PORTLAND — Kitchens here were once flush with emblematic dishes — chowder, baked beans, fried whole belly clams — elemental foods prepared for generations in the same way. Not anymore. These days a trip along the coast in search of real cooking is too often met with overcooked lobsters, fries from the freezer, and chowder as thick as mashed potatoes.
But times are changing. At Eventide, a new oyster bar in the Old Port here, the good Maine food is once again made from scratch.
The atmosphere is not exactly down home. There is no found flotsam, no bait shack bric-a-brac dangling from the ceiling and tacked to the walls. The servers look like J. Crew models, and the diners are more likely to be local graphic designers than fishermen. Despite the urban varnish, Eventide is deep in the kind of cooking that most vernacular restaurants haven’t bothered with for 50 years. And they are putting their own twist on it all.
Take the lobster or the fried oyster roll. Both are served on spongy, lighter than air, Chinese-style steamed buns. The lobster roll is served warm with a choice of Hollandaise, house mayonnaise, or brown butter vinaigrette. The oyster bun is topped with tartar sauce and pickled vegetables.
Or look at the baked beans. The cooks start with Swedish Brown beans — an heirloom variety brought to Maine from Scandinavia. They stew the beans overnight in a ceramic bean pot with molasses, seasonings, and house-cured Maine pork belly. These are the classics — both intact and reimagined.
Eventide did not wash up on Middle Street out of nowhere.
For more than 10 years Rob Evans, the James Beard award-winning chef, and his wife, Nancy Pugh, ran Hugo’s Restaurant in the space next door. Evans was known for his elevated but playful take on New England cooking. In March, Evans and Pugh sold Hugo’s to three young employees — general manager Arlin Smith, and chefs Andrew Taylor and Mike Wiley .
Almost immediately the new owners leased an adjacent space (formerly a bookstore) and got to work on the oyster bar. They took down the drop ceilings, pulled up carpet, painted the walls blue. They added a few reclaimed nautical lights, a concrete bar, and a giant, hollowed-out block of granite for the oysters. “Our idea was to open a New England style sushi bar,” Smith says.
Eventide faces west toward the setting sun. On clear evenings the restaurant is flooded with golden light. Most of the seats are at the bar or in the windows. Everything is served on ocean-inspired custom pottery from Alison Evans Ceramics in Yarmouth. The menu changes daily — specials and the list of wine, craft beers, and cocktails are listed on a chalkboard above the bar.
To start, there are about 18 varieties of oysters — half of them from Maine, the rest “from away.” The bivalves are served with all kinds of accoutrements. Choose from traditional cocktail sauce and lemon wedges, but also frozen dashi milk and pickled beet sorbet.
On the cooked side of the menu there are all sorts of vaguely Asian and alchemist’s riffs on Maine classics: Those great lobster and oyster rolls, but also brothy clam chowder, roasted jumbo Winterpoint oysters with Korean BBQ sauce and fried potatoes. There is even a New England clambake with clams, mussels, lobster, potatoes, salt pork, and a hardboiled egg, all of it nestled into a bed of rockweed, steamed in a bamboo basket, and served with drawn lemon butter.
Top off the meal with homemade ice cream sandwiches and whoopie pies for desert.
Oysters are $15 dollars for half a dozen and $27 dollars a dozen. Most other menu items are less than $10.
Eventide Oyster Co. 86 Middle St., 207-774-8538, www.eventideoyster
Jonathan Levitt can be reached at www.jonathanlevitt.com.