I was both surprised and flattered to receive an invitation last month to a dinner hosted by EVO Kitchen + Bar. While I’ve had the occasional restaurant reach out to say that they’d like me to stop by sometime, this was a slightly different circumstance as the table was reserved for members of the press. When I think of ‘the press’, printed publications and televised news are what come to mind, not necessarily Facebook and Instagram. The impact and utility of social media certainly shouldn’t be downplayed in this day and age, but I didn’t think a guest list of this nature would include someone like me who does this as a hobby and does not produce much writing at all. Regardless, I was honored to be in the company of reps from the Press Herald, Eater Maine, and Old Port Magazine as well as co-owner Casey Prentice. On a side note, Chef de cuisine Matt Ginn and I actually grew up in the same hometown. We were amused by the fact that our interests in food have grown exponentially since our high school days of being employed in a local grocery store.
EVO is set within the footprint of the newly-constructed Hyatt Place on Fore Street. For months it sat empty, a jagged glass facade with a gravel floor. When I finally saw the signage switch from ‘for lease’ to ‘under contract’, I imagined that it would be for retail. Certainly one of the best possible spots in the city for foot traffic, but the size and unusual angles seemed like they would not be conducive to a restaurant. The Prentice Group certainly proved me wrong and pulled off an attractive and efficient use of the space. They literally rose to the challenge and built upwards to create a mezzanine dining platform, the only part of the restaurant with tables. The remaining seats are located at countertops lining the floor-to-ceiling windows or bordering the bar-kitchen area, so either way you are guaranteed an ideal spot for people-watching.
While EVO’s concept was still in development, the idea of a molecular gastronomy bar had been tossed around. They ultimately abandoned that idea in favor of a Mediterranean approach, hot on the heels of other Portland newcomers like Ebb & Flow and TIQA whose menus also draw influence from that part of the globe. Executive Chef Brandon Hicks was inspired by his travels abroad, his time at ilili Restaurant in New York, and more recently cooking for a Lebanese guest at Chebeague Island Inn where his execution of the dishes apparently gave the family recipes a run for their money. While EVO is using the small plate/tapas (or in this case mezze) model like many other places in Portland, they pride themselves on the versatility of the dishes. They are not only designed to be shared but also mixed together particularly items like the labneh, hummus, baba ghanouj, and various flatbreads. The ingredients and recipes may have foreign roots, but EVO is committed to sourcing locally whenever it can and is currently collaborating with five CSA programs.
Regretfully, I consider myself ill-prepared to break down my evening dish-by-dish. While I have done this in the past, my immersion in a meal is vastly different in a social setting. I do actually love eating with other people, but I do feel there is a level of distraction that comes into play compared to eating alone, which I’ve found to be a much richer and intimate experience. Furthermore, it’s never been really been my aspiration to become a reviewer. Even if my palate were finely-tuned (which it’s not), taste is entirely subjective, rooted in an individual’s memory, cravings, and genetics. I would prefer people take my reviews with a grain of salt and go find out for themselves. My sole goal with this account is to provide a visual first impression and get people through the doors of local businesses, inspiring them to try new things. I realize this may be a bit of a cop-out, but I felt I had to justify why so much more of my time is devoted to Instagram while the blog tends to be put on the backburner.
That being said, I greatly enjoyed my meal at EVO and I would not hesitate to steer diners in their direction. The stars of the evening for me were the meat courses. The duck meatballs, lamb loin, sweetbreads, and chicken livers were all stand-outs. I also greatly appreciated the bartender’s efforts to develop a selection of mocktails while the other guests were offered wine pairings. I think that EVO is a strong addition to both the growing Mediterranean niche and Portland’s food scene in general. They operate seven days a week with service starting at 5pm. They stay open Sunday-Tuesday until 10:30pm and Wednesday-Saturday until 12:30am.