Hugo's Rob Evans wins Beard Award
Hugo's has been one of those places I have always meant to go to when I am in Portland - and apparently should. Chef Rob Evans won a Beard Award for his work - but I'm curious, with all the good places in Portland, do you think he's even the best chef in the city?
Here's an NECN story on Evans:
88 Middle St, Portland, ME 04101
I went to Hugo's last night--drove up from Boston, had really been looking forward to it and was very disappointed. Before I get to the food, I have to say that the service was terrible: we arrived for a 5:45 reservation on a Saturday night (all I could get) and the host and manager were confused and frantic on the phone, respectively. They asked me for my name three times before they seated me and my husband at a table right by the door--although the restaurant was empty but for one table. I asked for a nicer spot and they complied, seating us by the service area. Our waitress then returned to the table every 60 seconds for our order, not understanding what we need a few minutes means--it felt as though she was already trying to get us out for the next seating. This was compounded when she asked to take my plate away when I was halfway done--had set down my fork for a second! The spiel here is that each person should order 3-4 dishes "to be comfortable," entrees and apps being about the same size. So be prepared to spend at least $50 a person--if each dish packed a punch of "wow!" this would be acceptable, but this didn't happen for us (see below). The push to have us order wine was transparent--I tried to give the wine menu back twice before our waitress would take it (we both ordered cocktails). To top it all off, at the end of the meal, the bill was $30 over. This was fixed, along with the explanataion that they tabulate the old fashioned way there, thus the mistake. Huh...
The food: we ordered 7 courses between us and without a doubt the only special, memorable thing we ate were the hot potato flour, garlic biscuits, with hand churned butter that were served in place of bread. Truly fantastic and, happily the waitress did offer to bring us more when we ate all four. After that, the plates were lacklaster. All fine but for the price and considering the acclaim, we were underwhelmed. The version of a Caesar salad, with white anchovy, was probably the next best thing after the biscuits. The spicy steak tartare was not at all spicy, though the two small fried gherkins on top were both delicious and visually and conceptually right on. The risotto in the whelk dish was not creamy or very tasty, the seafood didn't deliver the punch of ocean the waitress advertised, there was an unchewable piece of overcooked something mixed in... The king oyster mushrooms, so promising on paper, were just OK. The poached halibut, white with two greens, was plated very nicely, cooked right, and nice but again, not memorable.
I'm afraid that the place, with its strange choice of music (generic pop rock), emphasis on uniqueness and unconventionality per the menu (though nothing was so unusual and twice a dish was delivered with no explanation by the service staff of what, for example, the caramel power on the sundae was), and nervous service staff is trying too hard and failing where it counts most--in the kitchen. Maybe it was an off night but for those prices and portion sizes, I won't be trying again. It made us wonder: is this really the best there is out there?! The Beard award sets the bar pretty high and the food just doesn't excel.
I was there last night, having gone once 5 years ago for an anniversary. While our service wasn't as rocky as yours, it wasn't extra smooth, either. I could tell the waiter was annoyed that we chose to ignore his advice about how much to order; he made a face later when we asked for more biscuits. We split the Caesar salad, and thought it very good, esp the white anchovies not salted more like ceviche. Also raves for the potato biscuits. I next had General Gau's Sweetbreads, nicely done but not out of this world --3 sweetbreads and 2 other crispy cakey things (not sure what) for $19 feels overpriced for me -- esp, with as simple a preparation as these were. Pan friend, a bit of shredded lettuce and a hint of chili. My wife had Chantenay Carrot Soup with
medjool dates, almond milk and kumquat in a foam. She loved it, I not so much. I do not get the lure of foam. We then split a lobster risotto which was made with herring -- because as the waiter explained, herring are used as bait in the traps. The lobster was strangely under-flavored -- barely poached and tender, but not packing a great lobster punch in the mouth, same with the lobster stock. Liked the sour-strong bits of herring much better. Risotto iteself was creamy and soft but bland. My wife loved this dish all the way, but I wanted more snap from the main ingredient. For dessert my wife had chocolate sundae with traditional and untraditional toppings. This means yes, fudge sauce (tiny little splashes) and marshmallow foam and peanut powder. I had a pineapple trifle -- roasted fruit, coconut water, some taipioca pearls a bit of sponge cake. OK but nothing I'd ever have again.
Lovely wine -- Two Ton Pinot Noir 2008 ($36/bottle).
I won't go back. And I loved my meal 5 years ago. One more thing. There's something off-putting to me to begin an expensive meal like this with explanations on portion size, how to order, etc. We were told that nothing is an app or entree, just equal sized (small) portions. I'd rather the restaurant not make me think too hard how to build a meal. I know what an appetizer is, know what an entree is and found it a little confusing to figure out if I were ordering enough and what I wanted. This just feels like a way to get me to buy more than I realize and spend accordingly. Our bill, including wine and tip came to $145 for 2. We left having eaten just the right amount, by the way, thanks to those 2 extra biscuits. 4 dishes between us, plus dessert.
A bump since I dined there Saturday night. I went up with very little expectations except thinking their menu looked good, and it was recommended by a coworker - didn't hear about the Beard Award until right before the meal. My experience was nothing like the last 2 posts. While service wasn't out of this world, we found our server to be attentive and accommodating, especially for a packed evening. No problems whatsoever. Oh, and no music when we were there.
I wasn't aware of the plate sizes, but when looking at the menu prices, the 3 dishes they recommended would come out equivalent to what I've paid at other high end restaurants for good meals, so it didn't bother me. The options ranged from 9-10/plate to up to 27/plate, so someone who wants a light meal could easily wind up paying no more than $50 per person or up to $80+.
I loved the garlic biscuits, and my DC and I kept asking for more each time they offered to refill. We must have had about 10 of them between us. I opted for 3, and my DC at first thought she would do 2. Server did not give us strange looks when she said she may go just for 2 - she ended up with 3 anyways, because we really wanted to see a variety of dishes.
I started off with a wonderful tuna tartar with dashi on yellowfin tuna cubes. It was absolutely delicious and maybe my favorite dish of the evening. It was presented beautifully with an array of colors on the plate. My DC had an arugula salad with radishes and a yogurt dressing. She said it was good, but it didn't look nearly as pretty.
I then had an arctic char on seaweed salad and potatoes in a horseradish sauce and my DC had a spicy BBQ tripe stew. The base in the tripe stew was fantastic, and my DC who was nervous about tripe said it didn't taste and/or remind her of tripe in any way. My arctic char was so moist and well cooked (with a terrific crispy skin) and the horseradish sauce complimented the potatoes perfectly.
On to dish 3 - I opted for a rib eye with bone-marrow gratin. The rib eye was perfectly cooked for me (and I usually opt for medium well). I realized I didn't specify that I don't like bloody meat, but thankfully it didn't come out too rare - a rarity in itself for some fine dining places. I wish there were more of a bone-marrow taste to the gratin. I think the subtlety of that marrow flavor was lost in the potatoes and the remoulade on top, but it was still delicious. Again, the chef was able to create this perfectly crispy top to the gratin, while everything underneath was soft but layered, not one big cube of mush. My DC had a lobster risotto with parmesan cubes. I didn't taste this one but she raved about the lobster.
We ended our meals splitting raspberry and blueberry sorbets. A nice light ending since we were very stuffed with our meal, and the complimentary hazelnut caramel cocoa puffs. We probably spent about $150-160 for 2, no drinks, but we were both really happy with our food and with our experience. I was going nuts with my camera taking pictures of the food (much to the amusement of the staff and our neighbors). Definitely expensive, but I think well worth it for a special meal. I personally like the option of building a meal with a number of dishes (a bit of this and that), but I can also imagine someone who just wants to eat and not wanting to deal with making so many choices.
I have no idea why folks have had such issues with Hugo's. I've eaten there at least 10 times in the past few years, and always have had excellent food, and excellent service. I have never experienced any of the service issues that others have complained about in this and other threads. Every one of our servers has offered us more of the delectable biscuits without asking. I also feel that a six course tasting menu for $80 pp is more than reasonable, especially considering the quality of the food. My wife and I always get the tasting menu there, and perhaps for that reason I've not had any issues that others have but I can't wait to go again one week from tonight when I'll be in Portland again. I last went to Hugo's just a month and a half ago, after the Beard award, so it's not a case of "you haven't been there lately". I also like restaurants where the chef is present and cooking, not like some "celebrity chefs" who make a menu, and then just open clone after clone.