I didn’t expect I would need a calculator during my dinner at Walkers Maine in Cape Neddick. “Four … five …” My dinner guest interrupted my count when I hit six. “What in the world are you doing?” he asked. “Hold on,” I replied, then picked up where I left off. “I’m counting the number of ingredients in this little salad on the side of my salmon ($24). I lost count at 10,” I said, grabbing my phone to jot down as many as I could remember.

Some served a clear purpose – olive-oil-toasted croutons for crunch, watercress for peppery bite, mandoline-shaved slices of fresh peach for sweetness – while others got lost in the teeming throng: thin strips of practically flavorless day-lily petals and a single garlic scape, grilled in the open hearth. And that was just the salad. Next to it sat the putative star of the dish, a slow-cooked salmon fillet, dressed with brunoised peaches and peach-leaf verjus reduction. It was lukewarm and forlornly cracked apart.

When I asked chef/owner Justin Walker (formerly the executive chef at Earth at Hidden Pond and chef de cuisine at Arrows) about it a few days later, he explained how the dish was intended to recreate the feel of a home-cooked meal prepared outdoors, “like having a summer dinner on your patio, with all those same feelings and flavors,” he said. While I certainly understand the panic and frustration of preparing an overly complicated meal where everything is ready at different times, I am sure that isn’t what Walker meant.

None of this is to say that individual elements of the dish weren’t delightful, like the house-made ricotta that Walker makes from milk from the 30 dairy goats that he and his wife, Danielle Walker, the restaurant’s general manager and co-owner, raise together on their farm four miles away. Or torn shreds of wood-roasted oyster mushrooms, dripping olive oil and salt down the accordions of their underbellies. Give me a plate with those two components alone, and I’ll happily place an order for another helping.

Walkers Maine in Cape Neddick

That is, if the server can understand what I’m saying. Ours had a hard time hearing herself as she ran through, ingredient by ingredient, the recipe for a recent evening’s specials. At one point, she was forced to stop until the clamor in the bar dining room dropped a few decibels, then started her speech over at the beginning. “You’ll have to excuse us. Sometimes, it can be a little crazy in here,” she apologized.

I was pretty sure I had heard her correctly when she described the peekytoe crab salad ($14) as “a work of abstract art.” Indeed, when it arrived at the table, she used the same phrase again, urging us to take a moment to appreciate its composition in the iridescent, carnival-glass dish before stirring it together ruined the effect. My guest and I did as we were told, then broke into giggles when she was out of earshot. We were staring at a bowl of mise en place.

The peekytoe crab salad is a cool, delicately peppery riff on a Thai som tum salad.

The real pleasure came once it had all been combined into a cool, delicately peppery riff on a Thai som tum salad, using diced green nectarines in place of shredded papaya and a one-two punch of umami from lobster coral and smoky, dehydrated scallop feet. Together, they sketched invisible exclamation points and underlines that emphasized the Maine crab’s fragile sweetness.

Not all of Justin Walker’s remixed Asian dishes work as well. My order of plancha-griddled scallion pancakes ($8) were unbelievably salty, tough, and so oily that their malt-vinegar dipping sauce would not adhere to any part of them, inside or out. “It’s like a Slip N Slide,” my guest noted, pointing out the rivulet of oil running down my shirt.

Quite a bit better, the daikon rice cakes with lamb belly ($10), an adaptation of Chinese dim sum classic, luo bo gao (pan-fried turnip cake), took a minute or two in their cast-iron skillet to cool to a mouth-friendly temperature. When they did, I found the seared cubes of funky daikon beautifully seasoned and soft inside, like polenta traveling undercover. They also held their texture well in the sauce, which was not as good: a saccharine reduction of Shaoxing rice wine, tamari, lemon juice and palm sugar. Slices of mild red pepper on top only made the dish sweeter, and if there was lamb belly anywhere in the pan, I couldn’t find any trace of it.

Then there’s the whole/half-chicken ($24/$48), served impossibly juicy, mere seconds from the deep-fryer. “I think of it like an Asian dish that’s not actually Asian,” Justin Walker told me, describing its two-day brine, followed by a pre-frying steam. It’s a traditional Chinese technique, recently made popular by Momofuku chef David Chang, and it’s a fantastic way to prepare crisp fried chicken to-order. Here, the kitchen dredges each bird in chickpea flour and plates it with a mammoth scoop of peekytoe-fortified German potato salad and a tiny jug of salsa verde made from the kitchen’s leftover lacto-fermented vegetables.

The whole fried chicken was a revelation.

“No,” our server told us, when she caught sight of us eating unsauced, naked slices of chicken. “You need to pour that green salsa on there to get the full effect.” We thanked her politely, then carried on devouring shreds of dewy white meat. Fifteen minutes later, she gave us a tutorial in how to eat our dessert: “Take a bit of the layered crepe cake ($8), dip it in the feuilletine (crunchy, caramelized shards of crepe), and grab some of the ice cream and sliced peaches on your fork, too,” she instructed. I was tempted to ask if we’d be quizzed later, but I nodded and tucked in.

She was right: If not engineered into a perfect bite, the dessert was imbalanced. The “cake,” actually alternating layers of crepe and pastry cream, was bland and not very sweet on its own, but coated in feuilletine crumbs, it worked. The lacewing-green ice cream, infused with newly sprouted peach leaves, improved each bite, adding a beguiling flavor akin to herbs crushed together with bitter almonds. Still, it’s hard to truly fall in love with a dessert that requires directions.

A week later, I believe much of the restaurant’s tilt toward over-complication is accidental, a relic of Justin Walker’s time creating high-concept, fine-dining menus at Earth. When I asked him about the food at Walkers Maine, he focused on the role of his hardwood-fired fireplace hearth. “We go through a cord of wood a week because we cook as much as we can on it, so there’s more soul to the food here. I wanted to do food that people could relate to. Also, I have to look at the public in this area and what they’re interested in,” he said. “This isn’t the place to do hake throats and lamb kidneys.”

The beguiling crepe cake with peach leaf gelato required a bit of work to assemble the perfect bite.

Equally, is it the place for lacto-fermented salsa verde and dehydrated scallop foot vinaigrette?

It is true that the menu orbits around easily recognizable proteins: salmon, chicken, New York strip steak ($40). But convoluted preparations spell an end to the simplicity of those fundamental ingredients. Very little at Walkers Maine is linear, and some dishes are better off because of it. Others snarl themselves into knots that even seasonality and soulful, open-fire cooking can’t untangle.

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. Contact him at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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