It is impossible to look at lists of the best of Portland, without seeing "Hugo's." The chef, Rob Evans, won best chef in the Northeast from the James Beard award last year. One customer who sat next to me at the bar said, "This is the one place in town where you can always trust that each bite will be crafted with attention to detail." After one meal there, I understood what she was saying.
There are two ways to enjoy the food at Hugo's. You can go and sit for table service. Or, as I did sit at the bar. The benefit of the bar? A chance to order the "Butcher Block" as well as other special plates that you can't have at the tables. And that dish alone will bring me back to Hugo's. What arrived was a platter of charcuterie.
Each one was crafted with artisanry. It is hard to choose between my favorites. The coppa (cured pork shoulder) was tender, subtle and gentle, almost nutty. The cured guinea fowl mortadella melted in my mouth, leaving behind the scent of anise. The lomo (pork loin) was the first cut from a pig that the Chef had butchered and cure in February. It was fatty and salty and almost sensual as it dissolved in my mouth. The genoa salami popped with the fresh peppercorns. The goat rillettes were like meaty soft minced meat. My least favorite of the dish? In a heightened glass was a dish of duck rillettes. The rillettes themselves were delicious. But, on the top was aerated mustard so light it tingled, reminiscent of mustard soda! In fact, it was almost overkill to the tender duck beneath. The plate was accompanied by lovely pickled ramps, pepperdews and onions that provided a sweet, vinegary balance to the salt of the other dishes.
I did eat more than that, of course. My first snack was titled, "Cracklin' Jack". What arrived was as playful as it comes: a plastic bag with caramelized pork cracklings and peanuts. Instead of a tattoo there was a rolled up scroll which included the recipe. I can't say I regularly have "fresh pig ears" lying around but is good to know that if I ever want to whip these up, I can.
My other dish, pictured at the top of this post was just as fabulous. It consisted of the collar of hiramasa. In other words the tender meat of yellowtale fish. The outside was caramelized and charred creating a subtle bitterness that contrasted with the soy. The sweet fish sat on bed of ginger scallion sauce. On top, "pork sung." It looked a bit like pork dental floss, but tasted like pork cotton candy but much better than it sounded. Adding one more element was a red cabbage kimchi. Each taste was unique, but together it was pretty perfect.
What also struck me was that all this food, plus a delicious glass of a Rose, cost about $35.00, making it almost a bargain for the caliber of food that was served.
So will I be back? As soon as I can, and hopefully for the "blind tasting," a 6 course dish in which the menu isn't revealed...until the end of the evening!
Hugo's, 88 Middle Street, Portland, Maine, 207-774-8538