Academe at the Kennebunk Inn
“We want a place that feels like home.”
This continues to be the driving philosophy that owners Brian and Shanna O’Hea strive to maintain at Academe on a daily basis. Although it is common for a restaurant to want their guests to feel at home, the O’Heas take the concept a step further by thoughtfully preparing foods inspired by their travels and the kind of cuisine they enjoy on their day off.
It is a well-balanced effort that is illustrated beautifully by a dish of citrus-crab ravioli. Brian makes the pasta dough with lemon segments and zest, while Shanna puts together the filling of crab and mascarpone, which is livened up with a hint of lemon juice. The ravioli is tossed with shrimp, mussels, and an aromatic and indulgent sauce of heavy cream, Cointreau, and a touch of Madras curry and sage. “The dish was inspired by our first trip to Greece,” says Brian. “We were completely blown away by the manner in which citrus was consistently utilized to elevate the dishes without overpowering them.” He adds that by the end of this particular excursion they were so stimulated they were literally scribbling down ideas for recipes before even getting up from the table. Traveling consistently re-energizes Brian and Shanna, in regards to their business. “Every time we experience something new,” says Brian.
While Brian and Shanna confirm an affinity for “playful comfort food,” Shanna tends to be more classical with her approach. This is evident in her sublime hand-rolled puff pastry found atop the their signature dish—Lobster Pot Pie. The filling utilizes a base of intensely concentrated lobster stock boosted with cream and thickened with xanthan gum—emulating the nostalgic texture of the pot pies many of us were raised on—while employing a liberal helping of fresh lobster meat, potato, peas, and corn. The presentation is truly impressive: the towering puff pastry raising several inches before being lovingly collapsed and integrated into the stew below.
As a fervent wine drinker, one of the most exciting things to me about Academe is the manner in which Brian has constructed the list. Not only are the selections themselves well thought out, including a stunning Greek rosé from Gaia in Santorini that incorporates the aforementioned story of their travels and the pricing is uncannily low. Brian explains the reasons for the affordable prices are that rather than let wine sit on their shelves, they would prefer to have people actually be able to order amazing wines and keep the inventory in constant motion. This means that, for instance, one can purchase of bottle of Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé Champagne for 15 dollars less than I have seen the price on retail store shelves.
Of course, such champagne would pair quite nicely with the O’Heas’ version of surf and turf, where they employ a coulotte steak, a classic cut in French butchery, as well as plump grilled shrimp. They are embellished with a piquant and herby chimichurri sauce, redolent of garlic in which its pungency has been roasted down to a mellow sweetness. Alongside all of this arrives potato gnocchi masquerading as tots after being deep-fried in a batter flavored with Montreal steak seasoning.
“Playful comfort food” is no more apparent than in Shanna’s desserts, which pay homage to retro American and also incorporate a decidedly more modern feel, as in her reverse root beer float. The vessel contains vanilla soda while a flute stem with a separate compartment on top holds root beer ice cream—a float in reverse. The dessert is served with a deep fried Oreo and whether or not you find the concept of frying an Oreo captivating or terrifying you must admit that it is delicious. Other desserts are more straightforward in their delightfulness, such a sundae of salted caramel ice cream and hot fudge topped with their house-made Cracker Jacks, in which the sweet caramel corn is joined by peanuts roasted in butter with honey powder and caramel. Again, steps are taken to both elevate a dish from childhood while taking measures to preserve the flavors and textures of the past.
There is also the fact that the setting for the restaurant is quintessential New England, and although one cannot deny that summer is the busiest season there is something particularly intoxicating about visiting in the fall. One of the things I find most appealing about the Kennebunk Inn is the manner in which a building with so much history (built in 1799) has managed to take on such a profound personality from its owners of only 12 years. Much of the original feel of the restaurant, which used to be divided into a fine dining establishment neighbored by an English-style pub, remains intact and the two have been seamlessly integrated into each other. The O’Heas got rid of the white tablecloths, updated the chairs, tables, and other fixtures, while constantly seeking to improve the overall aesthetic by uncovering, for example, the original wooden floors when they have ripped up old carpets.
As the O’Heas see it, “It will continue to be a work in progress not only based on time and money, but more importantly our desire to never stop improving.”
45 Main St | Kennebunk | 207.985.3351 | thekennebunkinn.com