Evo Kitchen & Bar
443 Fore St., Portland
It was a frigid Saturday evening on our first visit to Evo Kitchen & Bar. No one greeted us when we stepped inside the door, but we had a reservation to be seated upstairs, so we wound our way around the bar and ascended the steps.
“You do not have a reservation,” the hostess informed us, looking at her tablet. Having provided my credit card to reserve a table (not a practice I’m accustomed to in Maine) as well as confirming my reservation by phone that afternoon, I was a bit ruffled. “We do have a reservation,” I said. She looked at her tablet and asked my name again. “You do not,” she said. I saw my name on the tablet’s screen, beneath the heading “Already Seated.” “There it is,” I said. “Oh,” she replied, “someone was seated under the wrong name.” Rather than apologize, she just pointed us to a corner table and turned to leave. Not a fabulous start on our first foray as two undercover vegans eating our way through Maine.
We took our seats at the tiny corner table amidst about 30 other diners packed into a small space above the bustling kitchen. Loud club music filled the air. The spot-lighting that illuminated other tables was noticeably missing in our dim corner of the dining area, but our waitress brightened the mood. She was exceptionally welcoming and courteous, and went above and beyond to ensure we had what we needed and felt comfortable throughout the meal.
We ordered the vegan tasting menu ($55/person) and, forgoing the wine-pairing option, I asked for a single glass that would pair well with the dishes to come (no easy feat). The waitress recommended a delicious Super Venetian ($11) that was the perfect complement to the meal.
She told us the food would arrive in waves, about three dishes at a time, and that everything would be on shared plates. She also said we should tell her if the dishes were arriving too fast. The pacing turned out to be our main criticism of the experience. Within minutes we had too much food, with five different dishes at one point, hot and cold, crowding the tiny table.
Our first course was a squash soup made with cashew milk and ginger foam. It was a simple, refined start. Even in low light, we could see the flecks of fresh red chili dotting the surface and the pillows of ginger foam. It was like eating the most remarkably flavorful clouds. The soup chilled very quickly, but that was our only complaint.
Next we were served chickpea fries with a harissa dipping sauce. For all you non-vegans, this is among the most crave-worthy vegan food you will encounter anywhere. The fries were crisp on the outside and perfectly seasoned, with a creamy, melt-in-your-mouth interior. The harissa dip was outstanding.
Subsequent dishes included a beet salad, a carrot “noodle” salad topped with fried filo dough, house-made pita with hummus, and a hand-rolled pasta dish with acorn squash. The beet salad was served atop a pistachio puree and garnished with fresh segmented citrus, frisée, and fresh pomegranate seeds. It was light and absolutely delicious. The beets tasted like they’d just been pulled from the earth. The pistachio puree added a hint of richness and depth of flavor that perfectly complemented the earthiness of the beet and the acidity of the citrus.
Opinions varied on the pita and hummus. One veganista thought the hummus was unremarkable, while the other declared it the most divine hummus ever. Expertly garnished with whole chickpeas, pickled onion, sliced fresh chiles and just a touch of oil, the spread was so light and airy that we wondered if it’d been whipped. The pita was pillowy and thick, the perfect vessel to absorb any remaining juices from other dishes.
The cold carrot “noodle” salad in apricot broth had an excellent balance of heat and acidity, but the star of this course was the hand-rolled pasta. This dish gave us that warm, cozy feeling we needed after braving the frigid temperatures outside. The pasta was sautéed with acorn squash and topped with a Yemenese sauce. The size and texture of each piece of pasta were perfect, and the seasoning was subtle, but flavorful.
By this point, both of us were stuffed. We had been served six courses within 30 minutes. Although the plates were small, it was an inordinate amount of food. The waitress obliged our request to slow the pace, but we still felt rushed. The high quality of this tasting menu warrants prolonged enjoyment.
Two more dishes arrived: roasted, blanched, and pureed carrots with pickled fennel, and a falafel dish over hummus with cilantro pesto, fermented mango sauce and tahini. The carrot puree was heaven on earth; we devoured every bite. The falafel, however, was borderline inedible, more like a hockey puck than a chickpea patty.
The last two main-course offerings were sweet potato marinated in nutmeg and cinnamon with Aleppo pepper and a parsley-and-sesame-seed garnish, and Jerusalem artichokes, sliced and fried sunchokes, segmented blood orange and grapefruit, with roasted fennel and parsley. The sweet-potato dish was one of our favorites of the evening, decadent, bold and flavorful — a sweet/savory experience that kept us going back for more. The Jerusalem artichokes were comparatively bland with no textural interest or flavor. We left this dish practically untouched.
The dessert course included a pomegranate sorbet with grapefruit segments, pistachios and pomegranate seeds. The sorbet was light and refreshing after a filling series of dishes, and would have been a perfect end to the meal. But then came a roasted fig dish. It was too similar to the preparations we’d already seen and lacked anything that would entice us to continue eating.
We returned to Evo several days later for lunch to photograph a few dishes and get a sense of what the daytime service would be like for a vegan diner walking in off the street. We were immediately greeted by a friendly hostess who encouraged us to sit wherever we liked.
We anticipated at least one or two vegan options on the daily menu, and were surprised to discover there were none. Our server, however, was very accommodating. She spoke with the chef and returned with four vegan lunch options: chickpea fries with a harissa and date dipping sauce (yay!), falafel (uh-oh), a chef’s version of the pasta from the regular menu, and an off-menu vegan lunch option. We ordered all four.
The chickpea fries ($13) were every bit as delicious as they’d been at dinner. Although the falafel ($14) looked like the “full awful” we’d been served before, these were perfectly cooked — crunchy outer shell, soft and delicious inside. The garnishes of pickled onion, sliced fresh chili, fermented mango sauce, hummus and cilantro provided a perfect balance of flavor, heat and acidity.
The chef’s pasta preparation was a handmade pasta with delicata squash, spinach and flakes of red chili ($16). Our experience of the dish evolved as we continued eating. Subtle flavors lingered on the palette and transformed into a ridiculously crave-worthy dish that had us sopping up its juices with handmade pita. The off-menu option was a chef’s choice dish with fried sunchokes over a sunchoke puree, garnished with pickled red onion, chili slices, and pomegranate seeds ($14). This dish looked incredible when it arrived, but lacked texture and seasoning.
As vegan diners walking in off the street, this was the most delicious impromptu lunch we’ve experienced in Portland. While the difference in the welcome we received between night and day was stark, and the pacing of the vegan tasting menu too fast, outstanding food and service place Evo at the top of the list as a vegan foodie destination in Maine.
Evo is open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch (served 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.) and dinner (starting at 5 p.m.).