The New Walter's
The new Walter’s (www.waltersportland.com) is without exception the most expensively designed restaurant in the city of Portland. Which is to also say it’s like so many other upscale urban dining rooms that you find in second-tier cities across the country/ They’re located off hotel lobbies or in downtown office towers. They’re hardly family dining halls but rather crisply designed environments that howl Metropolitan cool.
I never minded the old Walter’s on Exchange Street. Smack in the middle of the tourist brigade it was a haven for visitors and locals alike to enjoy a good meal that was distinctly Portland. With its exposed brick walls, rough-hewn wooden beams and café tables, it was a typical eatery for a dusty port city.
From a local point of view, Walter’s transformation from bleak to chic bespeaks the Pygmalion effect perfectly. Its swank new digs at 2 Portland Square, at the base of Portland’s only true Class A office complex, with its prestigious tenant roster, was a bold move indeed.
The bar area is very cool. Not quite Mies van de Rohe’s Bar Room at New York’s Four Seasons, yet patrons might be advised to leave their baseball caps behind, brush their hair and don downtown urbanity.
The dining room has banquette seating on one side and well spaced tables elsewhere.
The wait staff is professional and the kitchen keeps pace on a busy night.
But what surprised me most on my first visit to the new digs was that the menu had not changed one iota. It’s like a facelift without a bravura debut.
Chef/owner Jeff Buerhaus is resolute to his new world fusion global fare—that misnomer meant to categorize just about anything vaguely based on third world cookery. He does it well and his loyal following are eats it up.
Nowadays the standard for fine dining is what’s otherwise known as American Regional Cooking. It has to be farmed locally, raised sustainably and be nearly too precious to
eat: Shaved Waldoboro Brussels sprouts suspended over heirloom local apples, Casco Bay cod coddling melted local leeks, Aroostook rabbit terrine clothed in shingles of curly cranberry from a local bog. You get the idea.
That said, Walter’s steady new-world menu might actually be a bite of fresh air in an otherwise dense culinary sea.
Buerhaus’ style is more about exotic flavors, a veritable gastronomic gambol spiraling through the spice trade.
Yet his food is as comforting as a classic car’s old-leather smell. To be sure the tastes are bold, the portions are big and the dishes, beautifully presented, are works of art—motifs that go kaboom! You definitely won’t leave hungry or disappointed.
Take, for example, one of his signature dishes, Crispy Ravioli. The deep fryer renders them crunchy and they’re filled with a delicious blend of lemongrass scented chicken, ginger and chili butter. We have no idea if the chicken is local or from the deli. It doesn’t matter. But they’re as addictive as potato chips and as yummy at pot stickers. The serving is obligatorily huge and you could wrap this one up to nibble on for a week.
The last time I was there, which was a few days ago, I wanted a light meal, not easily achieved from the bowels of this prolific kitchen.
I chose tuna tartare as a starter. Sometimes I think it’s time for all tartares to take a hike, a culinary kickshaw that’s outlived its novelty. Eighty-six it along with tiramisu, flourless chocolate cake and dining could be an adventure again.
Regardless, Buerhaus’s version is delicious. But be warned. This is one of the tiniest tartares you’re apt to find and very uncharacteristic of Buerhaus’s normal portion size.
How this Lilliputian morsel grew out of his kitchen is a mystery. Three half-teaspoon size dollops sit on the edge of 3 yucca chips carved into various shapes and sizes. If one of these tidbits falls off its perch you’ll need magnifiers to find it.
For the hail and hearty don’t miss their excellent oyster stew. It’s hugely flavorful with smoky bacon and chunks of sweet potato that cut a nice contrast to the briny local oysters.
For my main course I ordered the pumpkin gnocchi. It was the lightest entree on the menu. A nice helping of pumpkin spiked white clouds, gossamer pillows swathed in a silken mushroom, sage, Parmesan cream sauce.
The most robust dish on the menu is the double pork chop. It’s massive. But it’s fork tender and beautifully burnished in a molasses barbecue sauce spiked with rum. Set over sweet potatoes and braised greens, it’s the complete meal.
There’s a kind of yin and yang about Walter’s. He has a lot of fans in Portland without having to stumble around making waves. The food is trendy but not outlandish. The price of such a good meal is moderate and the high-gloss surroundings offer a star-bright change from the city’s earthier domains.