Having worked in the restaurant business for a number of years, I tend to avoid eating out when I know places are packed and servers are stressed, namely Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, and New Year’s Eve. One exception to my rule is Maine Restaurant Week. This year nearly 70 restaurants statewide offered specially priced, three-course lunch and dinner menus in addition to their regular menus. As I approach Walter’s for a Thursday night reservation during Restaurant Week, I see the host is busy. The dining room is bustling, but it feels comfortable, as though Walter’s is used to this type of volume.
Sitting at the bar before my reservation, the bartenders are focused and attentive. Within minutes, each bar stool is occupied and some diners are enjoying a more casual dinner in the lounge area. I have a few minutes to order a drink before I’m seated, and I take my time looking over the extensive drink list that’s divided into four sections: Walter’s Classics, Union Street Nouveaux, Classics, and Trendy. I order the Wild French Ginger cocktail from the Union Street Nouveaux section. It’s made with Citadelle French gin, Domaine de Canton ginger liquor, and a candied ginger garnish. Served straight up, the drink is balanced with a touch of heat from the ginger.
As I’m being seated in the dining room, I notice every table is filled and although I hear faint music, the primary sound in the room is people having a good time. With a glass of Saint-Meyland Brut sparkling rosé to start, I’m ready for a night of bold, creative flavors. Chef Jeff Buerhaus is a Maine native who began his culinary career in south Florida. His love of international cuisine and local ingredients is evident in the Maine shrimp tacos and lobster gnocchi, and the array of Asian flavors, Mediterranean dishes, and Caribbean spices peppered throughout the menu.
With so many options, I try one item from every category: a starter, cold and hot plates, a bowl, and a side dish. There are so many appetizers I want to try, but the crab cake served with roasted pineapple, Peruvian aji sauce, and sambal enagi drizzle sounds intriguing. Our server tells me that aji is a white sauce made from jalapeno peppers, lettuce, and aioli, and the enagi sauce, or eel sauce, is a sweet and spicy glaze usually drizzled over sushi in Japanese restaurants. The flavors work well togetherboth sauces play off of and complement the roasted pineapple and sweet crab meat. The Japanese Caesar salad from the cold plate section is a fun dish made with shredded romaine lettuce and crispy wonton strips. With a miso wasabi dressing, edamame, and cashews, each bite has a bit of heat and a whole lot of texture.
As side dishes, the locally foraged mushrooms and lobster macaroni and cheese are great additions to the menu. Like the rest of the menu, I expect this mac and cheese to be a version of a classic, but am surprised when I taste Stilton blue cheese. The torchio pasta, made in the shape of a torch, holds copious amounts of cheese sauce and I can’t decide how I feel about this unusual combination. But, I keep going back for more, savoring the lobster meat, buttery Ritz crackers, and creamy blue cheese. Before I know it, the plate is clean.
The Bolognese garganelli, homemade pasta that resembles penne, is teeming with red sauce and meat. There’s ground veal, pancetta, prosciutto de Parma, and guanciale, or pig jowl. The meat adds salt to the beautifully acidic tomato sauce, and crispy fried capers burst with each bite. Topped with a dollop of ricotta and ground herbs, this dish is comforting and filling. The braised short rib is fork tender, and the glaze made with Chinese Five spice, bird chilies, and mushrooms provides a warm and slightly tangy flavor. With charred shishito peppers, basmati rice, and long beans, the dish isn’t overwhelmingly rich.
With a glass of the Can Blau Syrah Grenache blend from Spain left to drink, dessert is in order. I try the crème brûlée, and by now fully expect it to be tweaked in some way. Pastry chef Sarah Coonradt adds a thin layer of Concord grape gelée to the bottom of the custard, and a buttery, flaky peanut butter cookie transforms this dessert into a whimsical take on a peanut butter and jelly. But then I try the miniature dessert sampler and find it’s the perfect way to enjoy three different flavors on one plate. There’s a rich dark chocolate torte with a caramelized banana, a warm chocolate chip banana brownie that reminds me of banana bread, and a peanut butter pie as thick and creamy as fudge.
Even in the midst of a busy Restaurant Week, Walter’s did not disappoint. I’m impressed by the entire experiencethe service, atmosphere, and creative flavor combinations. I look forward to my next visit when I can try that lobster macaroni and cheese one more time.
Two Portland Sq. | Portland | 207.871.9258 | waltersportland.com