I’m glad that I am writing about dinner at Evangline as one of my first posts. Having dined at many restaurants over the past two years in Portland, Evangeline is one of my favorites. It’s not just the food (which is excellent), but the service, atmosphere, decor and general vibe of the restaurant that are all spot-on.
Over the past twelve years I’ve had the pleasure of living in three great food cities: New Orleans, Boston, and Portland. In each city there has been one “It” restaurant for me: the one that first comes to mind when planning an evening out at a good restaurant; the first restaurant I will recommend to friends who enjoy fine dining; and the restaurant that I return to more than any other. In New Orleans it was Dick & Jenny’s, in Boston it was Ten Tables, and in Portland, it’s Evangeline. All three restaurants are very different and serve varied cuisines. Still, each of them speaks to me (and what I am looking for in a restaurant) in a similar way.
I’ve been to Evangeline about a half-dozen times since it opened and have enjoyed everything from the excellent tartines on the bar menu to the whole roasted clabber-fed chicken for two, as well as several meals off the regular menu. Last weekend, I dined with S and my father, who was in state for a day of skiing with the kids.
Given the fact that it was restaurant week, I was surprised to find the restaurant only about three-quarters full when we arrived for our reservation. Perhaps this was because–although offering a $30.10 “Restaurant Week” menu–Evangeline was not formally participating in the event (i.e., it was not listed on the Restaurant Week website). It would seem that if a restaurant is going to offer a special prix fixe menu, it should also participate in the promotion and reap the rewards of the publicity and extra patrons.
In any event, we were promptly seated and soon thereafter ordered cocktails while enjoying an amuse of gougeres (french cheese puffs; the usual small taste to start your meal at Evangeline) and pretzel bread with mustard butter (which were excellent). The special menu was relatively straightforward and offered a good sampling of the restaurant’s food. Either an endive salad, a leek bisque, or calf’s brain fritters to start and then steak frites, moules frites, or roast chicken as the entree. I first tried the the leek and potato bisque. It was poured over gravlax and and included a touch of herb oil. The gravlax gave the soup a nice saltiness while the spoonfuls with the herb oil added brightness and a welcome kick to the subtle potage.
Although the soup was good, the calf’s brain fritter was the standout appetizer (and perhaps dish) of the evening. The fritter itself was perfectly fried, its crisp interior yielding to the almost creamy meat inside. I had never tried calf’s brain before, but found it to be pretty approachable as far as offal is concerned, without much of a funky taste. The fritter was served with bacon, cabbage, capers and brown butter–accompaniments which truly made the dish. The bacon imparted a slight smokiness while the cabbage and capers added a salty, vinegary bite. This is a dish I would definitely order again (it appears to be on the restaurant’s regular menu) and would enthusiastically recommend to someone looking to try a “gateway” organ meat.
The entrees, while less exciting than the starters, were well prepared, tasty, and enjoyable; French comfort food at its best. The steak, prepared medium rare, had a great, particularly “meaty,” taste owing to it being slathered in what seemed to be a caramelized onion sauce. I have always enjoyed Evangeline’s mussels and these were no exception: a generous bowl of the bivalves in a traditional broth incorporating shallots, butter, wine and herbs.
Of course, both the mussels and steak were served with a heaping pile of Evangeline’s dynamite fries. Crisp, salty, and full of potato flavor, it was difficult to avoid eating every last french fry on my plate, particularly when dipping them into the creamy homemade mayonnaise. Are Evangeline’s frites better than Duckfat’s famous Belgian fries? I’ll leave that debate for another time. Just know that both are in the running for best fried potatoes in Portland.
For desert, I tried all three options. My favorite was probably the traditional vanilla creme brulee. Although I’ve had plenty of “creatively” flavored creme brulees, nothing beats the unadorned original with a crackling sugar top offsetting the creamy vanilla custard. The chocolate semifreddo was essentially a frozen chocolate mouse. Good, but I prefer Evangeline’s unfrozen pot de chocolate, the dish that usually holds down the chocolate position in Evangeline’s desert lineup. Finally, the pear crumble featured warm, tender, not-too-sweet pears melding well with slowly melting vanilla ice cream.
All in all it was a good dinner. Not the best I have ever had at Evangeline, mostly owing to the limited restaurant week menu. If I had one quibble, it would be that the restaurant was not also offering its regular menu for those who did not want to be limited to the three options for each course. However, I understand that for a restaurant of Evangeline’s size, offering both the prix fixe menu as well as the regular menu might be impractical. For folks dining at Evangeline for the first time (as I suspect is the case for many Restaurant Week diners) I have no doubt that it would be a great introduction to the restaurant and its fantastic food. Me? I’ll be back again to enjoy more of the restaurant’s French fare and bistro atmosphere.