White Barn Inn Dining Room (Taken From Restaurant’s Facebook Page)
The White Barn Inn is well-known for being Maine’s only Forbes Five Star and AAA 5-Diamond restaurant. Chef Jonathan Cartwright has been with the restaurant since 1994 and the Executive Chef since 1996; before joining the kitchen, he worked for various restaurants associated with the Relais and Chateaux guide. This is particularly telling as he has maintained a strong connection with Relais and Chateaux—earlier in the year, he hosted a guest chef series featuring chefs from other affiliated restaurants. (I don’t quite understand how selective the Relais and Chateaux guide actually is—my understanding is that the restaurants in the guide are generally affiliated with resorts, and I recall our server at Tru—which is not a resort but was included in the guide before recently terminating their membership—stating that it costs a good deal of money to be included in the guide and that Tru was thrilled that Michelin had arrived in Chicago as it meant that they would no longer need the Relais and Chateaux designation to generate new patrons.) Anyhow, the White Barn Inn’s status is analogous to the reputation that Charlie Trotter’s has in Chicago: well-revered in its home setting yet frequented more heavily by out-of-towners. Although Chef Cartwright has cultivated a prestigious repuatation in this area, he has not received any major distinction from James Beard, Food and Wine, etc. It also seems that the restaurant is affiliated more with the resort crowd than with a Maine audience—the vast majority of cars in the parking lot were from out of state. White Barn Inn and Arrows are really the only two restaurants in Maine at the ultra-fine dining price point, and with that in mind Arrows was the obvious point of comparison for my brother and myself when we went for dinner.
The eponymous barn dates from 1820; the tables are on the ground floor while the upstairs is decorated—in true New England fashion—with a panoply of antiques, ranging from old roadside signs to large wooden swans and a large fake pig. On the ground floor, there are a number of paintings of Maine maritime landscapes. Similar to McCrady’s in Charleston, SC, they project the history of the setting in a way that’s unusual for a restaurant. One unusual touch is that there is live piano accompaniment, to my knowledge the only Maine restaurant to offer this more or less anachronistic fine dining service. Due to the clash between the antiques and the piano player, the ambiance evinces an interesting blend between luxury and kitsch that I haven’t really witnessed before in a restaurant setting.
Upon arrival, we were taken to a table that was in an alcove near the piano. Unfortunately, this did not afford a view of the garden, so we requested an alternate table and were taken to a nice two top in the dining room shown above. While the first table was by no means a ‘bad one’, table location is particularly important to me; deciding on a restaurant involves not only the cuisine but deciding on which dining room I want to inhabit for the evening. Here is a view of the dining room from our table:
There were two different menu options: a four-course prix fixe and a nine-course tasting menu that is updated seasonally. We had noted in our reservation that we would be ordering the tasting menu, so our captain stated that the kitchen was prepared for us and we were not given menus.
The amuse bouche was a gelatinous sphere filled with guinea hen, English peas, and fava beans. This was seasonally appropriate but the guinea hen was dry, cold, and bland; the fava beans were quite nice but serving them alone wouldn’t have sufficed. It is a shame that amuse bouches have a tendency to be somewhat bland.
Our first course was one that I’d been looking forward to, having had great crab in recent months at Alinea and McCrady’s: crab and avocado roulade with passionfruit vinaigrette. Aesthetically, this was quite similar to the trucha envuelta (smoked trout wrapped in avocado) that I enjoyed at Topolobampo a few months ago. I have also enjoyed the crab/avocado combination in the past and I was expecting this to be a superior rendition of an already enjoyable flavor marriage, but what we received was disappointing; the crab was salty—almost as though it had come from a can—and didn’t have any of the sweetness that one would expect. When a restaurant serves a ubiquitous flavor combination, they really have to execute well to distinguish themselves, and this was borderline inedible.
Looking for a change of taste, the bread service was met with great interest. There were several offerings but they were served at room temperature and so the crust was lacking.
Our second course was a maple glazed pork belly with pickled shitake mushrooms, and spiced reduction. We both felt the pork belly was overcooked, nullifying the fattiness that I appreciate in pork belly. Therefore the maple was integral in generating some flavor, but I’ve had the maple/pork belly combination on multiple occasions and—just like the crab dish—it was unfortunate to be served a second-rate preparation of a familiar ingredient pairing, especially since, given that this dish is pictured on their website, they are ostensibly rather proud of it.
Course three was nervously delivered by our earnest server (whose contrition was escalating with each passing chapter) and one of his auxiliaries. Our plates were uncovered to reveal one of Chef Cartwright’s signature dishes: butter poached smoked lobster in a cognac reduction, atop a corn puree with paprika dusted on the right-hand side of the plate. In an interview, the chef disclosed that the smoking gun was his favorite kitchen tool and this preparation certainly justifies his view. There was an encyclopedic array of flavors at work here (sweet, savory, smoky, etc.), with the central contrast between with the sweet butter/cream sauce and the smoky applewood flavor.
Progressing to one of my other favorite proteins, we were next given Rohan duck breast, with macerated strawberries, foie gras torchon, and strawberry balsamic gastrique. The duck was a bit undercooked but the foie/strawberry combination was outstanding. While it’s true that the chef is not reinventing the wheel with the pairing, this one was particularly memorable because of the context; it was intriguing to consume a classically fine dining flavor pairing in the setting of an old New England Barn. Food can’t be analyzed in a vacuum, and this really foregrounded how restaurants stimulate not only through their cuisine but through the relationship between the fare and ambiance.
The next offering was a pasta dish, playfully titled “parmesan bon bon.” It was filled with parmesan and cream and garnished with diced prosciutto and prosciutto foam. This was an explosive couple of bites, although with copious amounts of cheese and cream it was more or less impossible for it to taste ‘bad.’ While the flavors were pretty conservative and didn’t leave much to chance, I felt it was unusual to be served a pasta dish halfway through the meal; before this, the menu had progressed in a classical trajectory from light to heavier proteins, and this dish made the otherwise linear progression of the menu more circuitous.
Course six was “lemon and thyme granite”: shaved lemon ice with lemon zest and sprinkled parmesan. It’s always interesting to try and distinguish between the ‘major’ dishes and those that are transitional (although in a sense, every dish is transitional), and even though this was listed as a proper course, the lemon ice suggested more of a palate cleanser. Anticipating a dish that was small in scope, I was surprised that this turned out to be one of the most memorable of the evening. I never would have thought to combine parmesan and thyme with lemon ice, but the combination was outstanding and nicely built upon the parmesan flavors of the preceding dish.
Our red meat course was characterized as the centerpiece of the meal: brioche encrusted veal filet with sweetbreads, carrot, horseradish potato puree, and a potato “chest” filled with Madeira jus. We started with the potato “chest” (which tasted like a Spanish Tortilla Espanola) and the Madeira jus that burst forth made a great complement to the veal. As someone who enjoys bitter flavors and consumes large amounts of mustard on a daily basis, I enjoyed the horseradish potato puree, but the almost acrimonious flavor clashed with the more luxurious Madeira. While there were more components than necessary, this was certainly a pleasing dish and an emphatic return to the proteinaceous sensibility of the first half of the meal.
Next was a cheese course, of which I unfortunately forgot to take a picture. To my knowledge, White Barn Inn is the only Maine restaurant that rolls out an actual cheese cart, and we selected a half dozen or so each. Accompaniments included cheese crisps, grissini, pumpernickel bread, and apricot chutney.
The pre-dessert was a mixed berry parfait topped with angel food cake, blueberries, and raspberries. It was possibly the most Maine-specific item we received all night and reminded me of the archetypal regional cuisine one finds at restaurants like Fore Street in Portland. This would have been a nice foundation for a proper dessert course and it was a shame seeing it relegated to the interstitial palate cleanser designation.
Our official dessert was a Grand Marnier soufflé with hot chocolate sauce and milk chocolate ice cream; while a comfortable end to the meal, it did come across as a bit of a risk-free, clinical exercise in fine dining cuisine. Still, the execution was deft and the flavors quite pleasant.
A large mignardise display was delivered on a silver tree structure, supplemented by a duo of lavender-lemon-chocolate chip financiers. I neglected to take a photo of the mignardises but here are the financiers:
I enjoyed the meal (particularly the smoked lobster, foie gras, and shaved lemon ice), although I felt as though the dining room was more stimulating than the cuisine. The mostly European cuisine at White Barn Inn would be quite surprising to someone looking for a haute upgrade of traditional Maine fare. For example, there were very few fish dishes and no New England meat dishes (in this regard, it was a shame that we weren’t served the intriguing quail preparation from the prix fixe menu.) Although the menu progression veered toward being formulaic, I don’t think this means that it necessarily lacks personality; rather, the personality stems from contextualizing conventional fine dining preparations within the setting of a New England Inn. Our dinner really elucidated what I imagine to be the Relais and Chateaux sensibility, whereby the restaurant is distinguished as much for its setting as its cuisine.
The comparison between Arrows and White Barn Inn is perhaps most fruitfully directed toward their very distinctive settings, as well as the way they mediate Maine nostalgia with a more worldly sensibility. Both settings exist as a world unto themselves (a quality that was, for better or worse, largely absent in Chicago), and it was very memorable to spend a few hours dining in the remarkable barn setting. Meanwhile, the setting at Arrows is defined primarily by its garden, an indispensible structuring device that brings together local and foreign flavors (Arrows goes so far as to grow exotic ingredients such as lemongrass.) In addition to incorporating foreign flavors, Arrows offers revisionist interpretations of Maine staples (e.g. the mixed berry shortcake with fromage blanc ice cream that I had there last winter.) Conversely, White Barn Inn is unable to synthesize domestic and foreign cuisine and restricts itself primarily to European flavors, with the sense of Maine nostalgia solely engendered by the antique-laden setting. While I found the White Barn Inn to be quite compelling, I think the restaurant relies on a particular audience that’s willing to forgive a lack of innovation concerning what’s “on the plate” and instead appreciate classical fine dining staples in a classical New England setting.