A Winterborne flashback from Gilbert’s Portland Restaurant over 10 years ago.
Review by David Sarasohn

The strange thing, of course, is that Alsace has no sea coast.

And hardly any border with Thailand.

But two years after taking over the Winterborne restaurant, Alsatian Gilbert Henri has put his own impressive mark on one of Portland’s seafood specialists – and his mark extends so spicy Thai prawns. Now, he has overhauled not only the menu but the dining room as well, giving it a warm, friendly feeling.

The menu is even friendlier.

Henri has kept many of the specialties that for years have drawn maritime munchers to Winterborne – you can still start a meal with mouth-filling sauteed oysters and finish up with deeply dense Death by Chocolate. But, while keeping the menu as small as the dining room, he has also extended it – and he never stops experimenting.

The soup that accompanied the entrees one weekend, for example, was a pulsing, invitingly seasonal cream of pumpkin – already a switch from Winterborne’s traditional clam broth. But one evening it was lit up by cinnamon, and the next night, vibrating with clove.

The same throw-away-the-recipe spirit extends through the menu. A regular appetizer, fish terrine, shifts regularly; one night’s version, with halibut and salmon and a raita yogurt dressing, was strikingly briny and refreshing. Oysters, available as an appetizer or an entree, are admirably crisp and fresh, standing up to whatever sauce Henri has devised for the evening.

Other frequent appetizers include deftly steams mussels, glowing in white wine, and Escargots Alsacianne. “Alsacianne” apparently means “with a whole lot of garlic,” and a fine definition it is.

The spicing on the Thai prawns varies with Henri’s mood; they can show up fairly hot, though not angry enough to overpower the basil and lemongrass that set the dish off. The treatment of the large hunk of halibut regularly offered also varies; one night’s application of a spicy orange glaze set off the impressive moist freshness of the fish.

Each evening Winterborne offers and $18.50 prix fixe dinner – special entree, soup, salad (both included with all entrees), and either appetizer or dessert. One evening, lightly sauteed sea scallops had a vivid crustacean flavor, benefiting from gentle and subtle handlings. Another nights saute of scallops, bay shrimp, and smoked salmon was less successful; the salmon’s muscular takeover of the dish might have been foreseen.

Any entree is a good lead-in to some forceful and skillful desserts. Death by Chocolate still has its powerful chocolate intensity and a firm but inviting flourless texture – although it might be accompanied by a strawberry coulis, or just some honey whipped cream. A silken creme caramel can take on an entirely new identity with an infusion of orange. And Henri’s addictive chocolate mousse is far from gentle, creamy versions – it’s on the other end of the textural spectrum, toward the place where the needle reads “Brownie.”

Most entrees run between $12 and $14, and taking advantage of the prix fixe could limit costs even more. A small wine list concentrates on bottles under $20; two people could eat happily here for $60 to $70.

The mood is encouraged by the new warm gold walls, with wrought iron lighting sconces. There is some loss to the prints on the wall, which in between the lights come to resemble small squares of darkness. Even that is overcome by amiable service from people who seem happy to be doing what they’re doing – and serving the food they’re serving.

Alsace still doesn’t border on Thailand or even the sea.

But with Gilbert Heni, it’s got a solid beachhead in Portland.