By Michaela Cavallaro
Photographed by Ryan David Brown
On a recent visit to Walkers Maine in Cape Neddick, the duck thigh arrived with crispy skin and meat that melted off the bone into fried rice laced with matsutake mushrooms, duck egg, and brown butter, all accompanied by bok choy and slices of sweet persimmon and drizzled with a tangy XO sauce. The dish typifies the intense layering of flavors and textures that chef Justin Walker aims for. “I try to think about it cerebrally, then try not to translate all that thinking to the guest,” he says. “I like exotic things, but I don’t necessarily want to hit people in the face with them.”
Sometimes, though, one can’t help but see the cogs turning. A salad, for instance, consisted of raw, thinly shaved broccoli (crunchy), preserved Meyer lemon (sour), a Japanese seaweed-and-dried-fish seasoning (briny), pieces of red onion (oniony), and an avocado green goddess vinaigrette (creamy). Is that too much to chew on?
Danielle Walker, the general manager (and Justin’s wife), says that when Walkers Maine first opened, in early 2018, some customers balked at the ambitious menu. Both she and Justin had previously worked at Arrows, in Ogunquit, and Earth at Hidden Pond, in Kennebunkport, two similarly inventive New American restaurants. The couple opened Walkers Maine in the former Cape Neddick Inn Restaurant, where plates (although in the same middle to upper price range) had stuck to convention: chicken cordon bleu, blackened scallops, lobster mac and cheese. After they took over, it happened more than once that a group sat down, scanned the new lineup of offerings, and — much to their dismay — got up to leave.
Now, two years in, diners come through the door knowing what to expect from Justin’s kitchen, and the restaurant has hit its stride. A skewer of wood-roasted lamb atop Jacob’s cattle beans, with pickled lime and a North African herb sauce, was a savory comfort on a cold night. The pork chop, with poblano crema and kale salad dressed in pineapple-koji vinaigrette, played heartiness against brightness — and presented the kind of dish that explains why AAA gave Walkers Maine four diamonds and why Hospitality Maine, a trade association, recently named Justin and Danielle restaurateurs of the year.
1273 Rte. 1, Cape Neddick. 207-351-1145.
Snacks and appetizers $6–$22, entrées $14–$36.
Chef Justin Walker cooks with contemporary panache, but his main heat source is as traditional as can be: a wood-burning open hearth. From the dining room, guests can glimpse him and his staff tending the coals.
Danielle Walker’s wine program — with a focus on bottles from small vineyards in California, South America, and Europe — garnered the restaurant an Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator last year.
Despite the kudos, Walkers Maine is at its core a low-key establishment. Mixed and matched chairs and tables foster an air of informality, and couches in front of the dining room’s large fieldstone fireplace provide a stay-awhile perch for before- or after-dinner cocktails. The easy-drinking Arborist’s Desire riffs on an old-fashioned by combining bourbon, birch-bark–infused simple syrup, and orange zest, while mezcal, sherry, maple syrup, and lime come together in the Smoke & Mirrors for a citrusy, campfire-y sipper. For guests still shaking off the evening chill, cozy throws are stacked on the hearth.
The Walkers live nearby, with their young son, in a 1760 farmhouse. The 12-acre farm has been in Danielle’s family for five generations, and she oversees its operations now, growing many of the restaurant’s herbs and vegetables and tending to some two dozen dairy goats. That hardworking, family-run feel suffuses the restaurant, where the waitstaff will gladly let you take your dessert over by the fireplace at the end of the night. I recommend the fluffy brioche donut glazed with sarsaparilla and sassafras alongside a few scoops of vanilla ice cream. And I suggest lingering a while afterward, soaking in the warmth before heading back out into the night.