There are restaurants that demand attention: Big sign. Prominent location. Chef’s name out front. Plenty of buzz. And there are restaurants that seem to shy away from the limelight, that give up their secrets slowly and startle you with their creativity. “This place has been here all along?” you think to yourself. “How did I miss it?
And “When can I go back?”
That’s Walter’s, a downtown restaurant in an innocuous office building that you might easily walk right by. I have one suggestion: Don’t.
The food at Walter’s is expertly cooked, fairly priced, beautifully presented and reflective of culinary traditions from the Far East, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. First-time visitors may be confused about the name or the address (or the dining room), but there’s no confusing the consistently excellent food.
First, the name: Walter doesn’t work here. He owned an eponymous (and admired) restaurant on Exchange Street in the ’90s. Chef Jeff Buerhaus and his wife, Cheryl (who runs the front of the house), bought that place and retained the name after moving to their current location in late 2009. Then the address: 2 Portland Square, which isn’t a square at all but a sprawling downtown office complex. You’ll find the actual restaurant entrance on Union Street, just north of Fore. And finally the dining room, which may be one of the reasons pedestrians pass Walter’s by. Online reviewers are routinely critical, calling the space “hotel-like,” “fusty” and “forgettable.” (It reminds me of a United Airlines Red Carpet Club – perfectly comfortable but a bit dated.) Jeff Buerhaus seems unperturbed: “The dining room is minimalist, that’s what people say. But I’m more focused on what we do in the kitchen.”
Raised in Auburn, educated at the Florida Culinary Institute in West Palm Beach and trained in restaurants around South Beach, Buerhaus calls his cooking “New World Cuisine … It embraces the types of cooking that interest me most – cuisines and ingredients from different regions, especially Asia.”
Take the Steak Bulgogi Bowl ($13) (“our version of Korean bibimbap,” Buerhaus says), which pairs flash-cooked shavings of barbecued sirloin with mounds of spicy marinated mung beans, sesame-soy spinach and house-made kimchee, all served on a bed of steamed white rice. It’s a piquant blend of contrasting flavors: at once sweet, sour and hot. I found myself layering the flavors and contrasts – a forkful of beef with a few grains of rice, a few leaves of peppery cabbage kimchee with the slithery sprouts. This is a dish to slow down and savor; it’s warming, substantial and deeply satisfying. (I dreamed about it during last week’s snowstorm.)
The inspiration for bouillabaisse ($8) may be Mediterranean instead of Asian, but the results are just as delicious. The base is a rich, concentrated fish fumet flavored with garlic, shallots and threads of saffron – the last lend the soup its distinctive golden color. And, like the bulgogi, there’s a tantalizing hint of sweetness, here in the broth from the saffron and the chunks of lobster that fill the shallow bowl. The portion size of this appetizer special was modest (servings at Walter’s are appropriate, not gargantuan) but quartered new potatoes and steamed mussels scattered in with the lobster made it extra filling. A slice of baguette came in handy to soak up every drop of the intense broth and to capture a single, tasty dill frond hiding at the bottom of the bowl.
A hint of sweetness made an appearance once again in fish tacos, vivid white morsels of grilled haddock combined with shreds of napa cabbage, a few shards of sharp white cheddar and a rosy tartar sauce. In this dish, too, Buerhaus plays different textures and temperatures against one another: cool cabbage with warm fish, crunchy slivers with flaky fillets. But I kept nibbling in search of that sweetness. Was it honey? No. Brown sugar? No way. Plum sauce? Finally, I gave up and asked the waitress: “There are mangoes and Sriracha in the tartar sauce,” she explained, an Asian-Caribbean marriage that the kitchen celebrates with enthusiasm and confidence.
Whether it’s his experience cooking in Florida, or his roots in New England, Buerhaus prepares seafood with exquisite care. The mussels and lobster in the bouillabaisse are tender and juicy, the haddock marvelously moist and flavorful. And the Wild Oysters on the appetizer menu ($16) – rapidly fried in oil with a thin coating of flour – are plump, buttery and maddeningly crisp. Buerhaus serves them with a dish of that same mango tartar sauce (sweetness once again), which provides a cool counterpoint to their steaming crunch.
“The oysters come from Rhode Island,” Buerhaus says. “We try to acquire locally, but I’m most interested in providing the best flavor and quality.” He says he’s experimented with local beef and pork, but “got complaints from customers.” Now most of his meat comes from the Midwest, while most of his seafood and produce come from local suppliers.
Buerhaus focuses on flavor, but the kitchen also does a fine job with service and presentation. All of our choices appeared on simple white plates that showcased the colorful ingredients – saffron-hued new potatoes, red lobster claws, vibrant green spinach and the grill-marked lime that accompanied the fish tacos. The plates are artful without being fussy – an approach that encourages you to dig in. Kudos to Walter’s for keeping it simple.
I wish my dessert of hazelnut marjolaine ($9) had been as good as the rest of the meal, but it was just, well, sugary. All the elements for something memorable were in place: mocha ganache, buttercream frosting, hazelnut pastry and a pool of dark chocolate underneath, but the buttercream overpowered the rest of the fragile dessert. I’ll skip the pastry on my next visit and order an extra appetizer – or another cup of coffee. It’s remarkably good here. And if you don’t laugh out loud at the tiny milk bottles filled with cream that accompany each cup, you need to lighten up.
First timers may be confused about Walter’s name or location. Fans will likely continue to debate the merits of the interior. But one thing is for certain. Walter’s is the real deal: an exceptional Old Port destination with cooking that is creative, assured and gratifying.
James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.