Tasting Menu

Every six months or so, I treat myself to a nice meal. By which I mean, I convince someone else to so treat me.

Last night my mother and I went to dinner at Hugo’s in Portland. That’s the Maine Portland, not the fake Left Coast job. Find Hugo’s online at http://www.hugos.net

It is one of the nicest restaurants in the state of Maine. I can think of perhaps four or five comparable establishments… spread over 35,000 square miles. I wore a shirt with buttons. Hell, I wore a shirt at all.

Hugo’s is located at the corner of Congress and the Art. I would guess they seat forty, with room for eight at the bar. At this time of year they probably do two seatings. At 7:00 the dining room was half-empty and there was nobody at the bar.

Since the new year, and stretching until the first of April, the restaurant is offering a 2-for-1 special on a blind tasting menu. This is six courses, not including wine. The price is $45. Wine pairings were an additional $30 per person. For six glasses.

Perhaps in America these would not have been considered full glasses. In Europe they would have been considered hogsheads. To call them flights would be a disservice. They almost had to call us a cab.

We were told the names of the dishes, and more or less about their ingredients. Here are my best recollections of the meal, coupled with my best attempts at culinary deconstruction:

a table: biscuits
Potato-flour puff pastries with garlic and fleur de sel. Served with creamery butter from a local farm. Approximately the consistency of sin.
With no other way to cleanse the palate between courses – or between wines – and considering the small portions offered as part of the tasting menu, I was quite glad they were present.

Amuse-bouche: “potato chip”

A single sliver of potato, fried glass-like and translucent, topped with a whiff of lemon cream and fried deglaze (what they refer to there, and at their sister restaurant Duckfat, as “duck salt”). Very pretty. Yes, it amused the mouth. But rather, I confess, unexceptional in the mouth.

VIN: St. Hilaire Brut NV – blanquette de Limoux which they referred to as “Champagne.” Tastes much as I remember from high school – like sticking your tongue in an electroplating bath. It is the only easily-available French sparkling wine at this price range. That made its choice even less impressive.

Primaire: fluke tartare

Fresh and chilled. The fish was sectioned along the grain of the muscle, preserving the natural texture, really excellently impressive. Served a ronde beneath a slice of candied Meyer lemon. Light citrus vinaigrette with coddled egg yolk. The egg could not have more perfectly complemented the dish. Bloody lovely.

Secondaire: lapin a trois mode

Two thin strips of rabbit mortadella, very lightly flavored, topped with curls of pickled salsify and a few stray leaves of miner’s lettuce. Traces of a hibiscus glace on plate. At the end a single morsel of rabbit loin surrounded by a rich and earthy rabbit ragout. The mortadella I found rather simple, especially in the face of the ragout sauvage. The loin was cooked to perfection – if not the first example of sous-vide cooking in the meal, then not the last.

VIN: Mas Donis Rosat – recent vintage – Capcanes, Spain. An interesting choice. Overpowering to even the ragout, and certainly the mortadella, but very well paired with the hibiscus. Always interesting to see a rose served before a white – and after Champagne.

Tertiare: hake roti

Similar construction to the tartare: a ronde, this time cooked and with a panko crust above. Panko was once a witty alternative (and improvement) to the traditional Maine bake-crust of the Ritz cracker. By this point it is rather dull – certainly when the only spice it was given was sea salt. Still, the fish was prepared magnificently.

Served with a heap of sea urchin in a dashi foam – this latter said nothing to me other than, “The chef has recently acquired the technology necessary to prepare foams” – though the urchin might have been the most delectable I have eaten, certainly, certainly so outside a Japanese restaurant. The broth was dashi, mirin and bright-green droplets of pureed celery; the presentation was perfect – except for the thin layer of watery broth.

Also served with a few strands of delicate Maine seaweed – elegant pairing with the dish, almost kaiseki – and a nori cracker, being a bit of hard tracker made with nori juice. Which said, I confess, “look, I have purchased a juicer” – technological appropriation being a growing theme of this meal, to say nothing of “sweet technique used for savory purposes – Oh so subversive am I!”

The slight nori cracker – no more than two nibbles – was the most memorable, and unfortunate, part of the meal. I have never encountered a food – not coriander, not curry, not capsaicin, not citrus – which more perfectly destroyed a wine.

VIN: A marsanne-rousanne from Emiglia-Romana. Buxom and pleasant, before being reduced to iodine by the nori.

Entree: canard sur farro, sauce rustique

As best as I can recreate the method of preparation:

Blonde farro grains are steamed until they pop in the mouth. They are accented with black mustard seeds, primarily for visual contrast.

Duck breast is cooked sous vide to perfection.

Pancetta is cooked in an iron pan.

The duck breast is lightly seared in the fat of the pancetta.

The pan is then deglazed with Sauternes and slices of candied kumquat. At the last moment is added whole duck’s tongues.

The farro is tossed in the pan and served beneath the duck breast.

The result was magnificent, simple (though presenting complexity) and charactered, almost rustique. It was not the most adventurous production which we were presented, but it was the most successful. I can still taste it.

VIN: Clos Mimi “Petit Rousse,” 2008 – I myself would not have served a candyfloss New World syrah with duck, even duck with a twist of sweetness to it. I would have served Mosel gewurztraminer – or, if you desired red, I would not have strayed far from Pinot Noir. A lighted Nuits-Villages, maybe, perhaps a Yamhill with a few years in the bottle. But… Cali shiraz? I drank it after the course.

Dolci primaire: crouton a creme anglaise

Three ‘croutons’ or squares of yolk-solked challah (that is to say, French Toast) in vanilla creme anglaise with cinnamon and carmelized sugar. Unexceptional, without adventure… but very tasty.

VIN: Broadbent “Boston” Madeira NV – 100% Bual – a very nice pairing, through I would have expected Malmsey

Dolci secondaire: glace au pomme vert

Green apple ice cream, sweet cream foam, single sprig of rosemary atop. The ice cream was the richest and most sumptuous I have ever encountered. Clearly someone has been having fun with their ice cream maker. The foam was unnecessary sugar. Clearly someone has been having too much fun with their foamer. The wine matched the sprig of rosemary with a perfect I can hardly describe. Unfortunately the rosemary was not a significant portion of the course – unfortunate too, as it was a rather bland offering without it.

VIN: Viognier, Jumilla, Spain. Very pleasant, calm residual sugar and bracing acidity, ought to have had much more to stand up with. Also: serving a tabel-wine after a fortified wine, specifically an oxidized wine like Madiera… forgive me, but that is just stupid. There were a few things in this meal I would have changed, one or two things that I might have improved upon, and overall it was an excellent and quite interesting experience. But that, and the nori cracker, were both wrong, and ought to be fixed.

CONCLUSIONS TO THIS MOUTH-WATERING JEREMIAD

The chef, Rob Evans, won the fairly prestigious James Beard award for the Northeast region in 2009. As a result the cuisine was far more moderne than what you would expect at The White Barn Inn (Maine’s only Guide Michelin 5-star restaurant, located about a mile from my house). The meal did speak of being a bit desperate to make Maine ‘courant’ – the repeated use of technical cooking, particularly foam and sous-vide, being somewhat tiresome by the conclusion of the sixth course. It was somewhat rich for my taste, and at time lacking in character. Yet still it was an exceptional meal, a competent and witty offering, and I would enjoy the opportunity to sample the chef’s experimentations again.

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~ by davekov on 24 February 2011.

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