Matt Ginn, chef at Evo Kitchen + Bar in Portland and the 2015 Maine Lobster Chef of the Year, won the episode and a $10,000 prize on Food Network’s “Chopped” Tuesday night.
“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.
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.”
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 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