WINGS MADE HANDIER Chicken "lollipops."
Nothing democratizes like nature. Rousseau thought all primitives were equal until the moment someone thought to build a hut and move indoors. Nowadays people who would never enjoy similar books, films, or music nonetheless appreciate the beauty of the outdoors in much the same way. A good spot to drink outside has the same effect. For example, Novare Res, when it opened, seemed like a hidden spot for beer connoisseurs. But thanks to its nice patio it now attracts precisely the same rowdy summertime crowd — clad in their halter-tops and untucked oxfords — as the Porthole and every other Old Port bar with a deck.
And there is nothing wrong with that. The halter-top has staying power for a reason, and an untucked oxford hides a beer-gut remarkably well. By all means let's wear them and embrace nature, our drinks, each other. But for those who would like to enjoy a cocktail and a snack in the fresh air just a bit more quietly, there is one hidden spot left: the inner courtyard at Eve's at the Garden within the Portland Harbor Hotel. Up a flight of stairs and surrounded by the hotel, Eve's courtyard is tranquil and lovely. Sitting in the garden — leafy, brick-lined, and uncongested — you know that anyone would appreciate it, but fewer people actually are.
Thanks to a new happy hour menu at Eve's, just about anyone could afford it too. Special cocktails are $6 and bar snacks are mostly $4. The drinks are fruity-summery things — juice and rum, and well-crafted versions of various sweet martinis. The best was made with Pama, a pomegranate liqueur, which seemed to have the least sugar.
The bar snacks recreate the spirit of the courtyard itself: each is a rarefied take on a people's favorite. New chef Earl Morse, formerly of the White Barn Inn, has created funny little variations on classic casual food like sliders, tacos, crab-cakes, wings, and lobster rolls. They are really cute to look at — maybe they are even a touch too precious — but it was hard to hold that against a bar snack.
The cutest are the mini tuna sliders, which look a bit like those adorable Japanese Everyburger cookies. Small cubes of raw tuna are coated with a wasabi mustard — the effect is a bit like a Hawaiian poke — and sandwiched on a little grilled roll. While hard little buns are desirable in certain contexts (try googling it), in this case the bread's crispness was a bit of a problem. "We are working on that," the waiter told us. Somehow they managed to keep the lobster roll's grilled little bun a bit softer. It amounted to a few nice bites of fresh lobster, but might have benefited from a touch of aioli.
There is no lack of sauce on the chicken "lollipops" — wings with the bone shaved down so they can be eaten with less mess. They glistened with three different sauces, the best of which was a tangy blue cheese spotted liberally with herbs. The fish tacos were a tad dull and might benefit from giving the cod a quick fry and adding a bit of white sauce. The best of the bunch were the little crab cakes — crisp-edged and straightforward with big chunks of crab and a nice sour aioli.
If these little snacks whet your appetite, the new dinner menu at Eve's has a classic upscale appeal, and adding a few appetizers to your order gives you a sense of it. Sautéed shrimp and veal sweetbreads are served like their own little entrées with purple heirloom potatoes and sautéed watercress. A ravioli appetizer featured juicy pillows of duck confit whose rich saltiness worked nicely with the sweet orange and cardamom gastrique. These dishes give you a better sense of the talent in the kitchen, and the signs seem good.
Though he is a patron saint of democracy, Rousseau let his disgust with his contemporaries drive him to live out his final years alone in the natural splendor of the Île Saint-Pierre. When we grow weary of the crowds, the courtyard at Eve's offers a more reasonable respite.
Brian Duff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PATIO AT EVE'S AT THE GARDEN |at Portland Harbor Hotel, 468 Fore St, Portland | Happy hour daily 4:30-6 pm | Visa/MC/Disc/Amex | 207.775.9090