My favorite restaurant in New England, hands down. Combines the perfect amount of newfangled cooking trends and experimentation with comfort food flavors in a casual and friendly atmosphere. This is the only local restaurant that is attempting to be in the same class as places like Alinea and French Laundry, and it helps that the chef, Rob Evans, used to work with Thomas Keller. As far as I’m concerned, Evans has already surpassed his former mentor, creating an establishment that serves high concept but totally accessible food in an environment that feels like your local bistro.  It’s (almost) priced that way as well. This is not the kind of place that you only go to on your birthday or anniversary. One look at their menus will reveal that, with all dishes under $25, you could easily spend  a lot more and eat a lot worse at any number of Boston restaurants. The variety of menu structures can also accommodate an assortment of appetites. From the traditional appetizer-entree folk, to the somewhat more adventurous who might like the nightly 6 course blind tasting, to the food frenzied who could take the necessary steps of reserving the 15 course Chef’s Menu well ahead of time and structure their vacations around availability. We, surprise surprise, fall into the latter category. A phone call 6 weeks before our visit got us a 6:30 table on a Saturday night for the Chef’s Menu. We were informed that it is typically not offered on Saturdays (I suppose because that’s the busiest night), but that the chef was willing to make an exception (Sidenote: Portland restaurants seem to have an annoying habit of not staffing a reservationist such that when you call to make a reservation you leave a message and wait a day to hear back. Come on, Portland. Shit.) One of the other perks to ordering this menu is that because it’s not highlighted on the website, there’s a one line note at the bottom of the blind tasting menu page, you will elicit a staggering amount of food envy, and since advance reservations are required, that warm self-satisfied feeling will last all meal as other stare on helplessly. The menu goes for $120 a head with $50 for wine pairings. Here’s what we had:

puffed lobster

puffed lobster

The waiter described this as lobster mixed with tapioca, frozen, then fried. Had the consistency of a rice cracker but with a potent lobster flavor.

fried pemaquid oyster, horseradish sauce

fried pemaquid oyster, horseradish sauce

pemaquid oyster, cocktail orb

pemaquid oyster, cocktail orb

We each had a different oyster preparation. Though these weren’t the best bites of the night, they exemplify the way Hugo’s takes classic flavor combo’s and dresses them up. Simultaneously comforting and cutting edge.

romaine hearts, white anchovy, bottarga, caesar dressing

romaine hearts, white anchovy, bottarga, caesar dressing

atlantic fluke crudo, petite panzanella, lemon olive oil, aleppo pepper

atlantic fluke crudo, petite panzanella, lemon olive oil, aleppo pepper

For the next course Liz had a deconstructed Caesar (she loved it -we had a similar dish our first time at Hugo’s) and mine was a wonderfully fresh piece of raw fluke over a savory  and rich panzanella.

smoked trout roe, potato cone

smoked trout roe, potato cone

smoked char jerky ala minute

smoked char jerky ala minute

Liz won out for the next course. I had a very nice smoked trout roe in a potato cone, with some kind of cream hidden in the cone (very similar to the amuse bouche at the French Laundry and Per Se) but Liz was presented with a smoking glass jar set in a cube of ice, containing a piece of smoked char. The waiter explained the technical merits of smoking the char within ice but I cant remember any of it. I’m just a sucker for smoke billowing off a plate, and it tasted great. Brought me back to the smoked fish we had in the Netherlands.

matsutake mushroom "noodles", matsutake consomme, autumn aroma

matsutake mushroom "noodles", matsutake consomme, autumn aroma

This dish came with a story. Apparently the chef and his wife, Nancy, who runs the front of the house amongst other things, had recently moved into a new home they had been working on for some time. This consomme was served surrounded by a bed of nettles, leaves, pines and other assorted shrubbery the chef had foraged from their property that morning, over which the waiter poured steaming hot water to give off a delightful Fall scent.

gently cooked casco bay cod, egg battered croutons, saffron-tabasco mayo, chorizo-mussel broth

gently cooked casco bay cod, egg battered croutons, saffron-tabasco mayo, chorizo-mussel broth

Great textures in this dish. Crispy crouton, flaky cod, chewy mussels.

green apple snow

green apple snow

Palate cleanser. They needed to make sure your mouth was ready for the party that was about to bust out with the next dish.

gedalias farm goat ravioli, fried halloumi, raisin puree

gedalias farm goat ravioli, fried halloumi, raisin puree

Good lord this was amazing. The raviolo was filled with a rich braised goat and the crispy fried cheese and sweet raisin puree was a perfect contrast. I saw this on the regular menu as well so if it’s there, get it, and reap the delicious rewards.

bresaola, shaved fennel, beet

bresaola, shaved fennel, beet

beef fat belgium fry, beef tartare, quail egg

beef fat belgium fry, beef tartare, quail egg

This time my dish won. The thick, crispy fried potato topped with beef tartare and sunny side up egg was the perfect bite.

sweet and sicy sweetbreads, basmati rica cakes, peanut, bok choy, cilantro

sweet and sicy sweetbreads, basmati rice cakes, peanut, bok choy, cilantro

Of all the great food we had, this was my favorite. And again, it was a traditional flavor combination but prepared with a twist. The rice cake was like the world’s best tater tot, and the sweetbread gave the asian flavors a texture contrast that a more traditional meat can’t offer. It was perfect. I ate mine and Liz’s. Very quickly.

"beef ribs", rib eye, short rib, potato puree, multiple= “beef ribs”, rib eye, short rib, potato puree, multiple preparations of onion

The hits just kept on coming with the two preparations of beef along with potato and onion accompaniments. Fried onion, onion puree, onion pearls, grilled onion. The short rib had been pulled and then pressed to form a cube of tender beef heaven, and the potato puree with the pool of gravy was buttery magic.

tarentaise, spring brook farm, reading vt. port poached pear, toasted vanilla walnuts, baguette chips

tarentaise, spring brook farm, reading vt. port poached pear, toasted vanilla walnuts, baguette chips

Even the pear on the cheese plate brought it. Port poached to perfection.

Maine blueberry sorbet, short bread crumble, ginger, honey mead sabayon

Maine blueberry sorbet, short bread crumble, ginger, honey mead sabayon

The first dessert was a nice preamble to the second and third. Started off on the lighter, fruitier side.

"crispy cream" braised apple, date, long pepper

"crispy cream" braised apple, date, long pepper

The crispy cream here was a fried custard  and along with the braised apple it made this dish-licking good.

"Peanut butter cup" warm bittersweet chocolate pudding cake, salted peanut ice cream, peanut butter powder

"Peanut butter cup" warm bittersweet chocolate pudding cake, salted peanut ice cream, peanut butter powder

But this was even better. The salt, the ice cream, the creamy cake that was buried underneath, all contributed to a perfect ender. Might be a bit rich for some after a big meal, but not this guy. I finished Liz’s as well.

There were no flaws in this meal. Usually when we get a tasting menu there is a dish or two that we didn’t love or, perhaps, didn’t even like. But for the second time at Hugo’s the Chef’s Menu has impressed top to bottom. I don’t think there is another restaurant in New England that could pull that off. If you live in Boston, take the ferry, the train, or just drive the 1:45 to Portland and see what it’s all about for yourself.

Hugo's on Urbanspoon