Great food is largely the child of fresh, inventive combinations. Jeff Buerhaus, chef/owner of Walter’s in Portland, makes such spontaneous combos his nightly gig.
Jeff Buerhaus has a quiet, unassuming manner. The food he prepares, however, is the exact opposite. Inspired by foods from all over the globe, Buerhaus, the chef/owner of Walter’s in Portland, has created a menu that comes across like good jazz—inventive, tasty, and full of spontaneity.
The spontaneity comes, in part, from Buerhaus’s practice of creating his menu around fresh ingredients and intriguing flavor profiles, a practice he honed at Mark’s Los Olas, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he cut his culinary teeth. “I was doing fusion cooking before it really even had a name,” Buerhaus says. Here in Maine, his menu items do have names, often whimsical ones like Cracklin’ Calamari, Caesar Haystack, Strawberry Fields, and Forbidden Shrimp.
While Buerhaus and his wife, Cheryl, have created a sense of relaxed adventure at Walter’s, the pair obviously run a tight ship. No order notepads here in these sophisticated digs. “We memorize things at Walter’s,” a server named Nicole says. “We’re like family here—but Cheryl doesn’t put up with any nonsense.” There’s no nonsense in Buerhaus’s kitchen, either. Plates of starters, salads, entrees, and sides arrive deftly presented, with each ingredient thoughtfully chosen, cut, layered, and seasoned.
Buerhaus has as much concern about the textures as the tastes of his menu. His Loch Duart Salmon (see recipe below), for instance, is wrapped in edible rice paper and gently grilled with a fresh cilantro leaf placed on top of it, leaving behind a lacy appliqué. The accompanying bamboo-scented rice and sesame spinach add a unique flavor and color effect. “The entire dish—the look, the colors, the textures, and, of course, the flavors—all play a role in making it a success,” Buerhaus says.
A native of Auburn, Buerhaus credits his career choice to his forever-in-the-kitchen mom. “My mother always created great food,” he says, “and came up with some family recipes that are still being repeated.” After deciding on a culinary career, Buerhaus made his way south to the Florida Culinary Institute to broaden his horizons. “I loved the training I got there, and the foods I was introduced to have impacted my cooking style dramatically,” he says. “I was constantly enthused and inspired by the availability and variety of foods that were there to work with on a regular basis.”
Jeff and Cheryl Buerhaus returned north in 1999, prompted by a yearning to bring up their children in Maine. Jeff found work in the kitchens of Cotton Street Tropical Bar and Grill and Perfetto’s before acquiring Walter’s at its first location on Exchange Street.
While Cheryl’s background is in psychology, she decided to make the move over to the restaurant business to work with her husband, taking on the role of general manager.
Late last year, the couple moved Walter’s from Exchange Street to 2 Portland Square, a change that Buerhaus admits was “a bit risky,” but has paid off. “[Walter’s] new atmosphere and design have kept the old regulars coming back,” a Portland Press Herald reviewer said in March, “and enticed new folks to join the party.”
The new restaurant, which includes a magnificent bar open until midnight, is as comfortably sophisticated as any high-caliber place in New York. “We wanted something with a big city feel that wasn’t in Portland yet.” Still, Buerhaus says, “people have to feel comfortable and relaxed in a restaurant and the staff has to be knowledgeable and approachable.”
That fusion of complementary contrasts, in both food and atmosphere, is why Walter’s is considered one of Portland’s coolest, and warmest, hot spots.
Rice Paper Wrapped Loch Duart Salmon
with choo chee coconut curry, oshitashi, and bamboo-scented sushi rice • Serves 1
Choo chee coconut sauce
1 tablespoon each of red and green Thai curry paste
1 tablespoon minced lemongrass
1 tablespoon minced ginger root
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon diced white onion
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 tablespoon fish sauce
2 kaffir lime leaves
2 tablespoons marsala wine
1 14-ounce can coconut milk
2 tablespoons olive oil
In olive oil, sauté the blended lemongrass, ginger, garlic, and onion till translucent. Add curries and sauté until fragrant. Deglaze with marsala, reduce by half. Add remaining ingredients and simmer 20 minutes. Remove kaffir lime leaves and blend until smooth. Strain and keep warm.
1 cup spinach
1 tablespoon oil
½ teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sliced Spanish onion
1 teaspoon sesame seeds
Sauté onion in 1 tablespoon oil until carmelized. Add spinach and wilt quickly, adding sesame oil and soy. Sprinkle with seeds.
Bamboo or any sushi rice: ½ cup rice, follow directions on package.
6 ounce salmon fillet
2 tablespoons oil
Moisten rice paper, lay cilantro leaf in center, followed by salmon on center of leaf. Wrap paper around, and cut excess off sides. Sear salmon filet top side down in nonstick pan in 2 tablespoons of oil until golden, turn over and finish in 350° oven, 3 to 4 minutes for medium rare.
Spoon sauce on plate, put rice in center of sauce, oshitashi on part of the rice, and finished salmon on top.