Same Name, New Energy
FEAST-March 2010 (from Maine Home+Design)
By Rebecca Falzano
Photographs by Darren Setlow
On one of those beyond-blustery winter nights when talking about the weather is almost inevitable, customers entering the new Walter’s skip the small talk and cut straight to the chase: “Wow, this looks so different!” they say while shedding their coats and gloves. They’re talking, of course, about the restaurant’s new digs on Union Street in Portland, not far from where it formerly lived on Exchange Street for the past two decades.
Despite having owned Walter’s for five years now, chef Jeff Buerhaus—along with his wife, business partner, and general manager, Cheryl Buerhaus—believe the move is a chance to restart the business. “People always talked about the previous owner, Walter [Loeman], and didn’t realize the restaurant had changed hands and that it was ours,” explains Jeff on an afternoon in December, as he stands amid stacks of newly ordered plates and flatware just days before the restaurant opened.
Creating a new space with the help of Port City Architecture, interior designer Judy Schneider of Interior Resources, and builder Shane Estes of RSE Construction was a much-anticipated way to finally make the restaurant their own. So when their lease was up on Exchange Street, the Buerhauses found an available ground-floor location in the TD Bank building on Union. The space was so ideally suited to their needs and vision they simply could not pass it up.
“We love that it has a real city feel with the big windows looking out onto the sidewalk,” says Jeff. And, of course, there was the additional space—roughly 1,800 square feet—which allowed for a spacious bar and lounge area, not to mention a kitchen twice the size of their last. With the new lounge area and a bar menu available from 2:30 p.m. to midnight, Walter’s now fills a void in downtown Portland’s culinary scene, which has no shortage of dinner places and lunch spots but few offerings that are open either before dinner or after other eateries close.
While the space was a must-have, it offered a few challenges initially. “At first we thought the ceiling was too high, that it might be too cavernous in the dining room,” says Jeff. Architects Andrew Hyland and Mark Chaloupecky broke up the 16-foot-high dining room with wooden acoustical panels. “We wanted to take advantage of the high ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows, but didn’t want to make guests feel like they were sitting in a fishbowl. We brought the lighting down and used some of the old lighting pendants to give volume up there, and also create a more intimate feel,” explains Hyland.
As the interior designer, Schneider was charged with transforming what was “just a big box” into a space with upscale ambience, while also retaining the intimate neighborhood feel of the old Walter’s—no easy task. Working closely with the builder and architects, Schneider brought Jeff and Cheryl’s wish list (“trendy,” “comfortable”) to life using wood, heavy curtains, a custom gas fireplace near the entry, and a warm palette of reds, which are “good for the appetite,” she says. A wall-sized wine rack doubles as built-in storage and eye-catching display. Some of the chairs were recycled from the old Walter’s and refinished by Estes in his woodworking shop, where he also built the restaurant’s new custom tables.
While the ambience at Walter’s is entirely new, the menu still includes many of the local favorites that loyal customers return for again and again. Buerhaus struck a balance between the restaurant’s well-loved fare and his own personal taste for fusion cuisine—what he calls “New American with global influences”—dishes such as pan-seared duck breast with chile corn fritters, cipollini jam, leg confit, and pomegranate demiglaze, or lamp lollipops with root-vegetable mash, Moxie barbeque, bright lights swiss chard, and fried shaved garlic.
Jeff has been combining Asian and Western ingredients long before fusion cuisine came into vogue. The Maine native grew up loving food and watching his mother, an avid cook, grow the ingredients she used to create the family recipes. After attending the Florida Culinary Institute, he stayed in Florida for several years and developed a passion for the flavors and cooking styles of the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and Asia while working at Mark’s Los Olas in Fort Lauderdale. After he moved back to Maine, Jeff managed the now-closed Cotton Street Tropical Bar and Grill and another Walter-owned establishment, Perfetto’s.
In Maine, local farms continue to supply much of the food served by Portland restaurants, and Jeff recognizes that his cuisine does not lend itself easily to the use of local ingredients. “Obviously, saffron’s not local and we can’t get Caribbean vegetables like chayote here or dried Mexican peppers,” he says. Still, Jeff is on the hunt for locally sourced produce and fish, and he hopes to find a nearby farm that can partner with him.
In addition to the devoted loyal following cultivated over the roughly twenty years that Walter’s has been in existence, the Buerhauses hope the restaurant’s new energy will draw in a more diverse clientele. “We’re hoping to tap into the young, hip, professional crowd,” says Jeff. “We’re excited to see who comes to the door, if anybody.”
It’s only been three months, but it’s already clear: people are definitely coming through the door.