Walter Loeman is the chef at the Water Street Cafe

A famous Maine chef is cooking at Gardiner’s Water Street Cafe — and we bet you don’t even know it!

George

When we ran into Patrick Wright on Gardiner’s now-bustling Main Street, and learned that Walter Loeman is now the chef at the Water Street Cafe, we immediately made plans to dine there. Wright is executive director of the city’s Main Street Program and an enthusiastic ambassador for the street’s businesses and events.

Loeman was the owner and 5-star chef of two of our all-time favorite Portland restaurants, Walter’s and Profetto’s, gems that sat on opposite sides of a street in the Old Port. We’ve had memorable meals in each restaurant over the years.

Honestly, without doubting Wright’s veracity, I had trouble believing his news. But when we entered the Water Street Cafe on a Friday night, Walter was in the kitchen. Turns out he moved to Augusta, is getting a Masters degree at USM, and took on the cafe as a project while he’s up here. He seemed to be having a lot of fun and told me he might stay, raving about the local farms where he gets his meat and produce.

A husband and wife team — Robert Lash and Amy Rees — owns the restaurant and opened in the fall of 2011. Their son, John Sawyer, serves as sous chef. The night we visited, Loeman’s son Joe was our server. He comes up from Portland occasionally to help his Dad.

Before I got to the food, I was drawn to the beautiful artwork by Helene Farrar. Two pieces had “sold” stickers on them. Food and art do go well together! And we appreciate the restaurants and inns that feature and sell work of local artists.

We began with bread and a delicious sweet dipping oil. Before you know it, the first page of Lin’s notes was covered in oil. I wondered if those notes would be edible when we got home.

I began with a bowl of lobster bisque, very creamy and buttery, with a good amount of fresh lobster meat. It was a perfect start to the meal. I sopped up the final drips in my bowl with a bit of bread. Mmm, good.

After conferring with Joe, I went for the most popular entree, Chicken and Prosciutto Capellini. This is also the entree that’s been on the menu the longest. Now I know why.

With shallots, lemon zest and garlic, and served in a parmesan cream sauce, this was very tasty. A tower of meat and peas covered the capellini, and I wondered how Walter does a cream sauce that doesn’t flow all over the plate, while thoroughly covering the meat and capellini.

A gorgeous salmon dish went by our table while I was eating, giving me an immediate need to return soon for another dinner.

It was a special treat to see Thaxter and Linda Trafton there. I’ve known Thaxter for decades, from his work in the Bangor business community and his service in Gov. Baldacci’s administration, but I hadn’t seen him in a long time. He’s now the executive director of the Maine Sports Hall of Fame — a dream job in my book!

The Traftons are gourmet diners, very familiar with all of our state’s best restaurants, so the fact they were dining here — and seemed as impressed as we were — was confirmation that Walter is once again hitting a home run with this restaurant.

Linda

Downtown Gardiner has yet another great choice for diners. The Water Street Cafe is located at the corner of Water and Bridge Streets. Large windows offer lots of light, while the beautiful brick walls make this a cozy, informal dining spot. Warm globe lights and track lighting combine with a high ceiling to give this space a modern industrial feel. It is really charming at night.

The dining room is an open space where you can watch as talented chefs prepare some pretty amazing food. Joe, our waiter, pointed out the “Water Street Cafe” graffiti art painted on one section of the floor. I might not have noticed what it said otherwise, but knowing this let me appreciate the artist’s creativity even more.

Your meal begins in earnest when they bring out the fantastic focaccia bread made there that morning. They switch up the seasonings for the olive oil dipping sauce each night. This night, it was a little sweet due to the addition of sweet chili sauce. You know by the taste of that bread, that you are about to partake in some pretty tasty food.

The dinner menu offers several salads made with local organic greens. ($5.50-$8) The house- made dressings sound delicious.

I started with the appetizer portion of the Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli ($7.50). The four ravioli make a good-sized appetizer. Spinach Ravioli is probably my favorite Italian dish and theirs rests in a delectable mascarpone cream sauce. You wish you were eating this one at home where you can lick the plate! I’ll be tempted to get the full-size dinner portion as an entree when I return.

Entrees run in the $16-$21 range. There were several creative pasta dishes, as well as salmon, pork and steak offerings on the menu. They get creative with their evening specials and with the description of the tacos that night, I was sold.

The Blue Plate Special was three beef tacos with corn salad and lime crema on the side. The local beef was nicely seasoned — spicy but not too spicy — and was so flavorful. The fresh corn tortillas were topped with fresh avocado, tomatoes and a corn salsa. Served with a green salad on the side, this was a great entree. I could only eat two of the tacos since I had already indulged in the focaccia and ravioli.

Water Street Cafe focuses on locally sourced food, to provide farm-to-table cuisine at a reasonable price. They serve grass-fed beef from Oaklands Farm in Gardiner and get their produce from Bridge Farm in nearby Dresden. You can taste that freshness, and that was what struck me as I dined here. The resurgence of central Maine farms is very exciting.

A local couple dining at a nearby table let me know that they eat here often and that breakfasts and lunches here are great as well. If you don’t get hungry perusing the lunch menu on their website, I’d be surprised. Lunch here will be on my to-do list.

Visit George’s website — georgesmithmaine.com — for book reviews, outdoor news and all Travelin’ Maine(rs) columns, found listed in the “Best of Maine” section.