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PORTLAND, MAINE | HEADING OUT

Duckfat serves up guilty pleasures

PORTLAND, MAINE -- Duckfat, a new restaurant on the outskirts of this old port, is Rob Evans and Nancy Pugh's latest venture. What they had in mind, she says, was ''a homey neighborhood kind of place serving Euro-style street food made from scratch with a Maine twist."

To that end, the place looks the part. With its whimsical name, red and blue striped awning, and sidewalk bistro tables, Duckfat is bright and appealing. Evans and Pugh are fools for the quirky details that make a place feel eccentric and comfortable -- and different. Everything about the atmosphere, from the Al Green records wailing on the stereo to the old Coke bottles crammed with zinnias and asters to the newspapers and magazines piled on the bar, gives you the feeling that it's the kind of place you want to settle into. And then there's the food, particularly the Belgian-style fries served in paper cones.

''The fries are so good because animal fat, and particularly duck fat, is just the best fat for frying," says Derek Berdan, the ruddy-cheeked 30-year-old Texan who runs the restaurant's tiny kitchen. ''Right now duck fat is trendy and expensive, so we're cooking the fries in three-quarters canola oil, but my goal is to someday fill this fryer with 100 percent duck fat."

Pugh and Evans, ranked among Food & Wine magazine's best new chefs in 2004, spend more of their time across the street from Duckfat at Hugo's, a fine dining restaurant they have owned for five years. ''We started Duckfat because we wanted to create something more casual," says Pugh.

The whole menu is one of guilty pleasures, the food of late night snacks and cravings: five flavors of homemade mayonnaise and duck gravy for dipping, super-thick milkshakes made with ice cream from a local dairy, sweet panini full of strawberry jam and mascarpone cheese, home-brewed sodas with free refills, and beignets dusted with cinnamon sugar. There is also duck confit, grilled cheese with bacon, and Maine meatloaf, all served on bamboo cutting boards covered with butcher paper. Beer is on tap, wines are poured by the glass, and coffee is French press; there will be real gelato in the fall.

''Our goal is to give people something more for their money than just a full belly," says Pugh. ''We're trying to make eating fun again."

Duckfat, 43 Middle St., Portland, Maine, 207-774-8080; www.duckfat.com.

JONATHAN LEVITT

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