Cooking with Rob Evans at Hugo’s in Portland, Maine

| February/March 2006

  • Seared Halibut with Ramps and Chives

  • Herbs provide a flavor pop in Rob Evans’ cooking.

PORTLAND, MAINE – “Every dish needs a flavor pop,” says Rob Evans, chef and co-owner of Hugo’s in Portland, Maine. Often that pop comes from fresh herbs in his kitchen. “I probably use more herbs than the typical chef. They’re a huge focus in our food. I love them for their aromatic qualities and the freshness they add to food,” he says.

Evans admits he’s obsessed with finding the freshest local ingredients and turning them into dishes that admittedly stretched the palates of his diners in 2000 when he and partner Nancy Pugh bought a tiny restaurant here named Hugo’s. “I was in a blue-collar town trying to do really great food. I had to go slow at first and get customers to trust me.”

The trust came, and so did reputation. Food & Wine magazine named Evans to its Best New Chefs list in 2004. Today, Hugo’s draws a regular local crowd as well as fine food aficionados from all over New England. They come to sample appetizers like Cucumber Panna Cotta with Maine Peekytoe Crab and Fines Herbes Salad or Duck Salad with Red Bell Pepper and Lavender Vinaigrette. As a main course, they might try Juniper-Cured Venison or Seared Halibut with Ramps and Chives. Diners who opt for his multi-course tasting menu sometimes start their meal with a lemon verbena soda and a selection of snacks, including potato chips seasoned with herb salt. Throughout his menu, Evans uses herbs in supporting roles to enhance and enliven the flavor of his food.


At any given time, Evans has a dozen or more herbs in his kitchen. Some, like basil, thyme, rosemary, chives and tarragon, are commonplace. Others are not as well known. For example, Evans uses burnet, an herb with a cucumberlike taste, to boost the flavor of cucumber dishes or provide a cucumber flavor in crab and lobster salads. He likes anise hyssop, which has a flavor somewhere between tarragon and mint, with lamb and duck or in dessert sorbets.

In spring and summer, Evans grows many of his own herbs. “If I can’t buy what I want, I grow it,” he says. Generally, he uses his own herbs, picked fresh, for garnishes. He usually purchases the herbs he’s going to chop and use in cooking.

While most herbs go with almost anything, selecting just the right herb for a particular dish takes “years of experience,” Evans believes. “Herbs really can change the essence of a dish and you can overuse them.” He cautions against using an herb twice in the same meal. “Don’t make a chowder with thyme and then use thyme in another dish,” he says. Herbs also should be combined with care. “Tarragon and thyme never go together. Tarragon is sweet and thyme is earthy.” Basil and rosemary also should not be combined. “Cilantro,” he says, “is overused and shouldn’t be combined with anything. Parsley, on the other hand, adds a freshness to dishes and is very versatile.”

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