By Virginia M. Wright
Photographed by Douglas Merriam
Your glass of water seems to refill itself. A fresh, folded linen napkin materializes where you left a crumpled one when you briefly left the table. Your courses arrive with orchestral precision, and no one at your table ever sits unserved, gazing hungrily at another’s meal, not even for a second. This is dinner at Kennebunk’s venerable The White Barn Inn, but you’d be forgiven for momentarily fantasizing that you are one of the aristocratic Crawleys of the British period soap opera Downton Abbey.
“The theater of service is important,” says Jonathan Cartwright, the English-born chef who brought European fine dining traditions with him when he joined The White Barn Inn staff in 1994. “We create an overall dining experience. It’s not just the food. It’s the wine, the ambiance, the piano player.” It’s the servers in their crisp white jackets anticipating your every need, while simultaneously seeming invisible — unless, of course, you ask for advice on pairing wines with your courses, in which case he or she will enthusiastically, but ever so deferentially, oblige.
After forty years, The White Barn Inn, owned by U.S. Hotels Group, remains Maine’s most exclusive restaurant: It is the state’s only member of Relais & Chateaux, an international association of luxury restaurants and hotels with strict admission standards, the only Maine restaurant with a Forbes Travel Guide five-star rating, and one of only twenty-four restaurants in the country to be awarded AAA’s prestigious Five Diamond rating. Chances are good it’s the only restaurant in the world marking its fortieth anniversary by offering a $40,000 cocktail — the Ruby Rose, a concoction of Hanger 1 vodka, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, freshly squeezed grapefruit juice, pomegranate juice, a spoonful of rosewater, and your choice of a 4-carat ruby at the bottom of the glass or a diamond and ruby bracelet wrapped around the stem (you can trim $39,982 from the tab by asking the bartender to hold the jewels).
The setting bears little resemblance to the gilded marble halls of Downton Abbey, though it might satisfy the Crawleys’ notion of rusticating in America. The dining room in an antique barn has rough-hewn walls adorned with vintage farm tools and illuminated oil paintings. Shaded candle lamps flicker on tables draped with white tablecloths and set with fine china, crystal, and silverware. Near the entry, a tuxedoed pianist dances his fingers over the keyboard of a grand piano. The all-glass back wall looks out on a bountiful flower garden.
And the food? It is outstanding, though perhaps the one arena in which The White Barn Inn can no longer claim exclusive domain: Maine dining, once (and yes, for many vacationers, still) defined by boiled lobster devoured with drawn butter at a vinyl-tablecloth-covered picnic table, has grown increasingly sophisticated in the last decade, and dishes as splendid as those prepared at The White Barn Inn are no longer quite so hard to find. But the near perfection of the entire $106-per-person four-course meal — the beautifully presented appetizers, the anticipation created by the intermezzo, the delightful surprise of those savory little between-course gifts known as amuse-bouches — remains a rare experience, which explains why on any given night about half of The White Barn Inn’s guests by Cartwright’s estimation are celebrating a special occasion, such as a marriage proposal, a college graduation, or birthday. (The White Barn Inn also serves a nine-course tasting menu for $160 per person.)
Cartwright, who holds the prestigious Relais & Chateaux title of Grand Chef and is the CEO of U.S. Hotels Group’s seven New England properties, and executive chef Derek Bissonnette take full advantage of foods produced or sourced locally, most notably the fish. Steamed lobster on house-made fettucine with carrots, snow peas, and cognac coral butter (coral is lobster roe) is one of the few mainstays of a menu that changes weekly to reflect what is in season. Lobster is also a supporting player, for example, in the beautiful orangey-pink, slightly spicy sausage that adorns pan-roasted monkfish with polenta and kale. Scallops, a favorite of Cartwright, might make multiple appearances on the menu, perhaps as an appetizer served atop a white asparagus puree with a blood orange beurre blanc and as a main course with sole, Parma ham, spaghetti squash, and maple Dijon mustard sauce. On one visit, a single, subtly rich scallop, its barely cooked interior creamy and almost translucent, was served with a confetti-like red and yellow pepper salsa as an amuse-bouche before the intermezzo course.
A horseradish-glazed beef tenderloin is another staple, though its vegetable accompaniments change seasonally. At the height of summer, sweet, light meats like guinea hen and chicken will find their way onto the menu, along with vegetarian dishes like raviolis made with garden vegetables. Sauces are light, too, prepared as foams, vinaigrettes, and nages.
Desserts are preceded by more unexpected offerings, such as petits fours, which arrive on a silver multi-tiered serving tray, and a small dish of silky coffee panna cotta. The flourless chocolate torte, a customer favorite, is as rich and dense as fudge. The soufflés are masterpieces, the work of pastry chef Gabby Cote. Recent creations include a roasted banana and chocolate soufflé with caramel ice cream and a Black Forest gâteau soufflé with cherry sorbet and Kirsch-marinated cherries. The latter was created for June’s $400-per-person fortieth anniversary dinner, which featured dishes from The White Barn Inn’s past and the auctioning of a bottle of 1973 Hanzell Vineyards Pinot Noir (valued at $206) for the benefit of Share Our Strength, a charity that draws public attention to childhood hunger. It will likely reappear on the regular menu this summer.
“We’ve taken the myth out of the soufflé,” Cartwright says. “We have great recipes and great ovens to cook them in.” Still, it takes teamwork — Cartwright, an avid bicyclist, draws parallels between his staff’s collaborative efforts and those of a Tour de France team — to pull each one off. “We practiced it over and over, the execution, the timing, the presentation,” Carter says. “It’s a little more of that theater.”