I am not generally a fan of surprises.

More of a planner, I’m someone who likes to know what his June looks like while the calendar still ticks down the last days of January – the sort of person who is rumored to have been so overwhelmed by the unexpected that he almost turned tail and fled from a surprise party in celebration of his 22nd birthday. I’m not proud of this.

So you’ll understand why I’m still baffled that the charismatic, soft-spoken house manager at Hugo’s talked me into the chef’s choice tasting menu ($90), where each of several courses would present a new mystery.

I did try to learn a bit about what was to come, about overlap between the concise, à-la-carte menu and the tasting. “Is the lamb tartare with pickled shallot and lavash ($13) there?” I wondered aloud.

She smiled, placed her index finger across her lips and stage-whispered, “No spoilers.”

By that point, my curiosity was piqued. And with the price differential between the tasting menu and a-la-carte selection — two smaller-format and two larger-format plates (all dishes at Hugo’s are appetizer-sized), plus dessert  — being so small (around $10), I really had no choice.

It turned out to be the best decision I made all weekend.

From the single baby scallop quick-cured in lime juice, fish sauce and chili oil, served as a tiny amuse-bouche; to the gumdrop-like mango pâte de fruits sparking with heat from Korean gochugaru chili flakes, the dozen small plates I tasted gave me a newfound respect for surprise.

Two days later, when I called to interview Mike Wiley (who along with Andrew Taylor, is co-executive chef of Hugo’s, The Honey Paw and Eventide), he tossed another curveball in my direction. Unbeknownst to me, my meal had been part of only the second service under the leadership of new chef de cuisine, Ben Christie.

To be fair, Christie is no newcomer. Since coming to Portland five years ago, he has worked every station on the cold- and hot-lines at both Eventide and Hugo’s, and has, in his words, “been putting my own dishes on the menu for quite a while now.” And in a kitchen focused on precision and fine detail across every aspect of the Asian-influenced, New American menu, it would be hard to imagine anything other than a slow-moving debut for the Colorado-trained chef.

While Christie has not taken Hugo’s in a wholly new direction, he has recalibrated its compasses and GPS with his perspective on acid-umami balance. In one dish, he pairs golden, pan-seared monkfish tail with sweet-funky Peekytoe crab salad and sunny, delicate matchsticks of kohlrabi macerated in olive oil and lemon juice so long that they take on the texture of capellini. In another, he grills pinwheels of hash-marked squid marinated in brawny nuoc cham, sticky tamarind paste and lime juice (available à la carte for $13).

When he confits Laughing Stock Farm new potatoes ($12), he skips past unadulterated fats and heads right for a Sichuan-style oil infused with star anise, chili, clove and cinnamon, then tosses the tender potatoes in a meaty-yet-shimmeringly bright vinaigrette made with ‘nduja and honey. But don’t get too comfortable: In the background, pickled banana peppers preserved from this summer’s harvest bristle with both heat and tang.

Nowhere does Christie contrast the barbs and prickles of acid with nose-twitching amino acids more than in a dish of brown-butter-poached, faux-tournéd carrots plated with squidgy, mineral “tongues” of uni. When drizzled with an emulsion of bonito, fish sauce and rice vinegar, its accompanying shreds of house-pickled ginger seem to exhale microscopic puffs of secret floral breath that I didn’t know they possessed. It’s a hypnotic dish.

And if the menu sounds like nuance over substance, just wait. Lamb loin papered in lamb bacon and served with barely charred, local baby cabbage and a miso-and-butter-layered millefeuille of potato and celery root is a substantial, hearty course. So too, the (unfortunately lukewarm) duck breast with barley, braised onion, chromatic droplets of puréed whole orange and a crunchy crumble of XO-style duck crackling.

There’s even a phenomenal pork consommé the kitchen ladles over scallion microgreens and house-made tortellini stuffed with smoky, marble-sized meatballs fashioned from ground charcuterie scraps. Imagine a black-and-white sketch of a bowl of wonton soup painted lustily with bacon-flavored watercolors.

Finding a wine to go with such a wide-ranging tasting menu can be tricky. I found what I thought was a good candidate among the admittedly pricey list, but had questions, so a server called over another front-of-house staffer she referred to as “our wine guy.”

My guest and I were already aware of him; he was the server who had a habit of depositing dishes at our table, quickly reciting a litany of ingredients, then turning on his heels as he spoke the last ones over his shoulder. There would be no clarifying questions.

When I asked him for more details about the Owen Roe “Sinister Hand” ($48), listed by name only under “Featured Producers,” I wasn’t sure if the bottle I was eyeing was white, red or rosé.

“It’s a GSM blend. High brix. Little hot for my taste,” was his staccato response.

My brain half-expected a pop-up box to appear, asking if I wanted Google Chrome to translate this conversation from jargon to English.

Luckily, I speak enough Insecure Wine Dude to muddle through, so after requesting some time to discuss our choice, I interpreted for my dinner guest as the server walked away: “He’s saying it’s not just one grape; it’s made from Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, and it’s both sweet and pretty alcoholic. It might be overpowering.”

A few minutes later, we heard him again, this time leaning on his elbows, chatting familiarly with another couple at two of the 20-odd bar seats that open onto the fully exposed kitchen.

“Of course you’ve heard of Screaming Eagle, right? I mean, who hasn’t?” he inquired rhetorically.

“That, right there is why people are afraid to ask questions about wine,” my guest said to me, shaking his head. “When he was standing here, I actually felt like I knew less about the wine than I did before.”

Fortunately, the front-of-house manager nominated a Sean Thackrey, Pleiades Cuvée XXIII from California ($60) as a better option, describing it as an ever-changing “field blend” hodgepodge of “Sangiovese, Viognier, whatever else is great that season.” And it was, matching well with nearly every savory course, save for an exceptionally light, citrus-zest-cured fluke served with Thai basil, plumped basil seeds, and fermented umeboshi paste made with preserved local plums that the kitchen had been stockpiling for more than a year.

Indeed, wine is one of Hugo’s strengths, as it was five years ago, when our then-reviewer praised the breadth of the restaurant’s options in his five-star review. Equally impressive is the concise list of specialty cocktails, from the Manhattan-esque Grin and Pear It, made with rye, pear juice and aromatized wine ($12) to the warm Tender’s Toddy ($12), a dealer’s-choice drink that, on my visit, featured a blend of cognac, lemon juice and mellow, bittersweet Amaro Montenegro.

It wasn’t designed to pair with dessert, but the Tender’s Toddy would hold up nicely to the sweet, frozen treats that executive pastry chef Kim Rodgers prepares. Chief among these, the tart mango sorbet she serves with an Indian-inspired curried peanut financier, miniature popadums and a flamboyant curd made from entire Meyer lemons, pith and all.

Like nearly everything else I tasted that evening, it kept me guessing, probing with my spoon to reach underneath components for another taste of something I didn’t anticipate. Such little twists and intelligent pacing are what keep a two- or three-hour meal dynamic, so that when a tray of gooey Meyer lemon caramels and blood-orange-filled chocolates arrive at your table along with your check, you are (no spoilers here) a little disappointed to see the end of the meal come so soon – no matter how you may have previously felt about surprises.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of two 2018 Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association. Contact him at:

[email protected] gmail.com

Twitter: AndrewRossME


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