White Barn Inn, Kennebunkport
Posted on March 15, 2012
by Joe Ricchio
There has always been a certain mystique about the White Barn Inn, and though I personally hate the use of superlatives when it comes to restaurants, most who experience the inn generally will refer to it as one of the “greatest dining experiences that Maine has to offer.”
So, naturally, it piques my curiosity when I catch wind of a series of tasting menu collaborations featuring visiting chefs from New York and the inn’s resident master, chef Jonathan Cartwright.
I decide to attend the first round of the “Guest Chef Program,” welcoming chef Jeremy McMillan from the Bedford Post Inn, in Bedford, New York. The White Barn offers the dinners as part of a weekend package including two nights lodging at the hotel, a cocktail reception with the chefs, complimentary breakfasts, and a cooking demonstration with the chefs on Saturday morning at an off-premise location adjacent to the waterfront.
The White Barn has always distinguished itself from other hotels with its impeccable level of service and this visit is to be no exception. Upon check-in I receive a guided tour before being escorted to my suite situated in May’s Annex, the inn’s former carriage house. Though the hotel has many rooms appointed in a more modern fashion, the annex features more traditional decor, with each suite conforming to a particular color palette, which, in my case, is blue.
The room is spacious, dominated by bold colors and floral patterns, and provides the option of a king size down-topped bed or several big comfortable lounge chairs to relax in while I tear into the bottle of NV Taittinger Brut Prestige on ice when I arrive. An array of toiletries from Molton Brown are arranged neatly on the edge of the Jacuzzi tub and in the separate walk-in, simulated rain shower.
I receive word from the front desk that my dinner guest has arrived, and while waiting for her to be escorted to the room, I begin eyeballing the fireplace and kitchen matches on the mantle. I then glance back to the now half-full bottle of Champagne and come to the conclusion that in this case, though not all cases, fire and alcohol may not be a prudent mix.
After a few more glasses of bubbly, we make our way over to the dining room for the cocktail reception, which leads to several more glasses of Taittinger, and, eventually, what looks to be the Piper Heidsieck Monopole Brut NV. The room itself, comprised of two restored barns dating back from the early 1800s, is absolutely stunning. The dim lighting and rustic setting immediately put one at ease, with the centerpiece being the stunning floor-to-ceiling picture window, which looks out over an ever-changing arrangement of flora and fauna.
After meeting and conversing with both chef Cartwright and chef McMillan, I am very curious to see how their two very different styles of cuisine will complement each other on a single tasting menu. It is already apparent, simply based on passed hors d’oeuvres such as McMillan’s jet-black squid ink brioche topped with romaneso cauliflower and N’Duja (a spicy, spreadable Calabrian sausage), that the meal will certainly be interesting.
As we are seated, our options for hydration are presented and we opt for large bottles of Voss. A server materializes with an assortment of six different breads to choose from, and I select the durum wheat, which has a pleasant, almost pretzel-like quality to it. As I survey the dining room, I observe that sitting atop each white linen tablecloth is a different sculpture of a rooster, constructed entirely out of antique silver flatware.
An amuse bouche is presented: halibut and parsley mousse nestled in with a medallion of lobster and hollandaise sauce. The flavor of the parsley is quite pronounced, standing up nicely to the sweet lobster meat and one of the lightest, fluffiest hollandaise sauces I’ve ever tasted.
Whenever embarking on a tasting menu such as this, I find it is always an intelligent choice to order the suggested wine pairings. The seasoned front-of-the-house professionals at the White Barn Inn are certainly up to the task here—it’s evident right from the start when we are poured a glass of 2008 Domaine Weinbach Riesling, Reserve Personelle from Alsace. As is common with Riesling from this region, it is quite dry, with a decent amount of acidity balancing out flavors of petrol and lightly fruity notes of pear and citrus.
The wine marries nicely with the first course, shaved vegetable salad with anchovy vinaigrette. A beautiful assortment of crunchy, earthy radishes and carrots provide a backdrop for mild, clean-tasting sardines, which, in turn, complement the single, aromatic sliver of fresh black truffle on the plate. A multitude of flavors are happening here, so the pairing is impressive in that it can stand up to each effortlessly.
The next course is crab and avocado roulade with passion fruit vinaigrette and citrus supremes. The rich crab and buttery avocado, accentuated with a sprinkling of pink peppercorn, work in perfect harmony with the luscious passion fruit purée. The tangy, slightly bitter citrus provides a perfect contrast. The lemon-lime nose and steely, tart flavors of the 2010 Cade Winery Sauvignon Blanc from Napa valley pair well with the plethora of bold flavors in this ensemble.
Service at the White Barn Inn is seamless and friendly. They gauge what the customer wants and tailor the level of interaction accordingly. As someone who never shuts up, to the point where I actually start annoying myself, I very much appreciate the efforts to make the dinner feel very special.
Though not generally a fan of oaky Napa Valley Chardonnay, I must admit that the 2009 Chateau Monetelena is not overpowering. It also plays seamlessly off the next dish—butter-poached Maine lobster that perfumes the air with aromatic smoke once the cloche is removed from the bowl. A silky corn purée and spicy paprika sauce assist in further tempering both the wine and the smokiness.
There is a lot going on in the glass when it comes to the 2004 Trimbach Gewurtztraminer Cuvée des Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre from the Alsace. This is quite possibly one of the most impressive examples of this varietal that I have had the pleasure to taste, with vivid flavors of lychee, rose petal, and orange blossom honey. It makes a delightful companion for both the seared Rohan duck and foie gras torchon, rolled in fig and crushed pistachio, which prompts me to refer to it as a “Foie Gras Newton.” The perfectly rare and fatty duck is elevated by the tart and tangy cranberry apple gastrique, with a pinch of bitter frisée to add texture and contrast.
The focus of the meal shifts to more blatant comfort food as we transition into fagotelli pasta filled with creamy Fontina cheese, sweet squash purée, and chopped black truffle. Each of little satchel of joy becomes increasingly ambrosial when washed down with the dried cherry and cedar notes of the 2005 Pio Cesare Barolo from Piedmont.
After a palate cleanser of lemon thyme granite and several more bottles of Voss water, we are ready for the course that puts both our souls and our stomachs over the edge. Meltingly tender, Four Story Hill Farm suckling pig with velvety hominy grits, N’Duja, and briny lobster roe. It is decadent and fairly spicy, as is common with the cuisine of Calabria in Southern Italy, where locals often carry around their own fiery spice blends to sprinkle on food that fails to live up to their obsession with heat. A big, bold wine is necessary here, and the 2005 Charles Smith “Heart” Syrah from the Royal Slop vineyard in Columbia Valley fits the bill perfectly. Its deep, dark nuances of plum and black pepper are faintly reminiscent of French Hermitage, and are quite brilliant between bites of perfectly crispy pork skin.
After taking a moment to relax we are presented with the cheeseboard—13 selections including the Blue Bonnet goat Westfield Farm in Capri, MA. Though reaching a very acute level of full, we opt for a “goat heavy” lineup of four different cheeses to sample along with house apple chutney.
The dessert course features the lost art of the masterfully executed soufflé, made with Gran Marnier and drizzled with a steady stream of warm, sweet chocolate sauce. It is light and airy, almost like a meringue, with a rich, custardy center. A refreshing milk chocolate ice cream served on the side aligns itself quite well with the flavors of the Gran Marnier. A small glass of 2006 Chateau Prost Sauternes is redolent with honey, molasses, and pound cake. I make sure to save a few sips to accompany the mignardise, several house-made candies served neatly perched on different tiers of what resembles a silver candelabra.
I forego any kind of coffee or espresso in favor of more red wine back in my suite. The combination of the sumptuous meal and comfortable bedding make falling asleep quite effortless, which is helpful because I will be attending chef McMillan’s cooking demonstration in the morning. The radio in my room, which has been set to a local classical station, remains on all through the night, mostly because I am too lazy to get up and shut it off.
The next morning, I am greeted by the hotel staff and offered a shuttle to a private beach house where the cooking demonstration is being held. It is a brief and very pleasant drive towards the waterfront. Upon arrival I am provided with, once again, a glass of Taittinger to lift my spirits. An intimate group of about 12 are present for the event, which will feature chef McMillan preparing a dish called “Capellacci dei Brigante” as chef Cartwright observes and occasionally chimes in.
The dish consists of freshly-made squid ink pasta, formed into shapes that slightly resemble a witch’s hat, tossed with fresh pork sausage, clams, baby fennel, and various aromatic herbs and spices. Chef McMillan has enlisted the help of one of his cooks, an experienced pasta maker whom he refers to as the “Argentine Pasta Machine.”
The informative and entertaining presentation lasts about an hour and a half, with intervals for guests to interact and culminating with, of course, a sampling of the food. We are provided with a copy of the recipe to take with us, in case the sample portion simply wasn’t enough.
If you are planning on dining at the White Barn in the near future, I would highly suggest that you consider the Guest Chef Series package. The upcoming schedule is as follows, and you are welcome to contact the inn for reservations.
Executive Chef, the Little Owl in New York City
Executive Chef, Recette in New York City
Executive Sous Chef, Gramercy Tavern in New York City
The White Barn Inn | 37 Beach Ave. | Kennebunkport | 207.967.2321 | whitebarninn.com