NAKED AND DELICIOUS A sampling of Eventide's raw oysters.
When you take the helm of a great institution, it can create a paralyzing fear of screwing things up. And rightly so: look at what the likes of John Boehner have done to the party of Lincoln, what Zuckerberg did to the Winklevoss's website, and what postmodernists did to Nietzsche's philosophy. This is also the case with restaurants, and 2012's best food film, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, documents the horrible pressure that faces the son of Japan's greatest chef as he prepares to take over the family business. Last year here in Portland, Rob Evans surrendered the helm of Hugo's to a trio of fellas who had worked there for years. They responded to the pressures of inheritance with the cleverest move since Justin Lin resuscitated the Fast and Furious film franchise with the brilliant and beautiful Tokyo Drift.
Lin's success was in going sideways, and going Asian. The new owners of Hugo's have done both, opening a second restaurant right next door, sharing the same kitchen. The result is Eventide Oyster Co., and it has its own Tokyo drift — applying many Asian flavors and techniques, as well as the spirit of a great sushi bar, to the freshest New England seafood. Safe to say, they have not screwed things up, and the last month has seen Eventide show up on year's best lists from Portland Food Map to Food and Wine magazine.
It's that good. The small space is casual, yet nicely appointed. An emphasis on bar and counter seats encourages a different kind of dining, including some folks standing up while slurping their cocktails and oysters. The drinks are thoughtfully unusual, like a gimlet that substitutes the sharpness of citrus with the smooth and grassy flavors of celery.
A selection of oysters from waters in Maine and farther afield are displayed by origin in an icy trough on the bar. You can mix and match a dozen or a half, and it's fun discerning the varieties of texture and flavor — the creamy texture and assertive salt of the Winter Point selects from Bath, the meatier flesh and more subtle brine of oysters from John's River in Bristol, or the musky and chewy Beau Soleil from New Brunswick. We thought it best to leave oysters this good naked, and used the accompanying sauces, like a potent ginger-grapefruit foam, as palate cleansers.
In addition to oysters, Eventide packs a lot of imagination into a relatively slim menu. Scallops, squid, mussels, clams, lobsters, and a variety of fish are variously cured, pickled, grilled, poached, stewed, or served raw — often kissed with the sharp, clear notes of sour, garlicky, vinegary Asian flavors. Despite the variety it never feels like a jumble, and each dish is its own well-conceived whole. Delicate raw scallops are served with only a hint of sour, and just enough chorizo to add salt and texture but not overwhelm the dish. The oyster roll is a light puff of bread, with a thin sharp tartar sauce and fleshy oyster expertly fried. Skate wing combined a perfect sear with an inner flesh so tender it seemed poached. Even the squid is tender at Eventide, and served in a salad with crunchy bits of fried ramen and a black bean sauce with the sweetness of hoisin. A dish of huge roasted oysters gets its crunch from fried potato, and its ample sweetness from a Korean barbecue sauce. Eventide also offers meat dishes, like a traditional-sounding pork chop, and some hearty New Englandy sides like baked beans.