission Impossible movie. My friend was arriving at 3pm in Connecticut from South Carolina on that Friday… Hugo’s did not open for dinner on Saturday… Sunday was not an option as he was flying out that day… needless to say it was going to take some fast driving and well-timed stops to make it up the Portland in time for our reservation. With all that we had heard about the restaurant that Rob Evans’ had built (has since moved on) we felt the urgency and high stakes. We high tailed it up there only to arrive in a torrential rainstorm.

Walking in I was just happy to be indoors but the decor was not what I expected. The place had a bohemian eclectic vibe. Very much a like a neighborhood jazz club, almost like a creole restaurant. We took our seats and it was clear from our initial banter with the waitress that they knew why we were there and were completely prepared. The staff was amazingly informed and just as passionate about the food and the dining experience as we were. We immediately disregarded the 5 course tasting menu as being too limited. My friend and I honed in on the 9 dishes we wanted and gave the order for them to be served in vaguely 4 courses. It has been almost a year so I am going to just try to recount the dishes. There was pork belly dish, a seared scallop , a poached egg dish, a mushroom dish, a duck preparation, a quail terrine, a beef tenderloin dish, a striped bass dish, and a halibut dish.

The food was amazingly complex. I was afraid at first that this was one those restaurants that experimented with food just be relevant. For example, when I ordered the quail I expected a nicely roasted bird traditionally cooked but instead the quail was pressed in a terrine and then sliced. I love quail and like it the way I know it, this was not what I wanted,that was until I tasted it and realized it was so much better than what I wanted. The spices and accompanying elements were molecularly gastronomized! As I said I normally say, eh.. to that sort of food “show”, but this time the chef understood his vision through the chaos of so many moving parts. The calamity was really form and function coming together.Was every dish the best I have ever had, no, but overall the risks were paying off and the food was brilliant.

The dish that sent me to cloud nine was the pan seared striped bass over japanese sushi rice with a citrus creme and hijiki (dark seaweed). I have to tell you as a self loathing asian I abhor the use of asian flavors in modern haute cuisine. Far to often it’s just a shadow of some flavors that I grew up with… ginger and scallions on a fish with some broth… oh wow…really? ( Roy you know who you are.. please.) This dish however was masterful in fusing a perfectly cooked piece of bass, with the perfume of the rice… when the citrus cream was added it was not a mess of asian flavors with some european element lopped on. No, Far from it. It was elevating… and in a delicious and decadent way. I was profoundly impressed that the dish I thought I would my least favorite, was by far the best.

I strongly recommend to anyone  to take a trip up/or down to Portland, Maine to partake in the unmistakably brilliant food that is Hugo’s. The other wonderful thing about this place is that if you ate this food in New York  City, it would be 20-30% more expensive. To me that translates into 2-3 more dishes I can order… so to me it’s well worth the drive.

One caveat is the you will have to wait as I just learned the they are currently closed for renovations. So I imagine, the dining experience will only be enhanced by what they are doing to the dining space. Below I have included what I believe to be a wonderful accompaniment to any fine piece of simply prepared fish ala the striped bass I enjoyed at Hugo’s. It is sure to boost the flavors in a non-heavy but oh so delicious way.

Note : I may have to preempt my other 2 restaurant reviews in this series (Old Inn on the Green, Massachusetts and Community Table, Connecticut) in the short term as I am jetting off to New Orleans to sample a whole host of supposedly unbelievable cooking. So you may see some fast reviews of Atchafalaya, Capdeville, Le Foret really looking forward to this one..) and Lüke (Ok, Mr. John Besh…lets see what your all about).

Citrus Creme Fraiche

cremeIngredients

  • Cup of crème fraiche
  • 1/2 tsp finely grated lemon zest
  • 1/4 tsp finely grated lime zest
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp lime juice
  • 1/4 tsp flaky sea salt

Method

  1. Into a small bowl place crème fraiche, lemon and lime zest, lemon and lime juice and salt and mix together.
  2. Store covered in refrigerator until ready to use.

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