Where to Eat Now: Evo Kitchen + Bar

  • Executive chef Matt Ginn brings youthful energy to Evo.

  • Tabbouleh, a Middle Eastern staple, shines with local produce.

Authentic flavors of the Mediterranean with fresh Maine ingredients


The kitchen at Evo is so small that executive chef Matt Ginn and his team use the bar that surrounds it for prep work.

There’s just one oven, four burners, a plancha, and a large stand mixer that kneads the dough for hundreds of loaves of fluffy pita bread each day. The crew starts prepping for dinner at 7 a.m. and by 3:30 p.m. the entire space is washed down and ready for guests who take seats at the bar to watch the action. The shining, compact kitchen is the centerpiece at Evo. And the question is: How do they get such big, bold flavors out of such a tiny kitchen?

At Evo, the focus is on the cuisine of the Middle East and Mediterranean, where the food is fresh and flavors pop, spiced with za’atar, sumac, wild thyme, and smoky Aleppo pepper. But while the spices may seem exotic at Evo, the other ingredients look pretty familiar. “It’s amazing how well this food transfers to Maine,” says Ginn. “Aside from lemons, I find pretty much everything I need at the Portland farmers’ markets or from local suppliers.” Tabbouleh is a traditional Mediterranean salad, but Ginn gives it the New England treatment, using seasonal produce, such as Russian red kale, along with the usual parsley. “It works beautifully,” he explains, “because both kale and tabbouleh are best when overdressed. Kale needs the dressing to tenderize it.” Ginn is constantly reworking traditional dishes, using what’s available on any given day. He enjoys reading cookbooks by chefs who specialize in the regional cuisine, not so much to get recipes, but as a starting point for new interpretations that fit the Evo style. “When I change one ingredient on a dish, it makes me think about changing others, like a domino effect,” he says.

Ginn cooked with Steve Corry at 555 in Portland for several years, leaving briefly for a stint at Boston restaurants such as L’Espalier and Harvest. Before Evo opened, he spent months experimenting, studying, recipe testing, and tasting, which led to the formation of a full and varied menu. “We worked out how to blend authentic flavors with newer profiles,“ Ginn says. “We acknowledge the region as a whole by focusing on the broader spectrum, rather than any one particular country.”

There are dishes here for every type of eater, from the vegetarian who will be delighted with a full array of choices to the adventurous omnivore who might choose a shawarma or kibbeh liban, beef meatballs with chiles and mint in yogurt sauce. Vermont quail is served whole, stuffed with pickled eggplant, walnuts, and red pepper, which are typical ingredients of makdoos. Ginn then uses the same ingredients again, deconstructed, on the plate. It’s a very modern interpretation of a very traditional Syrian dish. Local seafood lovers are in luck, too. Ginn earned the title Lobster Chef of the Year at Portland’s Harvest on the Harbor festival last fall with a dish of shelled lobster, plated with local beans and tiny herb-filled manti, a Turkish pasta. The award-winning dish is on the menu, but in keeping with the chef’s style, the components are constantly being updated.

The waitstaff is knowledgeable, eager to explain dishes and suggest small plate pairings. Match the addictive crushed walnut muhammara with man’ousha, a Lebanese flatbread, with a dish of tomato, cucumber, and cured olives. Or try the spicy Turkish sausage with labneh, a strained yogurt cheese that balances the richness of the meat perfectly. The menu encourages exploration with its depth and variety of flavors, textures, and ingredients, all complementing each other.

Michael Gatlin is the affable bar manager, who’s created an inventive list of cocktails. You’ll find him and the other bartenders working from the same mise en place as the chefs, reaching for seasonal ingredients and garnishes for drinks. They also use bitters from Gatlin’s own company, Owl and Whale. He mixes up a gorgeous golden-hued cocktail called Klimt’s Kiss, after the famous painting. Cold River gin is combined with Green Chartreuse, dry curaçao, Lillet, and cranberry bitters. The combination casts a gilded glow, like the artwork’s color, and bright flavor.

The interior at Evo is a beckoning invitation to socialize, with most seating at bar height, along the enormous windows or bar area. The varying angles encourage conversation and plate sharing, and the dramatic wall of glass makes for great people-watching out on Fore and Union Streets. There’s a terrific energy at Evo that draws you in, fueled by a young, talented chef and his staff. And it’s their adventurous, stunning food that keeps you coming back.

 

Evo | 443 Fore St. | 207.358.7830 | evoportland.com

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