Getting what you pay for is such an important principle of American culture that we probably should find some way to include it in our national anthem. Better yet, emblazon it on our currency. Our adherence to this idea is a large part of the reason why we struggle with our relationship with wine – a product that doesn’t follow linear rules very well. Why, we collectively ask, shouldn’t a bottle that costs $80 be four times as good as one that costs $20? The answer, as Mark Zuckerberg might say: “It’s complicated.”

So when I hear about an American restaurant that prices itself well within the “special occasion” range, it makes me a little nervous. Charge more, and people expect more. Charge upwards of $200 for the least expensive set menu and a drink apiece for two people, as Portland’s Tempo Dulu does, and you bravely set expectations of perfection.

Co-owners Raymond Brunyanszki and Oscar Verest, whose midcoast Camden Harbour Inn and restaurant Natalie’s both are part of the exclusive Relais & Chateaux network, are no strangers to high standards. The duo runs Tempo Dulu from within the swank Danforth Inn, and have made great efforts to create a sense of luxury across every aspect of the dining experience.

It begins with the restaurant’s space: a blend of styles, with architecture and rich, simple window dressings representing the traditional, and furniture – from a glossy gray coffee table in the shape of a smooth river stone to clear, smoked Lucite chairs representing the contemporary. Mostly, it all works to great effect, giving the space a unique sense of historically anchored modernism.

Sonically, the experience of dining at the mostly Indonesian Tempo Dulu can be a little less high-end. The soundtrack that chugs along over the sound system is pure downtempo electronic dance music – occasionally a little intrusive and out of place. Every time I have visited Tempo Dulu, I have been distracted from my conversation by the same chillout remix of Spandau Ballet’s 1983 hit, “True” mugging for attention in the background. It’s disorienting to be somewhere that makes you feel like you’re eating sambal in a sumptuous 1823 New England mansion that has somehow washed up on the shores of Ibiza.

All of these qualities have remained largely the same since the restaurant opened last year. What has changed recently is the chef. This summer, Michael MacDonnell (formerly of Natalie’s) took over the kitchen. I was interested to see how, under his aegis, things had changed since this paper’s four-star notice from 2015. In that review, critic James Schwartz described the experience of visiting Tempo Dulu as “intensely sensual,” lauding the restaurant’s unbending focus on intense flavors.

I was fortunate to have two recent data points for comparison, spaced apart by only a few weeks. One from a dinner early this autumn, while MacDonnell was still preparing dishes that were not of his own design, and the other just after the launch of his signature menu in mid-October.

Both meals started with the same tiny bites, served several minutes apart: a beet tartare with halibut and macadamia nuts, and a wonderful sample of swordfish salad with fermented soy, floral micro-cilantro and thin shavings of vinegary pickled butternut squash.

Served in larger quantity, the second amuse-bouche would have made a much better chef’s-choice “middle course” for the $69 menu, rather than a slightly tough and vanishingly small square of cured salmon, topped with a single cured mussel and two excellent vinegared components: a slice of dilly bean and a pink iris of pickled onion.

Like an alchemist, MacDonnell uses simple white vinegar (along with a little salt and sugar) to create some of his most magical flavors. With it, he pickles raisins to give a welcome tang to a sticky caramelized banana dessert. He also uses it to transform Fresno chilies into an acidic paste that he sweetens further with reduced orange juice to create an atomic orange sambal.

That sambal brings fiery life to perhaps the kitchen’s best dish: A crisp-tender tapioca-and-rice flour chive cake that has been steamed, then deep fried and served with smoked scallop and pork belly. The sambal makes it nominally Indonesian, but the flavors evoke Thai chive cakes (kanom gui chai) and their Chinese ancestor, the scallion pancake (cong you bing).

“Everywhere you go in Southeast Asia, you use basically the same ingredients – it’s just different techniques. And no matter where you go, China has a hold,” MacDonnell said. “It’s the first ‘serious’ cuisine people were taught to cook, so there’s a heavy influence.”

This is only one example of cultural cross-pollination you’ll find throughout the menu. MacDonnell, who has been cooking Thai and Laotian food for nearly two decades, has brought that expertise to bear across his menu, such as in an elegant tom yum-style appetizer showcasing mushrooms prepared three ways, all wading knee-deep in a lemongrassy coconut broth, poured by the server from a teapot. Or a rare massaman curry-flavored hangar steak served with a stunning kale-wrapped block of brisket confit, fried potatoes and crunchy lotus seeds.

So too, the seared, tamarind-glazed foie gras with pickled turnip and rice cracker – inspired by flavors from classic pad Thai – that offers a lovely balance of acid, toasty smokiness and funk from fish sauce, along with a brash textural contrast.

Or a spectacular sweet sticky rice that isn’t at all what it claims to be. Rather, this inventive dessert is made up of crunchy, toasted rice clusters with a creamy lime drizzle, a precise one-inch cube of barely caramelized pineapple and a mango sorbet that detonates with kaffir lime leaf flavor the instant it hits your mouth.

There’s also a Penang poached lobster tail that explores an imagined culinary intersection between Maine and Malaysia. Served with a warm coconut-and-turmeric rice and grilled lychees, there is an almost playfully understated quality to the way this dish pairs lush components with light, simple ones. “The challenge is not to leave people feeling heavy,” MacDonnell said. “I want people to leave and be able to go dancing and not feel like they need to lie down immediately.”

When the kitchen delivers clearly Indonesian-inspired dishes, the results are generally strong. MacDonnell and his team make a mean (and lip-numbing) sambal egg, buried in a loose mound of jasmine rice as part of the rijsttafel ($85) – a chef’s tasting menu highlighting a spectrum of flavors and techniques. The gingery beef rendang and gorgeously aromatic coconut curry chicken – served as part of the rijsttafel I sampled on my earlier visit – were both exquisitely, impossibly tender, as if they had been simmered and slow cooked for weeks, not prepared that day.

Unfortunately, a few of the rijsttafel dishes were underseasoned, including watery wok-cooked squid, and curried, banana-leaf steamed arctic char that tasted less like the curry and more like the steam.

Then there’s spekkoek, a many-layered traditional Indonesian cake. One version I sampled at Tempo Dulu was phenomenal, with star anise, apple, and an almost buttery coconut ice cream. The second, with maple ice cream and supremed, glazed orange was less so. The ice cream was both seasonal and a satisfying counterbalance to the citrus. But the unnecessarily potent cinnamon crumble overwhelmed everything on the plate, tasting like crunchy nuggets of potpourri.

Despite a few hiccups here and there: some related to food, and some to service (including one visit where I stood, wet umbrella in hand, without being greeted or even acknowledged by staff for ten full minutes), Tempo Dulu possesses an undeniable allure of sophistication. The parts of this machine that work, really work, and the parts that don’t feel like they could be fixed with a damp cloth and a few shots of WD-40.

Our neighbors at a nearby table on one visit were visiting bankers and their spouses – people who said things like, “20 basis points won’t get me out of bed,” and, “Everything changed when I bought the island…”. They couldn’t stop marveling that they had found a place quite so high-end in our small city. “It’s almost as good as that place we went for our anniversary in Boston,” one remarked. She meant well, but that qualified praise would probably have made Tempo Dulu’s owners blanch, because a restaurant with such lofty aspirations and prices simply can’t afford the costliest luxury good of them all: an “almost.”

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

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Twitter: @AndrewRossME