Zooming-in on Mediterranean Cuisine - Evo brings focus and sensibility to an oft-cluttered restaurant genre

Zooming-in on Mediterranean Cuisine - Evo brings focus and sensibility to an oft-cluttered restaurant genre

“Mediterranean cuisine” is one of the most misused phrases in the hospitality industry today. A buzz-worthy, catch-all term often manifesting as mediocre pita sandwiches and overcooked meat skewers, it does little justice to a geographic region as rich and diverse in food cultures as that which borders the Mediterranean Sea. Just as the ubiquitously uttered “Chinese food” serves more to confuse than to honor the subtle and not so subtle differences between the provincial cuisines of Shandong and Jiangsu, “Mediterranean cuisine” as a term muddles the unique characteristics that both divide and bind Greek and Syrian fare. 

It‘s quite nice, then, to encounter a restaurant such as Evo, with an informed focus that comes across on the plate as unique and inspired. 

A Win with Lobster

Sweet lobster meat, ethereal coconut milk, sweet-salty Aleppo pepper, aromatic turmeric, earthy cumin and savory dried lime—this flavor combination secured Matt Ginn, Chef/Owner of EVO Kitchen + Bar in Portland, Maine, the title of 2015 Maine Lobster Chef of the Year. In a competition presented by the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, his winning dish of Maine Lobster with Turkish Pasta stands out with assertive Middle Eastern flavors that don’t overpower the delicately sweet lobster. “The secret ingredient here is dried lime,” he says. “The use of dried lime is prevalent in Mediterranean cuisine. I use it in various soups and stocks to give them umami flavor that transforms a lot of dishes. In using it, I found that the flavors really complemented Maine lobster, so I added it to the coconut milk in this lobster dish.” Delicate folds of housemade pasta stuffed with roasted squash, yogurt and lime accompany the lobster, which sits on a bed of squash purée. Right before service, Ginn warms the poached lobster meat in a bit of olive oil infused with lime zest. “The building and layering of the flavor profiles in the dish are really present to the diner,” he says. “The stock sets the stage, and then the Maine lobster and pasta add different textures that complement one another.”

“Chef Ginn’s winning dish is outstanding,” says Matt Jacobson, Executive Director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative. “It’s packed with unique Mediterranean flavors that both highlight the sweetness and texture of the protein while demonstrating how versatile Maine Lobster can be as an ingredient.” 

Mezze Style Eating in Portland at Evo

The small plates food experience is nothing new in Portland. You’ve got tapas at Sur Lie, small plates at Lolita, and mezze style eating at Evo, as well as many others. Mezze style is interesting, because it’s more of a Middle Eastern concept. At Evo, sharing is encouraged, especially when you’re in a large group. After all, how many times have you gone out to dinner with friends and stared wistfully at their main entree while you ignore your own? I’m not a fan of sharing in many situations, but I love it with food. The more that I can try, the happier I will be. Needless to say, I was very happy sharing with my boyfriend when we went to Evo for dinner!

I have to say, brussels sprouts are becoming a very big thing in Portland, and I’m loving it. If you’re looking for a new spot for your favorite vegetable, I really enjoyed Evo’s. They were slightly smoky, leaving pure flavor to blend seamlessly with the sauces on our plate. Not too soft, and just a little bit crunchy, these are a great way to start your meal at Evo.

With some meals, it can be easy to pick a favorite dish or entree. I loved every dish I tried, but this sushi grade tuna was pretty damn intense. The texture is silky and smooth, while the flavor is clean and fresh. If I’d had the opportunity, I probably would have just had this as my whole meal, because I’ve always been a huge fan of tuna, especially when it’s prepared properly. Add the accoutrements of aleppo and an avocado toum, and this dish is truly a standout. If you love tuna, or you want smooth texture silkily dancing on your tongue, this is the dish to order.

The Kibbeh Liban are essentially beef meatballs. These meatballs aren’t your typical Italian spaghetti and meatball variety, but I think that’s why I really enjoyed these. The yogurt sauce lent the perfect flavor, making them just a little bit tart, while also retaining the essence of the beef. Combine the Middle Eastern spices and this is unlike any dish I’ve found in Portland. 4 meatballs was just the right amount to savor the beef, while not becoming overwhelmed, considering we had lamb coming out next.

This lamb loin just demonstrates, again and again, why lamb is one of my favorite kinds of meat. Though I do love duck, and every other kind of meat/protein, lamb has such a complex layer of flavors to unravel. This lamb was incredibly tender, and didn’t even require a knife to cut it. The sides on the plate stood out as well, especially the polenta cubes, which were cooked to perfection: slightly chewy, but a little velvety as well. The sauce that accompanied this dish was tangy, but not enough to overwhelm the lamb, which is a must. This lamb was juicy, succulent and truly a standout in my meal. 

Since dessert is my favorite meal of the day, I’ll almost always try it wherever I go. After a filling meal of mezze style dishes, I didn’t want anything too heavy, which is where these “cookies” come into play. I mainly wanted to order the plate just to try the Persian Baklava. No matter what style of baklava you’re trying, it’s sure to be good! And it didn’t disappoint: it was flaky, sweet, and had just a little bit of a crunch to it. Out of all the cookies, it was my favorite. I’m not a big shortbread cookie fan, so they didn’t really do it for me, but I did enjoy the marshmallows as a light and fluffy ending to a great meal!

Bottom Line: Evo is a great restaurant that adds a layer of complexity to what some say is an oversaturated market. This style of eating is friendly to sharing, as well as large groups, who are easily accommodated on the mezzanine level. If you love Mediterranean flavors, Evo is a must!

Smooth moves: Evo in the Old Port taps into Smoothie movement

SMOOTH BUT CRUNCHY The Muhammara offered up at Evo consists of blended hot peppers, crushed walnuts, olive oil, garlic and spices. garnished with radishes and greens, the dip is served with seed bread.

I don’t know about Shifty and D-Money, but Governor LePage got one thing right: If you hear the name Smoothie, watch out. Especially when it comes to food. Our national obsession with blending up perfectly good ingredients until they can be sipped or spoon-fed exemplifies the infantilization of our culture. We sustain childish lives with childish nourishment. Smoothies allow us to indulge the infantile suck-reflex well into adulthood, along with our feelings of helplessness before forces (climatological, economic, emotional) we cannot understand or control. If we are ever going to stop acting like babies, maybe we should stop eating pablum.

Of course, transitions are hard, whether to adult roles or to solid food. Maybe we need a transitional cuisine. One place to find it is at Evo, an Old Port restaurant whose name is short for evolution. At Evo it is possible to eat a sophisticated and elegant meal consisting entirely of dishes that are smooth and creamy. Evo specializes in the cuisine of the “eastern Mediterranean” (you might know it as the “Middle East”). This is the culture that gave us hummus and baba ghanoush – both on Evo’s menu. But Evo’s elevation of the smooth is best exemplified in less familiar dishes like muhammara.

Evo’s muhammara is smooth enough, but also has a hint of crunch from its base of walnuts. The dish looks sophisticated. Three amber-red mounds group on one half of their bowl, topped with some radish and greens. Most importantly, the flavors, like a mild heat and some roasty sesame, balance and enhance each other rather than just blend together. It’s a pleasure to scoop it up on a crisp seeded flatbread.

A softer flatbread accompanied the labneh, a simple yogurt cheese. It is smooth as can be, with an appealing brightness and tang. It was spotted with crunchy herbs and some sharp capers. Shakshuka, a hot dish made with crushed and stewed tomatoes and egg, is not exactly smooth. But it’s dippable in its cast iron bowl, and when the yolk from the egg runs into the herby tomato, things get plenty creamy. It manages to be rich but not heavy, with plenty of bite from garlic and some stewed jalapeno.

The shakshuka feels complex and adult, and provides a useful transition to some of Evo’s more chewable dishes. But many of these still dabble in the smooth and creamy. Roasted brussels sprouts are served with sweet dollops of golden raisin blended until they resembling applesauce – or baby food. We preferred the dollops of rich tahini, which worked better with the sprout’s subtle bitterness.

For those who work their way up, Evo offers plenty of dishes with unadulterated adult texture and flavor, like the terrific sharpness of mackerel with charred onion and roe – all salt, oil and sour. It looked gorgeous stacked up on its plate. The look of dinner at Evo in general is sophisticated, to the point where the plating (they like to leave half the plate clean) can feel a bit trendy and precious. The room is striking, with a huge front wall of glass at jagged angles, looking out on the busy old port streets.

So Evo offers a way to smooth our transition to adult tastes and habits. LePage said he is most concerned about the babies that Smoothie and his friends leave behind. But we should worry instead about the babies that we are and the hard work of growing up. Sure, it feels good when politicians tell us that we can be “winners” or “revolutionaries.” You could carry your smoothie right into the voting booth, while letting childish fears and fantasies govern our choice of leader. It is the kind of voting that got a petulant governor re-elected here in Maine, after all.

Evo, 443 Fore St., Portland | 207.358.7830 | Tuesday – Wednesday 4:30pm-10:00pm; Thursday-Saturday 4:30pm-11:30pm | Most (smallish) dishes between $10-$15

Hot chefs, cool space: Portland restaurateurs raise bar for design

PORTLAND, Maine — The crispy chicken sandwich lands on the bar speared with a knife.

Like a sailor’s marlin spike, the gutsy gesture isn’t just about the feisty sandwich; it’s part of the restaurant’s identity. The shipshape space at the months-old restaurant Roustabout is nautical from stem to stern.

The maritime theme is woven into the design — a photo of a distressed ship in towering seas defines one wall, rope pendant lights hang from the ceiling and even the sign out front is crafted from a shipping container. Despite the long, thought out design elements, not everyone picks up on it.

That’s by design.

“If they completely figure you out, they’ll move on,” said co-owner and bartender Kit Paschal, who spent as much time thinking about Roustabout’s layout and interior as he did the menu. “You want them to come back for more razzle dazzle.”

In a booming dining city such as Portland, where new restaurants open monthly, restaurateurs need more than a hot chef to keep their rooms full. Intrigue created through lighting, tone, decor — all the elements of design create a subtle theater that seduces diners as they indulge and quaff.

“These days, if everyone is Instagramming their meals and the restaurant space, you know you’re doing something right,” Jim Brady, developer and co-owner of UNION at The Press Hotel, said.

The two go hand in glove at the sleek UNION restaurant on the ground floor of the former Gannett Building, where stories were filed under deadline pressure at the Portland Press Herald. Now, instead of barking editors and rewrite men, well-heeled guests waltz into the styled space, edge up to the marble chef’s bar, where Josh Berry crafts a custom tasting menu on the spot.

In his roomy open kitchen, loaded with fresh ingredients, Berry — rumored to be on the James Beard Award shortlist — knows eateries in this food-mad city must offer more than well-orchestrated tastes to stay relevant.

“You can’t fool this city. This city breeds culinarians. Diners are educated,” Berry said. Culinarians want ambiance with their pear risotto and truffle beef pot roast. At UNION, Angela Adams glasses, white subway tiles, multiwood counters and natural light streaming in by day, turning romantic at night, matches his menu’s big city thrust.

“If this restaurant looked different, the food would be different,” Berry said. “This is a place to see and be seen.”

At EVO Kitchen and Bar on Fore Street, the off-kilter geometric exterior excites your senses before you step inside. Built from the ground up and adjacent to the Hyatt Old Port, the crinkle wall reminiscent of pleats and fabric “allowed us to do things with the design that were expansive,” according to Timothy Hart of Portland’s Canal 5 Studio, the firm that designed EVO and the attached hotel.

Originally intended for retail, the soaring ceilings and jewel-like space was a design challenge. To make it work, the firm built a mezzanine, which frames the ceiling beneath the joint kitchen and bar.

“[Owner] Casey Prentice had a vision for a very urban, cosmopolitan space that fit the concept that he was looking to do,” Hart said.

A shared Pinterest board helped them swap ideas and stoke enthusiasm.

“We were grabbing images of restaurants all over the world to create a catalogue, an inspiration board pulled from all over,” Hart said. “The whole food prep is part of the space. Bartenders making drinks, the chef cooking, you have glass all around you. It’s a pretty cool space.”

Diners sitting below can get personal with chef Matt Ginn in this 50 seater. At night EVO glows, and the interior colors pop. The minimal modernist, unobtrusive furniture, an usual mix of industrial chic and modern sleek is the perfect setting for elevated Mediterranean small plates.

“Everything, right down to the look and feel of the cocktail napkins, should inform the architecture,” Hart said.

It isn’t just newcomers that are turning heads in Maine’s foodiest city. Last month Grace on Chestnut Street was named one of America’s 10 most beautiful restaurants by food site Tabelog.

Located in a gothic revival church in downtown Portland, Grace has inspired edible epiphanies since 2009.

The kitchen occupies the altar, former pews-turned-banquets and original stained glass windows imported from Italy give the glowing space an operatic scale.

“At the time we opened the Portland food scene wasn’t blowing up as it is now, but it was still competitive,” owner Anne Verrill, who turned an 1850s church into a theatrical restaurant with two bars and romantic nooks, said. “We provide something different right off the bat.”

To restaurateurs, design is irreplaceable.

“In this day and age of the Internet, everyone is Food Network-ed, everyone is Yelping every five seconds. You can’t just open a restaurant with plastic tables now,” Verrill said. “It used to be all about the food and service, but when they walk in it starts with what they see.”