Walters (Portland, ME)

Walters has been one of my favorite Portland lunch spots for a few years now, and I am not alone—the restaurant is constantly packed at lunchtime as it really caters to the power lunch crowd. In a city that offers a formidable amount of compelling dining options (though comparably few nice lunch options), Walters has always distinguished itself through its aggressive fusion style. I have never been for dinner, but the evening menu is even more effusive in its baroque cross-cultural approach. Although I am not usually in Portland during lunchtime, my dad and I were in town on a recent weekday and we took advantage of the opportunity to return.

Walters attracted a good deal of attention a few years ago when it relocated from Exchange Street to the current location at Portland Square. The new location feels more ‘big city’ (insofar as this is possible in Portland), analogous to the relocation L’Espalier undertook in 2008 when it moved from the townhouse on Gloucester Street to its current location on Boylston. To my mind, the relocation had a major impact on the restaurant’s identity, as the Exchange Street location was better synched with the funky cuisine. At the same time, Walters has always maintained a discrepancy between its cuisine and the clientele, with a contrast between its eccentric dishes and business-focused patrons. In this regard, the severe ambiance of the current location reflects a commitment to the customer base, even if the setting does not exactly correspond with the cooking.

The menu at Walters is immense on two levels; first, there are a huge amount of options, with 6 salads, 4 “Bowls,” and 9 “Sandwiches and Such.” Second, each dish appears to have more ingredients than necessary—or at least, they list more ingredients than most restaurants. While I usually prefer briefer menu descriptions as they avoid ‘giving too much away,’ I think the long captions are necessary in order to show off the chef’s multicultural agenda. There were many interesting options, but I chose the “Voodoo Stew,” which I have ordered on each past visit. I also ordered a side Japanese Caesar, which was to be coursed distinct from the entrée. My dad selected the “Chicken Tosto,” which was basically a chicken panini.

The Japanese Caesar was so named because it combines the requisite romaine hearts with miso wasabi dressing, smashed edamame, cashews, and strips of wonton. It was visually underwhelming, but this is usually the case with this salad genre. The taste made up for the appearance, with the miso and cashew particularly refreshing. This was a surprisingly balanced dish and it is easy to see why it has been on the menu for a long time.

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My dad’s chicken sandwich provided a bit more color than the salad, courtesy of the red cabbage. It was not what I would have ordered but he enjoyed it and that is what matters.

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I had high expectations for the Voodoo Stew—one of the main reasons for lunching at Walters was so that I could enjoy it once again. I don’t understand where this dish gets its name, but it is commensurate with the faint silliness of the cuisine. The ingredients include shrimp, chicken, chorizo, mussels, tomatillos, dirty rice, tortillas, and a spicy broth involving lime and beer. The ingredients were fun and an intuitive fusion between Mexican and Spanish cuisines. Unfortunately, this preparation was pretty sloppy; the rice was entirely bland and the tortillas didn’t even appear to be grilled. This dish was a good reminder of the importance of consistency in evaluating a restaurant. There are a few “ritual” dishes I order every time I go to a restaurant—the lobster with cognac coral butter at White Barn Inn, or the mussels at Street & Company, for example—and I love dining at these restaurants because I know my favorite items will meet the established standard. Before this lunch, I viewed the Voodoo Stew in these terms, but moving forward I would have a very tough time ordering the dish.

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We still had some time on our hands and took a look at the interesting dessert menu. I am often let down by dessert menus, but virtually every option looked satisfying. In the end, we chose the sticky toffee bread pudding, which was served with caramel sauce and unnecessary powdered sugar. The bread pudding itself had a textbook execution, and the caramel was appropriate; however, a liquor of some sort would have added some depth. Interestingly, the online menu now mentions that the dessert is served with a brandy sauce, and this would have really enhanced the preparation. Still, the iteration we received was certainly competent.

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Ultimately, this lunch was the definition of hit or miss, with the lackluster main course bookended with a super salad and solid dessert. Even if my main course was a disappointment, the elephantine scope of the menu ensures that I’ll find something to my liking next time. Fusion cuisine is an easy punching bag because so many of the ingredient combinations are antithetical and a bit ridiculous (in a good way), but the menu combinations were accessible enough. In the end, as Portland’s preeminent member of the fusion genre Walters packs a punch and its novelty makes it worth returning to periodically.

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