Review: Hugo

Shrimp and grits. If you ask anyone who knows anything about Southern cuisine, specifically low country cuisine, this is about the time you should get out a handkerchief: let the drooling commence. Shrimp. Grits. What could be better?

Now, seeing as my wonderful dining partner is from the South (Alabama, specifically), I have gotten quite the education on grits. What are grits? Grits are ground hominy. Hominy is the soft white part of the corn kernel after the outer “shell” has been removed– often with lye. Don’t listen to Tyler Florence, who I recently saw do a recipe on his show that was purported to be shrimp and grits— ground cornmeal is not grits. That’s polenta. Polenta is great stuff, but it’s not grits. Grits come in instant, quick, regular and stone-ground. There is a world of difference between the three, and stone ground grits (though they take longer) are infinitely better. The texture is just incomparable. You can pick stone ground grits up in the Cajun section of Jungle Jim’s, or you can buy them at a more reasonable price online. Terry purchased some from this store last Sunday, and they got there on Wednesday before we left for our trip. We’re set for grits for a good long time.

I had shrimp and grits for the first time on a recent trip to Nashville. They were fantastic– a little spicy, with white cheddar grits, bacon and shrimp. It was simple but exceptional. When Hugo opened recently, and I found out that their shrimp and grits were supposed to be great, I had to try them. Initially, we were supposed to go there for my birthday in November, but we just never made it. Finally, Terry called me at work and said, “Make reservations for Hugo.” So, I did.

Hugo is in Pho Paris’ old spot in Oakley. They specialize in “sophisticated Southern”, with menu items including fried green tomatoes, corn fritters, short ribs and hoppin’ john (black eyed peas cooked with bacon). These aren’t your Kentucky grandma’s version, these are instead rich and sophisticated, with interesting twists on these old standards.

I got pretty excited because they supposedly have the best foie in the city. We decided on foie as an appetizer, but then our server told us the specials.

Dammit.

The first course special was braised pork belly with apples. Pork belly is so fashionable and so tasty– you get crispy outside, moist, porky inside, and a succulent layer of fat. It was topped with a fondue– so pork and cheese. Oh, man. This portion was huge– it could have been an entree for two– and Terry and I could only manage to eat about half of it.

I will never be a size 2.

Of course, we still got the foie. Terry has become a veritable foie fiend, and I’m happy to share it with him. Hugo’s was pan-seared, served with dried apricots on top of corn bread and pine nuts with a pineapple gastrique. The pineapple was sweet and a little sour, and the foie so rich, they were an excellent compliment. I think it was better than Red’s.

We skipped the second course and moved right on to the entree. I decided on duck: I am so in love with duck these days, can you tell? This was duck confit, served with butternut squash, cider jus and radicchio. It tasted like fall– rich and spicy and heady.

Terry got the shrimp and grits. This wasn’t the rustic dish I had in Nashville, but more refined– the grits were finely ground, the tasso rich and a little spicy, instead of getting its spice from jalapenos. It was delicious and well prepared and deserving of its local fame.

For dessert, we split a Huguenot torte. which was rich with pecans and apples, and topped with house-made maple ice cream. The ice cream was absolutely the best part of this dish. It was creamy, rich, but somehow light. The torte itself was OK, but no more than okay; it was a little dry and a little overly nutty for my tastes. But the ice cream? Oooh.

Sophisticated Southern– this was fine dining with a touch of the South. These were traditional fine dining staples kicked up with Southern flavors. All of the dishes were rich– I hope that Chef Daly changes this a bit for the spring– but all were appropriate for this still cool weather. I will definitely be back– if just for the grits and the foie!

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