PORTLAND, Maine — It begins with the bread basket, or lack thereof. Instead of rolls and butter, pastel lobster rice crackers — think shrimp crackers but with lobster flavor — with nutty hot sauce arrive on the white-clothed table to coax your taste buds into a new rhythm, the lively sway of Portland’s new restaurant Tempo Dulu.
What is Tempo Dulu time? The pulse of the orient, the beat of Bangkok. A measure of Malaysia by way of Maine.
Open just over two months — still new, even by Portland standards — this high-end Asian restaurant is a cosmopolitan jewel set in a traditional New England facade, a former brick estate in the West End. The anchor restaurant of the newly refurbished Danforth Inn is attracting international bloggers, well-heeled travelers and Mainers who like to splash out.
The owners of the Camden Harbour Inn circled Portland for years before pouncing on the Danforth Inn last year, when it was on the market.
We visited Tempo Dulu on a Tuesday night, the perfect time to delve into chef Lawrence Klang’s trio of menus. Guests choose between a three-course, a lobster tasting and a chef’s tasting menu.
Although some of this fare, such as the tasting menu — an Indonesian Rijsttafel, which means rice table in Dutch — are hardly new concepts, this is elevated cuisine for Maine. It’s not Asian food most people recognize.
“If you sell something to someone, it should have some authenticity to it. I don’t want Americanized Chinese food,” Klang said. “I try to be as near to the real deal as possible. I think it’s important to offer your guests that. It’s about surprising people.”
To pull this off, he uses umpteen spices — too many to count. He sources hard-to-find spices from New York City, currently favoring black cardamom, mace and star anise.
“The Dutch ran the spice trade in southeast Asia for quite a while, until the British pushed them out,” Klang said. “There is a heavy Dutch influence throughout Indonesia.”
That influence also is seen throughout the modern, nine-room inn. Hoteliers Raymond Brunyanszki and Oscar Verest have managed to make another Portland restaurant opening feel smashingly fresh. The 36-seat restaurant and stylish bar is the driver of the property.
At Tempo Dulu “cultures come together in the rice,” Klang said.
He pairs coconut turmeric rice with Balinese duck breast, steamed in banana leaves. “It’s a little sweet and neutralizes the heat coming off the Balinese duck.” This is one of several advanced options in the three-course menu ($69).
Klang went to Bangkok, Thailand, and worked with Australian-born David Thompson at Nahm Restaurant last year in preparation for this worldly cuisine. He also traveled to Singapore and to the Oberoi Hotel in Bali, Indonesia, where he gained the confidence to create a chef’s tasting menu ($85) that takes your tastebuds on a multicultural tour.
“It’s important to have that exotic flair. Asia is that magical, mystical place,” Klang said. “It was fantastic.”
The dishes arrive slowly at first. Green papaya soup with lemongrass and tomato confit and fried lobster spring rolls with a foie gras satay begin the show. As an interlude, a succession of surprises, also known as palate cleansers, or an “amuse-bouche,” come on like a strip tease.
The best was the chilled, translucent tomato water, served in an elegant shot glass. Sorry, sorbet, you have been replaced.
The chef’s tasting menu is ample food served in small bowls meant to be shared and spark conversation. Tempo’s well-trained staff explains these new creations, should you need to decode.
About those Maine influences? The lobster tasting menu ($109) features smoked lobster, lobster and sweet carrot dumpling in a lobster broth with leaf tempura, fried lobster with cured foie gras and fried noodles and a Maine chili lobster with a duck egg and ginger fried rice. Refreshing desserts, such as tamarind pudding with mango, are included. Don’t miss the espresso served in a fun ceramic crinkle cup a la New York City delis.
“I look for continuity between three menus,” said Klang, who is interested in cross utilization and changes his menus seasonally. Klang worked at Natalie’s at Camden Harbour Inn for nearly three years. His return is a welcome one for Maine.
“Both have their own identities,” Klang said. “I am excited to take on this project.”