Quiet Dining at Hugo's

Ed. note: Hugo's closed in March of 2020.

A. and I went to Hugo's last Friday to celebrate our two-year anniversary. The end of January is a great time of year to have a special occasion - everyone needs a mid-winter pick-me-up that doesn't coincide with New Year's Eve or Valentine's Day crowds. Plus, reservations in Portland's hot spots are plentiful this time of year. Last year we went to Fore Street and this year, we decided on Hugo's, a decision cemented by a generous gift certificate from my friend Margot (many thanks, M!). 

In case you missed it, Hugo's was purchased last year by the general manager and two chefs, who were working for longtime Executive Chef Rob Evans. I'll save all the juicy details for my book (ahem), but the evolution of Hugo's is an interesting one. Evans was known at Hugo's for his deconstructed menus, seemingly familiar dishes presented in avant-garde ways. The current management has taken Evans' ideas and run with them, creating a dining experience that's fun and accessible. 

The switch to the new management also came with a restaurant renovation, and it's a luxe environment, with beautiful woodwork, leather bar chairs and booths, and exposed brick walls. The majority of the seating is along the bar and open kitchen, which creates a more casual feeling than the food might imply. After being in the restaurant for an hour or so, I realized the atmosphere was pretty casual; the decor creates a formal feeling, but the service was casual. The bartender hummed along to Steve Miller Band while he worked and chatted with us about coffee and drinks for a while. 

A. and I had cocktails to start - you can see my Navy Grog above, the presentation of which made me laugh. This rum and grapefruit cocktail was served with a metal straw encased in an ice cone, a perfect warm-up for a frigid February night. We both ordered the tasting menu ($90 per person) and selected our courses from the three Farmed, Fished, and Foraged menus (aka meat, seafood, and vegetable focused). 

After the signature flaky biscuits arrived (and were quickly devoured), we received our first course - I had the fluke carpaccio, thinly-sliced fish with dehydrated olives and little strips of lemon. A. chose the crispy, fried sunchokes and mushrooms. 

Let me just say out of the gate that I immensely enjoyed everything I had. The portions are small-ish, but by the time you're finished five courses, two bread courses, and three little bites, you're full. The courses are paced nicely, with about ten to fifteen minutes in between. All in all, our meal took over three hours. 

My second course was roasted cauliflower with mushrooms, pine nuts, and chorizo. I don't know what the bowl was painted with, but isn't it a beautiful presentation? 

Andrew was delighted with his mussels and Brussels sprouts course. The chefs coated each piece with potato flour and fried them, and served them under a blanket of light, fluffy Hollandaise sauce. The mussels and sprouts were fantastically crunchy.

An in-between bite of Kampachi with pickled kumquats on a salt block was so fresh, tasty, with a little zing from the chili oil. 

My loup de mer fillet, a type of European sea bass, was served with parsnips (roasted and fried as chips), and pickled radishes, with little dots of what tasted like lemon curd. A. had the braised beef, a rich dish full of charred onions and radishes, and topped with fried onions. 

My savory courses ended on a high note with this roasted lamb dish. Two lamb medallions were served on top of an arugula puree and celeriac "sheet," with more parsnips. The lamb was so delicious and gone in a few bites. And I'm just learning I love celeriac. 

A. had the "Neeps and Tatties," a turnip, potato, and oatmeal dish that is traditionally serve with haggis. No haggis here, instead the filling was wrapped in cabbage leaves and served with apples, mustard, and celery. 

A palate cleanser of celery sorbet, oat granola, and carrot and Urban Farm Fermentory cider gels was the most unexpected flavor of the meal. Celery sorbet sounds kind of gross, doesn't it? But it worked, sweet and cool with a lingering celery finish. 

A.'s dessert was a take on tart tatin, with apples, creme anglaise and a pie crust sliver. I did not love my dessert, "caramel," a flan over bits of broken pastry - the pastry and the custard were a little tough. I was, however, really into the little sugared citrus cubes presented alongside chocolate and brittle to end our meal. 

You can tell the food takes center stage at Hugo's. This time of year, there's room for you to sit the bar for just drinks, if you just want to sample their creative cocktails. Courses can also be ordered a la carte at $22 each. But if you can afford it (and our bill was $290 with tax and tip), Hugo's is well worth the splurge. Everything was delicious, reimagined yet approachable. 

In sitting at the bar, you do get interrupted a fair amount (with ten courses, the servers are coming and going a lot), and the food does arrive from behind you rather than from across the bar, like if you were ordering a burger at Rosie's or something. It sounds like a small thing, but I was surprised a few times by plates of food at eye level as they were being placed onto the bar in front of me. If you're looking to have a more intimate experience, maybe request a booth.