It is difficult to imagine a specific New England cuisine. Unlike the South, there are few ingredients or dishes that appear to be New England specific, especially if one removes certain locally caught seafood items. What New England does have going for it, besides the aforementioned seafood is a wealth of ethnic influences and some superb local product from both sea and land. I recently had the chance to experience a variety of chefs in a number of locations throughout the region. I’ve eaten the food of some previously, while this was my first experience with others. Between them, there are similarities framed within their own distinct approaches. Three chefs and their teams, in particular, caught my attention, all within a coastal geography, ranging from Maine to New Hampshire to Rhode Island.
Portland, Maine was my first destination with one particular corner of the city my main attraction. That corner is the home of three restaurants, each one distinctive, but connected under the banner of two chef/owners. Eventide Oyster Co. is one that I had been to previously and enjoyed very much. It would be our first stop.
Fresh seafood is the cornerstone of New England Cuisine and nowhere more so than in Maine. Throughout my life, what I have always tended to think of in reference to New England seafood has been simple, straightforward preparation and presentation like boiled lobster with drawn butter, fried clam bellies, grilled fish, broiled scallops, various chowders and so on. Perhaps that is just what I had been exposed to, but I was exposed to a lot of it and to little else over many years of going to school in and visiting the region. Given the quality of the seafood generally available that was not necessarily a bad thing and something still worth seeking out when the product is of top quality. In the case of Eventide, the seafood is of top quality, but the preparation and presentation is not always as straightforward as my old New England memories would have had me expect. Pristine oysters from the region are displayed front and center, inviting in their icy bath.
The oysters come with a choice of flavored granitas as well as lemon or a mignonette. Each of these elements adds distinctive flavor notes to the briny bivalves, but both my son and I still preferred slurping them down unadorned save for a generous squeeze of lemon, preferring the taste of the oysters to that of the accompaniment. For those who get their ostrine pleasure more from texture than flavor or if the quality of the oysters is less, the accompaniments would be most welcome, but for the quality served here, I still prefer the basic approach.
A dish at Eventide that is a play on a straightforward classic is their lobster roll. This traditional sandwich possesses a surprising amount of regional diversity along the New England coast, but the one at Eventide stakes a claim as one of the most original and one of the very best. It’s still simple, but in a way that surprises. The surprise is that the addition of brown butter, along with lemon juice was not already a widely adopted standard. It is different enough, without disrespecting its forebears. The vanillin savoriness of the brown butter is a perfect sidekick to the rich lobster with just enough lemon to keep the relationship from being mired in smarmy self-consciousness. It is approaches like this that demand attention for the new breed of New England Chefs.
Eventide is owned and operated by two chef/owners – Mike Wiley and Andrew Taylor. Their approach throughout the menu is much like that with the lobster roll, taking prime product and adding a variety of flourishes to make each dish distinctive while letting the product show through. Even the oysters with their granitas follow this formula. The granitas are an option and come on the side, allowing the diner to apply as much or as little as (s)he wishes.
The duo has two other restaurants with their additional partner/GM, Arlin Smith. All three restaurants are connected through a long, large communal prep kitchen that runs behind the three adjoining, but individualized dining rooms. The Honey Paw, their newest venture, is an east Asian inspired kitchen that uses some of the same excellent base seafood ingredients as it’s more maritime oriented neighbor, Eventide, but with more land-based elements. The menu is aimed towards a comfort level with plenty of noodles, rice bowls and dumplings.
As our home is in the mountains, we continued with a largely seafood based meal, the exception being some tasty skewered and grilled chicken hearts from the specials menu.
Local winterpoint clams were offered in the fashion of a dim sum classic with fermented black beans, charred scallion and ginger. They were very good and reminiscent of a top notch dim sum parlor!
Like Eventide, The Honey Paw utilized lobster in inspired fashion. They centered wontons with a miso dashi and confit mushrooms adding complexity without shading the lobster flavor.
Even better was the Lobster Tartine, a texturally complex dish utilizing a crisp-fried, long and thin slice of bread as a base with a lobster/scallop mousse spread on top of that and an artfully piled cornucopia of lobster, hijiki, cilantro, radishes and other contributors rising above it all. Chef de Cuisine Thomas Pishla-Duffy has done a fine job of merging a variety of influences with excellent local product into a comfortable and delicious home.
Both Eventide and The Honey Paw do a great job of providing delicious, creative cooking in casual, hip settings, while providing plenty of variety between the two. Either is a superb destination for a full meal or a snack, or, as we did, splitting a meal between the two neighboring locations.
The culinary bedrock of the trio is Hugo’s, which like so many restaurants from the past decade, offers fine dining without the traditional trappings of the genre. Chef Mike Wiley was behind the stoves the evening we were there and we left ourselves to his whims. It was not a bad thing to do – not a bad thing at all.
Our dinner proceeded in a tasting menu format with my son and I each being served a different dish for each course. At this point though, I would like to write a few words about the cocktail program throughout the three sister restaurants. It is first class with well conceived, constructed and presented beverages to fit each location. These were not afterthoughts, but rather the product of a well integrated, fully thought out approach. While there may not be anything groundbreaking or revolutionary in the program, it is one of quality and value. The first example was the delightfully satisfying and delicious “European Union” at Eventide. Stirred oloroso sherry, Byrrh and Aperol was a very successful Negroni variation that I have subsequently made and enjoyed at home.
A “Negroni Bianco” at Eventide continued that theme of well made libations that fit the mood of the restaurant as being casual, yet serious when it comes to providing quality beyond the norm.
Meanwhile at The Honey Paw, the cocktail palate appeared to lean towards flavors from Asia and Latin America. The “Strong Paw,” a margarita variation with both Tequila and Mezcal as well as honey, lime and chile satisfied.
It was at Hugo’s, however, where the cocktail program, under Paul Russell, showed its greatest strength, starting with a formidably good cocktail called the “Got Wood” with Tom Cat gin, Pineau de Charentes and Cocchi Americano.
Even better was their take on a classic, the Brown Derby, which featured grapefruit, bourbon and vanilla.
“The Usher” made with a smoky Mezcal, Cynar and fortified wine was another winner. The technique, ingredients and ideas behind the program are all solid, with the one thing that can take it up to the next level being the making and use of clear ice. Clearly, great cocktails can and are made without clear ice, but it is one of those details, that when present, truly impresses and conveys the impression (generally correctly) that the bar program really cares about even the smallest of details. Whether it is worth it for a restaurant bar program in a city like Portland, Maine to fixate on that is a legitimate question and I do not hold it against them. I’m just pointing out one element that could elevate the already fine bar experience even further.
The real reason that a restaurant like Hugo’s does not need to invest too much energy into something like clear ice in their bar program is that the reason the vast majority of people come to the restaurant is for the food and understandably so! Chef Mike Wiley’s cooking is imaginative and true to the area, while also fusing a number of influences from other parts of the world. Wiley’s opening bite was a tour de force. Raw scallop and caviar were partnered with sunchoke puree and crisp-fried quinoa in perfect proportions. The sunchoke was present just enough to provide an over the top element without obscuring the sweet flavor of the pristine scallop. We both received this wonderful amuse.
The next course was the first that we received different dishes. Mine was a chicken wing that was braised in soy and white wine vinegar. The braising liquid was saved and prepared into a gelee which lay atop the chicken along with crispy chicken skin, purple daikon and arugula. To the side was Anson Mills heirloom rice dressed with scallion and egg yolk puree.
My son received a dish that at first glance made me envious. Gulf of Maine fluke was dressed as a crudo with winter citrus and more of the purple daikon that was on the chicken dish. I say at first, not because this wasn’t everything that I expected it to be – it was – but because my chicken dish was equally superb.
Pomme Souffle was outstanding with one for each of us. It was pure deliciousness with the crisp potato shell, the fatty sour cream and the salty caviar – stellar!
My son’s next dish was a behemoth. Though it looked like a lobe of fior di latte, it was a ricotta dumpling served in what struck me as an eastern European style with onion, pickled and poached carrots, dill and whey that had been reduced and mounted with butter.The dumpling was light, but this was still a massive dish. Unlike the previous dish, I wasn’t envious when this was placed in front of my son rather myself.
A good part of the reason for the lack of envy is that the dish placed in front of me was much more interesting to my taste and not nearly as daunting. Still featuring eastern European flavors, this was like an everything bagel loaded up to be the best everything bagel possible.
The next bit was provided to each of us, so there was no envy involved. It was a fabulous belon oyster that had been lightly roasted and dressed with brown butter and a soya vinaigrette. Wiley likes his brown butter and uses it well. Like the lobster roll at Eventide, this worked quite nicely, even if the mineral notes from the oyster makes it a less intuitive combination than with the vanilla notes of lobster. But it just such non-intuitive strokes that when they work, like this did, help propel a meal to greatness.
Having already been served a chicken dish, I was happy with my next dish, when my son received his, which was also quite good. This was grilled chicken with a scallion salsa verde, buttermilk cheese and potatoes.
My dish was a vegan’s dream. While I may not be vegan, I could be with dishes like this one. It was a dreamy dish that featured a variety of mushrooms as well as a host of root vegetables and a flavorful tofu based sauce with szechuan peppercorns, all well balanced with interesting and delicious flavors and textures.
Once again we had the same dish served to and it was good that it was, for it wouldn’t have been fair to the one who didn’t get it. This was, for me, the dish of the meal and absolutely stunning. A combination of pork and shellfish is not unusual, and in fact is pretty classic, especially throughout southern Europe, in particular Portugal and Spain. This was a unique way of doing it in my experience. The Hugo’s team used the outer bark of barbecued, smoked pork butts that had been prepared for staff meal as the base of the dish with a variety of clams and mussels as well as a romesco rounding out the plate. The shellfish were exquisitely cooked to a perfect juicy tenderness and the combination rocked in every way.
The final savory course was equally appealing. My son received lobster, never a bad thing, especially in Portland, Maine. Technically, it was a surf and turf dish and was called just that, as it also contained, in addition to a beautifully presented lobster tail, some beef short rib, which had actually been wrapped around the lobster tail and, the combination, pan roasted. It came with butter glazed potatoes, pickled cabbage and a carrot and miso butter sauce.
My plate was lamb – no surf. That was fine, though, as this Maine raised lamb came in several different ways, all of which were excellent. Lamb loin had been pan-roasted. There was a lamb sausage and also a confit of neck and shoulder meat. The cipollini onions, eggplant puree and kale were fine adjuncts to this meat-centric dish.
Desserts didn’t miss a beat, being both interesting and tasty. We each had a dessert amuse centered around cherry pit ice cream with strawberry meringue, various other berries and white chocolate.
Our final desserts were once again divided between us. My son had a coffee cake that was very good, though the presentation was not as exacting as the savory courses.
Presentation wasn’t lacking, however, in my dessert, a Turkish Delight. This was beautiful and colorful, unlike the monochromatic coffee cake. The flavors were delightful with plenty of textural contrast and the chewiness one might expect with a dessert by that name.
The summer season is coming and Portland, like all of the Maine coast is likely to swell with visitors. As a city near many summer resorts it has more to offer from a culinary perspective than most other resort areas on the east coast. This trio of restaurants should be on the must-go list of any visitor to the area who is interested in eating and drinking well. In fact, with their novel and wonderful approach to superb local ingredients, they would be a reason to visit Portland if there wasn’t anything else to visit for!