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John Golden

John Golden writes about food and has a highly opinionated blog, The Golden Dish.

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Posted: January 9, 2015

Walter’s, Portland: urbane dining in a stylish setting

A feast of color, many dashes of global cooking and in a setting that is chic and modern, Walter’s remains one of Portland’s defining moments of fine urban dining.

Written by: John Golden

That it sits at the base of Portland’s premier office towers – 1 and 2 Portland Square – Walter’s sets the stage for elegant dining nonpareil. (Note this tidbit of real estate gossip: The office towers have just gone under contract for a whopping $60 million.)

Dining here is a formidable event. Legions of Portland diners – from the business community to the city’s leisure class – call upon the kitchen for such favorites as chicken pita tzatziki (popular at lunch) or petite fillets (a must have at dinner). And Walter’s is the most architectural of Portland’s restaurant dining rooms. No brick walls, rafters or century-old floor boards – the look everywhere else. In my March 8, 2013 review, I likened the room to Mies van der Rohe’s venerable Pool Room at the  Four Seasons in New York’s Seagram’s Building on Park Avenue; that might have been a stretch, but by Portland standards the room is glamour incarnate, a touch of art moderne in a sea of brick and mortar.

The venerable Four Seasons (left) and Portland's Walter's in the bar room

The venerable Four Seasons (left) and Portland’s Walter’s in the bar room

As for the food, if I awarded stars, Walter’s would easily receive 5 for comfort, 4 for ambiance and 3 1/2 for its cuisine. That averages out to precisely 4.166 stars. (That begs a bigger question: Should a restaurant star rating system be digitized for absolute accuracy?)

The limestone-front facade,, the bar and the stylish entry

The limestone-front facade, the bar and the stylish entry

What raised the bar for me this time was a dish that I enjoyed immensely at a recent noontime meal. This was called guajillo carnitas, which is on the regular lunch menu.  Stunningly conceived, pork is spice rubbed and braised until meltingly tender and then swathed in a sweet and winey guajillo chile sauce. It’s further embellished with a thin veil of an orangey chipotle slather. As a garnish, pickle chips are breaded and fried and the pork is set on an outrageously delicious grilled wedge of corn bread. And as a final gilding, a dollop of pimento cheese crowns the top to massage the flavors gently as it melts down the towering façade of this amazing dish. It may seem built on a kitchen sink of ingredients, but then most of the preparations at Walter’s are the sum of many, many parts.

Guajillo carnitas, a fine luncheon dish

Guajillo carnitas, a fine luncheon dish

Chef and owner Jeff Buerhaus and sous chef Jason Laverdiere are the practitioners of the once-trendy global cuisine, a style of cooking that pre-dates fusion and the small-plate mania by a few decades and calls upon any number of cuisines, from Tashkent to Tasmania.

Dinner later that evening with two friends in tow was not, however, as fine as my earlier, stellar lunch.  On a Monday evening, which is notoriously a quiet night for restaurants, the frigid weather also prevented heavier turnout.

But we snuggled in at the bar room, a cozy space with large tables and equally large club chairs, which are, unfortunately, too low for the table.  The height issue makes you lean over your plate rather than sit upright. When the restaurant first opened (after years being on Exchange Street) these chairs were even more problematic. Management’s solution was to lower the tables. It’s better but not perfect. The only solution is correctly proportioned chairs.  Still, it’s a snappy room in which to dine and you can forgive this fault – ultimately a relatively minor one.

Clockwise, the inner dining room, the bar at night, banquettes, bar tables

Clockwise, the inner dining room, the bar entry at night, banquettes, bar tables

Buerhaus’s menu is a fanciful romp through a whole host of ingredients that define his global cuisine: The nuances of Japanese, Mexican, Thai and Greek cooking prevail often – sometimes appearing all at once on the plate. But that’s his shtick, a style of cooking that has hardly changed in years.

At dinner, a starter of tuna tartare lacked an essential citrusy bite, and I wasn’t thrilled with the texture either; the tuna was chopped too finely instead of firmer cubes of fish.  But the moistening of chili aioli helped as did pickled radish, creamy avocado and an assertive dash of scallion oil added interest.

Tuna tartare

Tuna tartare

One of my guests ordered the wedge, which was built upon baby iceberg layered with chorizo (instead the traditional bacon), avocado, chipotle buttermilk blue cheese and fried shallots. It was beautifully presented and the flavors were an interesting departure from the usual stickiness of a wedge salad.

A side dish of sauteed Brussels sprouts and the wedge salad

A side dish of sauteed Brussels sprouts in soy and sesame and the wedge salad

My other guest lapped up his butternut squash soup; Buerhaus’s soups are generally silken. A touch of Thai curry, peeky toe crab, Lebanese lime yogurt and smoked peanut dust all offered a veritable frolic through the spice route.

Entrees were very attractively presented – some built horizontally and others as vertical towers, another holdover from 90s cooking made fashionable by Alfred Portale, the New York chef who’s credited with the early advancement of New American cuisine.

The breast of duck that I chose as an entrée was classic: tender medallions of breast meat aloft on a silky-smooth sweet potato puree with sliced carrots (a little bit of color redundancy), faro in a spice-trade cider reduction and garnished with microgreens.

One guest had the double petite fillets – two tournedos in a classic Port-laced veal stock reduction with roasted fingerlings and cippolini onions.  Though cooked medium rare, the meat bordered on being dry. On other occasions, however, it’s been a superb dish.

Two fine entrees, breast of duck and petite fillets

Two fine entrees, breast of duck and petite fillets

Perhaps the finest entrée of the evening was the “forbidden shrimp,” a riff on Asian cooking with the emperor’s (black) rice, Chinese sausage, edamame, shimeji (mushrooms) and a glazing of Korean (bulgogi) style barbecue sauce. The dish was all Buerhaus flexing his culinary muscle and dipping his brush into the color spectrum that can make a dish so beautiful to look at.

Forbidden shrimp

Forbidden shrimp

A divinely creamy praline cheesecake, which we all shared, and some excellent coffee was the perfect ending to a fine meal well attended to by an excellent service staff.

Praline cheesecake

Praline cheesecake

Interestingly with so much going on in Portland’s varied dining scene, Walter’s remains in its own exalted sphere. It’s not Asian fusion, new-wave Chinese, small-plate incantations or regional American and European cuisines, but, rather, it takes the best of many cooking styles and artfully presents them in a universal approach that still has merit.

Walter’s

2 Portland Square, Portland | 207-871-9258 | http://waltersportland.com/

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