At Evo, modern design and cooking methods meet an ancient cuisine

When Casey Prentice opens Evo at the Hyatt Place hotel in the Old Port on June 7, it will be the third, high-end eastern Mediterranean restaurant to make its debut in Portland in eight months.

Like fellow Old Port newcomers Ebb & Flow and Tiqa, Evo offers a stylish setting for food that, until recently, had been largely missing from Portland’s restaurant scene.

But although eastern Mediterranean is identified by foodnetwork.com and others as one of the fastest growing restaurant trends, Prentice – whose family’s company, The Prentice Group, also owns Chebeague Island Inn and is a managing partner in CPB2 LLC, the entity leading the development of Portland’s eastern waterfront – did not simply jump on the proverbial bandwagon with his latest project.

Last July, Prentice was approached by the hotel’s owner, Portland real estate developer Tim Soley, who had come up empty after interviewing several potential restaurant tenants for the prominent corner space. Prentice, who “wasn’t even looking” for a restaurant project, offered his design ideas, including the central kitchen-bar and mezzanine that are the defining features of Evo. Initially, the plan was to do “molecular gastronomy … a lounge playing with food,” Prentice said.

But an experience at Chebeague Island Inn last summer inspired Prentice and his executive chef, Brandon Hicks, to go in another direction.

Hicks, who has visited Lebanon and whose previous restaurant post was at Ilili, a Lebanese restaurant in New York, had the chance to cook “off menu” for a Chebeague Island resident from Jordan and his visiting son-in-law from Lebanon. After several days, they told Hicks his food was as good as their mothers’ and grandmothers,’ and a new concept was born.

Because it could not be vented to the outside, Evo’s kitchen won’t have a gas stove. Instead, chef de cuisine Matt Ginn, formerly of Five Fifty-Five, will cook on electric induction burners and use trendy tools such as a smoking gun to add the flavor usually provided by open flames. The kitchen, which will share space with the bar and be completely open to the main dining area, will also have an induction plancha (a flat surface for searing food), an electric oven and rotisserie.

The tight space offered significant design challenges. Just 1,000 square feet, which was increased to 1,400 with the addition of the mezzanine, Evo has floor-to-ceiling glass walls on two sides with sharp corner angles. The design makes the most of this by wrapping the inside of the walls with a dining counter.

There are 52 seats total, including 17 on the mezzanine – the only seats in the restaurant with traditional tables. Since the largely concrete and glass space could be deafening, sound panels were installed in the ceiling. “One of my huge pet peeves is noise,” Prentice said.

Although much of the menu (now online at evoportland.com) sounds exotic, many of the ingredients can be sourced locally. In his garden on Chebeague Island, Hicks has planted what he needs to make the staple spice blend za’atar – a mixture of sesame and thyme pickled and dried. Eggplant for dishes such as baba gannouj will come from Stonecipher Farm in Bowdoinham, and kousa, a type of summer squash, is also grown locally at Snell Farm in Buxton, Ginn said.

Evo will be open for dinner and late-night dining from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m.