THE STUNNINGLY DESIGNED EVO EPITOMIZES CUTTING-EDGE DINING IN DOWNTOWN PORTLAND

In our high-octane world of restaurant wunderkinds, two new standouts that opened last week strive to put Portland resolutely on the star-studded map of dining glamour:  Evo, housed at the base of the Hyatt Place Hotel, and Tempo Dulu in the breathtakingly beautiful Danforth Inn.

I’ve paid multiple visits to both, and when you experience two  restaurants that deliver nothing less than WOW, you’ve hit the dine-out bonanza.  This week’s review is all about Evo, which only leaves me breathless to report back next Friday on Tempo Dulu.

Some 10 dishes later, I relished every bit of Evo’s fusion fare that spans the region from Mediterranean to Middle Eastern cuisines in stunning clarity. And the space—all 1,500 square feet that can accommodate about 50 diners—is fashioned like a modernist temple, its two-story atelier evoking playtime in a cathedral.

And what a location: smack in the high drama of the Old Port with picture postcard views of the streetscape visible through the soaring plate-glass windows as you sit either at the dining counter or at the dining bar facing a gleaming open kitchen. The upstairs  mezzanine has table seating and a bird’s eye view of downstairs dining and Fore Street.

The food is a romp through the spice trade of the Levantine region that includes Syria, Lebanon, Armenia, Cyprus and Turkey. Think cumin, Aleppo pepper, allspice, fennel, olive oil, sumac, coriander, mint, za’atar, garlic and tomatoes as part of the exotic flavor profile.  It’s  brought together by executive chef Brandon Hicks and chef de cuisine Matt Ginn.  Hicks also oversees the kitchen at the Chebeague Island Inn, which, like Evo,  is  part of the Prentice Hospitality Group that owns both restaurants ( they are also principal partners at 58 Fore Street). Hicks cooked at Michelin starred restaurants in New York including the Ilili, considered one of the finest Mediterranean restaurants in the country. Most recently Ginn was executive chef at  Five Fifty-Fiveand before that at the highly regarded L’Espalier in Boston.  This  accomplished duo are preparing some of the most sophisticated food in Portland right now.

At my first dinner we sat at the dining bar  with master mixologist Mike Gatlin at the helm; he led us through the menu.  We started with a roasted eggplant dip that was whipped with tahini, mint, lemon and olive oil. Another must-have side dish is the labneh bi za’atar–strained yogurt with Lebanese olives and mint.  Like many  preparations on the menu—virtually all small plates—this is a staple that can be mixed with other dishes.  It complimented a heady helping of grilled Spanish octopus–tender and supple– lanced with Shoshito peppers, tomatoes and extra virgin olive.

A another spectacular devise is  the crushed walnut muhammara—ground walnuts and roasted red peppers stirred with a blend of Armenian spices spread onto garlic matzo chips— a mildly spicy and sweetly herbaceous dish.

At our second visit we assembled a great procession of dishes–from light to hearty and all exceedingly inventive.  A special preparation of crisp okra filled the plate with tomatoes and olive oil; the the roast saddle of lamb was fragrant with herbs– very tender and enlivened with crushed tomatoes, okra and cilantro.

A beautifully fresh local asparagus salad was plated with  pickled labneh, crispy garlic, tendrils and sumac blossoms. Interestingly many of the dishes are garnished with edible flowers, some of which come from Ginn’s home garden

A dish called kousa mashi was a masterful blend of local squash stuffed with lamb sausage tinged with allspice and bathed in a silken tomato sauce that begged to be mopped up with crisps or pitas.

While the dessert menu highlights such staples as baklava and Lebanese rice custard, we opted for a plate of semolina mamoul–shortbread cookies studded with pecan, flecks of apricot and dipped in a wonderfully creamy marshmallow fluff.

Evo is a vital addition to the city’s dining galaxy.  It’s at once a hipster hangout as it is a refuge for fine dining under the competently creative hands of two chefs who are making a difference  in Portland.

Evo, 443 Fore St., Portland, ME  207-358-7830; open Tuesday to Sunday; www.evoportland.com

Rating: 5 stars

Ambiance:  hip and sophisticated

Tables: very comfortable bar-top dining; table dining in the mezzanine

Service: excellent

$$$: small plates and medium size plates range from $7 to $17