Thursday, December 11, 2008

Sparrow Arc teams up with 'Evangeline'

Paris Meets Portland
Evangeline brings the feel and flavors of France to Longfellow Square

By Kathy Gunst, DownEast Magazine
Photograph by Jeff Scher

It has become a cliché to say that a restaurant reminds you of Paris. But Erik Desjarlais has done such a wonderful job evoking a Parisian bistro at his new restaurant Evangeline on State Street in downtown Portland, that it would be remiss not to make comparisons.

The huge glass window offers great views of Longfellow Square. Below the logo on the window is a picture of a pig and the inscription “Maison Fondée En 2008.” The ceilings are high, behind the bar nests an eclectic assortment of mirrors, and a huge black chalkboard announces the daily specials.

The staff plays the Parisian part, too. The waiter is dressed in black pants and vest, starched white shirt, and with a traditional white bistro apron folded at his waist. He delivers hot, airy, cheese-filled gougères to start the meal. Edith Piaf plays on the speakers, her smoky French voice filling the small thirty-eight-seat room. There is peppery focaccia and crusty bread served with soft butter adorned in a poached eggcup. The waiter is exceptionally knowledgeable about the wine list and suggests a Stephen Ross Pinot Noir. He describes the wine as “silk on your tongue.” Turns out this is not pretentious, but accurate.

For the most part, the best bets at Evangeline are the bistro classics. The marrow bones are Flintstone size and served with gray salt that balances out the rich meat that lies in the center.

The frisse salad served with “house-made pancetta” and a hen’s egg is a delicious misnomer. Instead of Italian-style peppery smoked bacon there is a large square of pork belly that’s so tasty and tender you don’t need a knife to cut it. The oysters on the half shell taste fresh, but don’t sparkle. The calf’s brains, sautéed with briny capers, are melt-in-your-mouth tender and burst with flavor. The steak frites offers a tender, well-cooked, beautifully seasoned piece of beef with excellent, crisp, salted fries. But for each outstanding hit, there is a miss.

The duck might be Evangeline’s signature dish, but a far better choice is the extraordinary looking golden-brown whole poussin (young chicken) that comes out of the kitchen served in an oval-shaped French copper skillet.

Erik Desjarlais, the restaurant’s thirty-two year old chef formerly of Bandol on Exchange Street, says his goal with Evangeline is “to offer both ends of the dining spectrum.” He wants “people to come in and have a twelve-course meal if they like, or sit at the bar and order steak frites and a glass of table wine.”

He claims Evangeline “is not really a French restaurant, but inspired by French cuisine and the French lifestyle.”

And as much as France inspires the menu and the mood, it is Maine that provides many of the ingredients. Desjarlais has teamed up with Sparrow Arc Farm in Unity. Twice a week the farmer drives down to Portland in his truck to share fruit and produce with the chef. For Desjarlais, every detail of the restaurant matters, down to the name.

“We brainstormed and came up with more than 150 names,” laughs Desjarlais. “I kept thinking about Longfellow Square being right outside the window. So I did some research on Longfellow and remembered the famous poem we all had to memorize from high school. Even if you don’t know the poem, Evangeline is a pretty name.”

Speaking of pretty, desserts at Evangeline are a strong point. The pot au chocolat is not to be missed. It arrives in a huge white French soup tureen and is scooped out tableside. It’s a classy presentation and every bit as good as it looks. A complimentary plate of petit fours included sinfully rich chocolate fudge squares and little lemon teacakes. A sweet ending, indeed.

Evangeline has only been open since April 2008, but Desjarlais is clearly talented and his passion is one of his most important ingredients. One can only expect that this charming bistro will soon take its place on the list of Portland’s top restaurants.

Evangeline, 190 State Street, Portland. 207-791-2800. Dinner served Monday through Saturday from 5:30 to 10 p.m.; reservations suggested. Wheelchair accessible. On Monday nights Evangeline offers a three-course prix fixe dinner. It’s a mellow, homey evening where Desjarlais cooks with his wife, Krista Desjarlais, the chef at Portland’s Bresca restaurant. There are no reservations taken for Monday night.

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