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'Rock and roll French' entices urban diners at Evangeline

Evangeline
The interior of Erik Desjarlais's restaurant suggests bistro, but he gives it an updated twist with a red poured-concrete bar, beat up oak floors, and tiny black and white tiles. (Jonathan Levitt for the Boston Globe )
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jonathan Levitt
Globe Correspondent / May 25, 2008

In his novel "Pig Earth," John Berger writes about the lives of peasants in a village in the French Alps. Describing the slaughter of a cow, he says, "Life is liquid. The Chinese were wrong to believe that the essential was breath. Perhaps the soul is breath."

If life is liquid, the liquid of life must be blood, and maybe bone marrow, both of which, as well as plenty of whole animals and calf brains and snails and frog's legs and sweetbreads and other obscure bits, are all over the menu at Evangeline, a new restaurant here.

Chef Erik Desjarlais, baby-faced and tattooed, wants his diners to connect to food in a way that goes beyond the bland luxury of a pork chop or filet mignon. Take the marrow bones, a $9 appetizer on his dinner menu: three squat pieces of beef shin, roasted to order in a hot oven until the marrow is soft jelly, spreadable on grilled bread - the unctuous essence of the beast with an herb salad on the side.

In April Desjarlais, 31, opened Evangeline in Longfellow Square on the outskirts of Portland's miniature red light district. The restaurant is named for Henry Wadsworth Long fellow's epic 1847 poem, "Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie."

Evangeline the restaurant faces the street with tall windows and a gold leaf stencil of a pig. Here chicken is the other white meat. Inside the style nods to French bistros and brasseries but doesn't exactly re-create their glamorous shabbiness. Desjarlais cleaned up and watered down the familiar look with a red poured-concrete bar, beat up oak floors, tiny black and white tiles, and Belle Epoque style bistro posters painted by his friend Stephen Backus.

The food is what Desjarlais calls "rock and roll French." "Backward thinking old techniques with enlightened service - good quality but slightly off center," he says. The service tries for the same sensibility. Sean McClure, a former line cook at Radius, carves fish tableside, and with a pair of forks opens the steamy parcels of wild salmon en papillote. Desjarlais is looking for a good source for pig bladders in which to roast chickens and then pass them off to McClure to open and carve in front of diners.

The menu reads like a catalog of the sort of dowdy French classics (mother sauces, steak tartare, bouchée à la reine) that weighed down the menus of every over-the-hill American French restaurant before the lightness and spontaneous finesse of Italian-influenced California cooking became the new fine dining standard.

At Evangeline, Desjarlais has dusted off and freshened up these old girls. They're sexy again. For his chicken moutarde (chicken with mustard sauce), another forgotten classic, Desjarlais starts with milk-fed birds from Four Story Hill Farm in Pennsylvania. At the farm the chickens are pampered and fed a slurry of cracked corn and evaporated milk. "They're the most beautiful birds I've seen outside of France," says the chef. He skins the chicken and separates the legs and thighs from the breasts. He rolls the breasts into a ballotine, tenderloin in the center, and wraps the whole thing in chicken skin so it stays moist and cooks evenly. "It stays juicy," says Desjarlais. "Juicy is good." He plates the chicken with the mustard sauce, slow-cooked onions, and Royal Trumpet mushrooms.

On Monday nights Desjarlais half closes the restaurant and serves a more rustic family supper. The set menu of three to five courses costs $25 to $30 per guest. Wine is available by the carafe for $15. This week Desjarlais is serving quail stuffed with hand-rolled couscous and wilted dandelion greens, salmon rillettes, an arugula salad with Bayonne ham and a duck egg, and chocolate mousse for dessert. His fiancée, Krista Kern, chef-owner of Bresca, a tiny Italian place on the other side of town, is by his side. French Culinary Institute-trained dishwasher Scott Leonard is in the dish pit. McClure or sommelier Joe Riccio and one server run the dining room. The rest of the staff has the night off.

Kern and Desjarlais met last winter, and in the spring drove north for a gluttonous weekend in Montreal. Over a bowl of tripe and frites at the Zorbaesque restaurant Au Pied de Cochon they spontaneously and mutually proposed to each other.

Desjarlais, originally from northern New Hampshire, started his restaurant career at 14, washing dishes at a cafe in Nashua. He says that it's been an "uphill walk ever since." He dropped out of high school during junior year. "I wasn't learning anything," he says, "and I found a ride to a Grateful Dead show in Indiana and that was it. I went on a Dead tour and had a real ponytailed-and-bearded misdirected youth."

In 1993 Desjarlais left the road and settled in the White Mountains. Each morning he drove his VW bus to a job baking at a local inn. That led to work cooking breakfast, which led to another restaurant job in Key West, Fla. When "90 degrees and sunny every day got old," he moved north to Portsmouth, N.H., to work at a tapas place and eventually ended up at the Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Ore., with the goal of becoming a chef. He left after two weeks. "I was a bad employee and a bad student, and I knew that I would only succeed with my own place," he says.

He moved back East, and in July 2003 opened Restaurant Bandol, an 18-seat French Laundry-inspired haute temple that shared a bathroom with an Indian restaurant on Exchange Street in the middle of the Old Port. "Bandol evolved as a restaurant as I evolved as a cook," says Desjarlais. In February 2006, just after a splashy spread in The New York Times Magazine, Bandol closed.

"A couple of dozen regulars were keeping us open," he says. "But that's not the whole story. My lease was up, and the space was falling apart. One night the Rockefellers were in the dining room and someone in the apartment upstairs left their shower on and the drop ceiling was swelling up with water and starting to drip on them. I was ready to get out of the shoebox, and the smell of curry all day, every day, was making me sick."

He couldn't find a space worthy of another Bandol, so he opened Ladle, a casual soup place in the basement of a women's clothing store. "Baking bread and making soup gave me plenty of time to think about the new restaurant," he says.

Evangeline's kitchen is in the back of the restaurant, a few steps up from the dining room. Bright halogen bulbs on tracks light the space dramatically. Desjarlais likes to do things differently. His deep fryer is filled with beef fat. "It's just like the Belgians and McDonalds used to do," he says. The cooks vacuum the kitchen floor with cordless vacuums and cook on a Vulcan-Hart French top range. "The stove gives us infinite control," he says. "It's hottest in the middle, coolest on the edges. The old French chefs say cooking on one is like playing a piano - they slide pots around the top and reduce sauces slowly way on the outside of the range."

On workday mornings Kern and Desjarlais go food shopping for the restaurants. At the Hannaford supermarket in Portland, Desjarlais buys bananas and chicken livers and ogles the pig's feet in the offal section. So far Evangeline is busy but all of Portland may not be ready for his cooking. At the register the checkout girl asks, "What will you do with the chicken livers?"

The chef says, "We're stuffing duck necks with them."

"Oh," she says.

Jonathan Levitt can be reached at jon.levitt@gmail.com.

If You Go

Evangeline

190 State St.

Portland, Maine

207-791-2800

Monday-Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to closing. Entrees $9-$22.

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