Monday, January 29, 2007

How to Travel with a Snapper

The moment Jason turned in his thesis last Wednesday, we got into our car and drove to Portland, ME. We spent 2 wonderful days sitting by the fire in our B&B, reading New York Times (I forgot how fun it is to read it on paper vs. on the monitor), and having the best meal of this year at Hugo's. It's our third time there, and I thought that we'll finally start to get disillusioned. Will it be as good as we remembered? It never seemed to be for other restaurants of this caliber. But Hugo's never disappoints.

My heart sinks every time we go to Hugo's and find it empty. Sure, it was a Wednesday night, but the other places we went to on a weekday were much fuller even though Hugo's food is simply unbeatable. What surprises and delights me is not just the creativity, but the integrity of the food. When Rob Evens does something, it's not for the sake of novelty, but for the sake of unsurpassed taste experience. In fact, you can even call his food simple. Most dishes are both different and familiar at the same time, and you know that you'll suffer through too many cravings until the next time you return to Hugo's. Of course, by next year, he'll come up with something new and just as awesome. By my third time at Hugo's, I almost felt the time stop at some forkfuls. I knew that as each perfect bite melted in my mouth, its taste, like that moment, would be gone forever.

Somewhere between the last fish course -- scallops tartar with horseradish cream and puffed rice -- and the first meat course -- the juicy rabbit sausage wrapped in quail and topped with parsnip foam -- a faint murmur of "tuna... baramundi... sashimi" woke me up from my reverie. Two men and a woman sitting at the bar were talking about fish. One of them was in chef's whites.

You know how figure skating commentators like to call some athletes a "skater's skater." Well, Rob Evans is a cook's cook. I think you have to be a cook (not necessarily a professional) to appreciate his work and the guys at the bar seemed to know what they were talking about. It was too tempting not to stop by after our meal and meet them. Turned out that two of them were from another Portland restaurant and the third one was from the Brown Trading Company. What looked like chef's whites to me from the distance was Brown's uniform. The guy wearing it was Jason -- its manager. He supplies fish to most of the top restaurants not only in Portland but in other cities, and invited us to check out the store.

Friday morning, we were his first customers. I love it when I get greeted with "You guys want to taste some caviar?" After tasting 5 or 6 types, we finally found one that both Jason and I liked. It was sturgeon roe, farm-raised in France, and prepared in the Malossol (low salt) style. I never thought that I'll call $90 for 50 grams (about 2 oz) of anything reasonable. But for black caviar of this quality, it was actually a good deal, and to celebrate Jason being officially a doctor now, we decided to get a jar. And how could I leave without trying the fish! Bringing fish back from vacation is a little strange, even for me. But the drive to Boston is only 2 hours, and at 5F, I was more worried about the fish freezing in our trunk than going bad. But the guys at Brown packed it so well in Styrofoam that I had nothing to worry about. I got a whole snapper, a whole branzino, and some halibut fillet. The halibut wasn't the wild, east coast one that I am used to (this one was farm-raised in BC), but I haven't had halibut in so long that I decided to try it.

The fishies were all yummy and are already gone. I broiled the snapper and branzino with fennel and oranges. I can never cook almost anything the same way twice, but this one is one of my favorites and I like it so much, I can't bring myself to change it. If you want to know more about broiling, check out "Playing with fire," my recent article for

We had so much leftovers that I decided to make fish cakes with cilantro lime yogurt sauce. The fish cakes are essentially my bluefish burger recipe without a bun, and cilantro lime yogurt sauce is exactly what it sounds like (mix of cilantro, lime juice, yogurt, a little mashed garlic, and a pinch of salt). Halibut got seared in duck fat and served with roasted potatoes. And the caviar is waiting for Valentine's day.


Terry B said...

I love reading about your passion for fish, Helen. And I know the pleasure of glimpses inside private worlds. That of professional chefs, for instance.

There's a comfortable cajun restaurant here in Chicago, Heaven on Seven, with a dining counter facing an open kitchen. When I eat there alone, I always opt for a seat at the counter. Watching the line cooks juggling several well used pans over open flames, plating dishes and keeping things moving is fascinating.

Helen said...

Hi Terry,

He he -- I do that too -- spy on line cooks :) You can learn so much by watching them!


Dianka said...

Wow, everything looks and sounds amazing! Lucky you!