Eve’s at the Garden

Not all of us are lucky enough to have a leafy courtyard hidden in our backyard. One where it’s quiet and a soft breeze blows. One that serves as an escape from the noise and chaos of daily life: maybe with a garden full of flowers, a bubbling fountain, and even a fire pit. Wouldn’t that just be heavenly, if we could go to that place and even be served a cool, tasty drink along with a delicious meal? For those of us without the good fortune to own such a place, there’s Eve’s at the Garden, a secluded gem tucked inside the Portland Harbor Hotel.

Entering this sweet spot through a lush foliage-covered archway lets you leave the summer grit and grime behind. Friendly servers will seat you at tables with wide and shady umbrellas. There are so many times of day that it is appealing, and Eve’s is open for all of them. Breakfast there makes for a quiet start to a busy day. Lunch with friends is a restorative break. Take some extra time and enjoy a local beer or cold cocktail. Or come for a dinner, when you can really catch your breath and relax.

Regional executive chef Tim Labonte oversees all of it. He truly enjoys hotel work and the daily variety it brings. But that wasn’t always the case. When he had his first kitchen job at the age of 15, he didn’t feel the call. But after a stint working at a loud, tedious mill job, the daily excitement and creativity of a kitchen started to sound pretty good. So Labonte, at age 24, sold everything he owned except his backpack and headed for culinary school at Johnson and Wales University. An internship led him to Key West, where he honed his skills working at various resorts. But a Mainer can only take so much Florida before there’s a pull to return.

Labonte has had an exceptionally busy summer. In addition to his duties at Eve’s, he spends at least one day a week at Great Diamond Island, overseeing the kitchen and dining room at the new Inn at Diamond Cove. “It’s been a huge challenge figuring out how to bring products out by boat. I didn’t know what to expect. How would ice cream survive the trip? Or delicate produce?” he breathes a sigh of relief. “Casco Bay Lines has been amazing. And when I step off the boat onto the island, I feel like a different person.”

Labonte introduces me to a server, Ercan, who has worked with him for many years. Ercan settles us in at a table in the garden while Labonte readies the kitchen for dinner service. Soon Ercan returns with a small grilled pizza, different than any I’ve ever tasted. Cheese is unnecessary on a pizza like this. It’s topped with a layer of ‘nduja, a spicy, spreadable pork sausage from Italy and a few preserved lemon slices, cherry tomatoes, and tiny pieces of honeycomb dot the pizza—a sweet foil to the piquancy. The crust is excellent and all together, the pizza is an enticing starter. Pizzas are available as a special at Eve’s subject to the whims of the culinary staff.

Labonte is eager to have me taste his corn and caramelized onion tart. It’s in a thin and crispy cornmeal crust and topped with meaty king oyster mushrooms and a generous shaving of truffles. The tart is sweet and savory, and full of the flavor of summer corn. A dish of swordfish with tarragon and caper fregola is cooked perfectly, moist and immensely enjoyable. Flank steak is presented with an herbaceous chimichurri sauce accented with seasonal blueberries. From everything we’ve tasted, it’s clear that there’s plenty of creativity in the kitchen.

Labonte’s skills shine at the breakfast hour as well. His pork belly waffle with a sunny-side-up egg, Pineland Farms cheddar and Maine maple sea salt crunch took top honors at Maine Restaurant Week. “New items and specials that are more unexpected than your regular hotel breakfast keep diners happy,” says the chef.

A bit of happiness, in this tranquil oasis, is easy to come by.

Eve’s at the Garden | 468 Fore St. | Portland | 207.775.9090 | evesatthegarden.com

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