We dine out for different reasons. Sometimes it comes down to convenience – letting someone else do the cooking for a change. Occasionally it’s to mark a milestone with a meal that’s creatively presented and carefully served. Or perhaps it’s to try something resolutely different – a new restaurant, a new chef or a new dish that’s getting attention. Of course, there’s always hunger: We dine out in search of satisfaction. And, with apologies to Gertrude Stein, a pang is a pang is a pang.

There’s another reason to dine at Tempo Dulu, the ambitious new restaurant inside the Danforth Inn on Portland’s West End: for an intensely sensual experience. Dining here is like spending a few hours at a luxurious spa. And if absolutely everything you try is not to your liking, you still return home feeling pampered. The warm hand towels brought to the table when you arrive are perfumed with jasmine and frangipani, fragrances that linger throughout the meal. The walls of the exquisitely decorated space are covered with eye-catching works of contemporary art that make the warmly lighted rooms look more like prestigious galleries than prosaic dining rooms. Sounds all around are low and muted, including the footfalls of the wait staff who practice their exacting choreography in rubber-soled slippers. And the extravagant Southeast Asian-inspired dishes – almost all of them aromatic and deeply flavorful – are unlike any you’re liable to taste elsewhere in Maine. “Tempo dulu” may be an Indonesian phrase loosely translated as “olden days,” but there’s nothing passé or predictable about an evening here.

First the menus: There are three. A three-course prix fixe menu ($69) allows you to order an appetizer, an entrée and one dessert, and is enhanced with artful surprises from the kitchen. A chef’s tasting menu ($87) features rijsttafel (the traditional Indonesian-Dutch meal of rice and spicy side dishes), and a lobster tasting menu ($98) features, well, lobster.

The first surprise that appears in advance of the three-course menu is a Damariscotta oyster served on a bed of pink salt and peppercorns. Tilt the shell toward your tongue and the plump oyster slithers out on a fragrant wave of foam infused with Thai basil. In the midst of your reverie, this plate is removed and replaced with another holding a miniscule quail egg served with a few drops of spicy aioli and topped with crunchy slivers of fried shallot. The cool white of the egg is a marvelous foil for the fiery sauce, which is blended with sriracha. And in place of a yolk there’s a tiny spoonful coconut charcoal – yes, charcoal – bound with a dollop of Japanese mayonnaise. The filling is smooth and creamy with the vaguest mineral taste. It’s abundantly clear we’re not in Kansas anymore.

“My background is in French cuisine, and I trained at Le Cordon Bleu in London,” says executive chef Lawrence Klang, who opened the restaurant in June. “But Tempo Dulu is all about the flavors and scents of Indonesia and Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma and Cambodia … wholly new flavors and profiles for me and many of our guests.”

With the support of Tempo Dulu’s Dutch owners, Raymond Brunyanszki and Oscar Verest, who also own the Camden Harbour Inn and Natalie’s restaurant, Klang spent 2014 traveling throughout Southeast Asia and cooking in Bangkok, Bali and Singapore. Back in Maine, he built a menu that’s focused on “authenticity” (it’s why he makes his own, tear-inducing sambal sauce with a traditional combination of chili paste, palm sugar and ginger) “and flavor – just pure flavor.”


You taste both in the duck leg, a Chinese-inspired appetizer marinated in palm sugar and soy, and then fried. The meat is tender and crispy at the same time, a marriage of contrasting textures underscored by other morsels on the plate: shards of fried shallot and fried garlic that deliver extra crunch, and a piece of foie gras, as smooth as Thai silk, that melts away and leaves you longing for more.

Another appetizer, the Maine crab and shrimp cake, is less tantalizing. It’s served with hot mustard coconut butter and a lemon grass-tomato confit, but despite the accompaniments the shellfish tastes bland and the cake itself is a bit rubbery. Mild disappointment is quickly forgotten, however, with the arrival of another surprise from the kitchen, a mouthful of spiced apple sorbet, sweetened with honey, that cleanses the palate before the entrees arrive.

When choosing among five entrees, we followed the waiter’s advice and ordered Sumatra lamb, rosy slices of lamb loin scattered with raisins and set atop a pool of curry sauce. The lamb was certainly good, and the curry exotic – the sweet-sour taste of tamarind here, a whiff of cinnamon and coconut there – but our second entrée, steamed halibut with Bang Island mussels and yellow curry, was extraordinary. The halibut is marinated briefly with kaffir lime leaves and lime juice blended with coconut milk, then steamed and served with a few mussels and a spicy yellow curry. The smell alone was intoxicating, and the balance of flavors brilliant – the clean taste of the meaty, succulent fish, the rich fire of the curry and the simplicity of the steamed rice, which offset the heat of the dish.

If you still need to cool things down, Tempo Dulu offers a chilled passion fruit and saffron panna cotta for dessert that Klang says was inspired by sweets he tried in Vietnam. The dessert menu also includes spekkoek, a type of cake popular in Europe that was introduced to Indonesia during the “olden days” of Dutch colonization and evolved in its new Southeast Asian home. Spiced with star anise and cinnamon, it’s served here with coconut ice cream. While the texture is slightly dry, it’s a visual knock out. Slice into it and you realize it’s composed of ultra-thin layers no thicker than crepes, each piled on top of the next like carefully stacked cards in a deck. None of the portions – from appetizers to desserts – is extravagant, but the exuberant parade of dishes, and the creativity on display, leave you wanting little more.

Tempo Dulu isn’t for everyone. Much of the spicing is unapologetically intense; the tamarind in the curry, for example, or the chilies in the sambal. A few of the dishes (like the crab and shrimp cake) pale next to more flavorful options. And the place is definitely pricey for Maine: Couples who choose the most affordable of the three menus must still expect to spend well north of $150 dollars, excluding drinks. But if you’re dining out in search of something memorable, flavorful – and above all, sensual – Tempo Dulu is the place to go.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines. He received the Maine Press Association’s First Place Critic’s Award in 2015.

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