Understated indulgence

The elegant new Walter’s
By BRIAN DUFF  |  May 19, 2010

UMAMI TO THE MAX “Forbidden shrimp” at Walter

In economic times like these, the decision to invest in a nice dinner out is not to be taken lightly. Just as spooked investors flock to old-reliables like gold or treasury bonds, diners feel the pull of familiar favorites. As one of the only Portland restaurants that’s been around since the last time Kennebunkport’s Bush family triggered a recession, Walter’s (which opened in 1989) fills the bill.

WALTER’S | 2 Portland Square, Portland | lunch daily 11:30 am-2:30 pm; dinner Sun-Thurs 5-9 pm, Fri-Sat 5-9:30 pm | Visa, MC, Amex, Disc | 207.871.9258 | walterscafe.com
But the restaurant’s recent move to Portland Square complicates matters. The new location transforms the feel of Walter’s completely. Back when it was in the heart of the Old Port, Walter’s squeezed in among the shops on Exchange Street, and tried to make the most of its tall but narrow charming brick-walled space. The new Walter’s, a few blocks west on Portland Square, trades its charm for a more contemporary elegance. The space is warm, with some nice details like splotchy glass lamps and an elegant curve of wood along the ceiling. They put a lot of thought into the bar, and it’s very inviting. In the dining room carpet and curtained walls dampen the noise so you can carry on conversation easily. While the space is much roomier than the old location, you remain aware of the bank looming above you. The effect is a bit like a restaurant in a hotel.

Ever since its current chef, Jeff Buerhaus, took over Walter’s in 2004, his eclectic approach to combining flavors and ingredients has struck some diners as brilliant, and others as undisciplined. Based on our experience, the result of the chef’s approach resulted in a reversal of a recent trend in fine dining. Often these days, chefs use appetizers to try something interesting, and send out entrées that are competent but predictable. At Walter’s, by contrast, the appetizers pushed the chef’s experiments with flavors a little too far, but the entrées, by backing off a bit, struck just the right note.

Even so, the appetizers were undeniably interesting. But we would have enjoyed the heat of the chilies in the spice-dusted calamari if there had been less brown sugar giving the dish a slight confectionary flavor. A thick, tangy aioli cut the sweetness somewhat. Some bites included the sharpness of the scattered capers, or the tightly curled slices of candied jalapeno, which also cut through the sugars. A ravioli appetizer was served with a sweet ginger-chili butter that resembled a tamarind sauce except that a gingery heat lingers in your nose. Grilling the pasta until it was crispy helped it stand up to the thin sauce. The flavor of the lemongrass chicken tucked inside got lost a bit, though.

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