(White Barn Inn Dining Room)
I dined at White Barn Inn for the first time in June; my brother and I ordered the 9-course tasting menu, and while there were several interesting dishes, we found the selections a bit antiquated and the execution inconsistent. While it is true that most extended tasting menus have at least a couple of courses that aren’t compelling, we both came away feeling that the prix fixe option would have been preferable to the tasting. Considering the price point, I did not foresee myself ever being particularly driven to return. However, by December I’d developed an interest in revisiting the restaurant, mainly out of a desire to spend another evening in one of my favorite dining rooms, and so my brother and I made reservations for December 22.
One of the foci for this meal was whether or not a restaurant should be discredited if it excels at prix fixe but offers a relatively weak tasting menu experience; a benefit of restaurants that only offer one format is that they aren’t faced with this issue, whereas a restaurant like White Barn Inn is constantly faced with the challenge of making sure that their prix fixe and tasting formats are consistent and operate in the same spirit. On the one hand, I feel as though tasting menus are the ultimate showcase for the chef’s authorial vision, and therefore the best glimpse at how he borrows from different cuisines and culinary movements. On the other hand, I appreciate how prix fixe menus are more democratic, giving the diner the agency to have a hand in the composition of the meal. In the end, I do feel it reflects poorly on a restaurant if their tasting menu is substantially weaker than the prix fixe, although at the same time I wonder whether the restaurant itself would prefer to excel at prix fixe since that is the route chosen by most of their patrons.
One of my favorite aspects of White Barn Inn is the way in which it incorporates nostalgia in the sphere of fine dining. To this end, the restaurant is extravagant in their holiday celebrations and they celebrate symbolic Americana. For example, their Thanksgiving pumpkin weighed several hundred pounds, and they had several giant trees and lights set up for Christmas. I feel like it has become popular for contemporary fine dining restaurants (for example, Next and Alinea in Chicago, or Hugo’s in Maine) to operate with a sense of postmodern irony, and it is refreshing to see a luxury restaurant that deviates from this and is transparent in their celebration of traditional American iconography. In a family restaurant, I would be irritated by the gaudy decorations, but incorporating them in a fine dining context created a singular contrast between grand luxury and kitsch.
The balance between opulence and kitsch also relates to the dining room. The tables have white table cloths and all of the servers wear traditional butler outfits with red bow ties. However, the upper level, which is visible from below, has campy antiques like an old milk stand sign and an enormous fake pig. Maine is well known for its antique shops, and so incorporating them adds a sense of regional nostalgia. I remain awestruck by the balance they achieve between camp and formality, particularly since without the fine dining touches the dining room would be quite creepy.
We had an early reservation and were the first patrons to arrive. White Barn Inn keeps track of their customers and we had the same outstanding server, Andrew, from our first dinner. I was amazed by his memory, as he recalled specific details about our backgrounds and even minutiae referring to conversations we’d had with him. Having Andrew as our server was instantly reassuring, and I knew that his intuitive, earnest sensibility would go a long way in recuperating any deficiencies in the cuisine. I view a restaurant as a relational text involving service, cuisine, and setting, and with Andrew as our server and a wonderful table in one of my favorite dining rooms, the baseline for the meal was set very high.
The prix fixe menu is four courses, including first course, intermezzo, main course, and dessert. There are numerous choices, with 8 appetizers and 8 main courses. The dishes do not change often, and there is a contrast between the static nature of the menu and the ingenuity of the dishes. One of the major accomplishments of Chef Cartwright’s menu construction is that he manages to create a huge menu while retaining a consistent style. There may be no aspect of restaurants that irritates me more than seeing a number of items that are no different from what one could find anywhere else, and this is thankfully not a dilemma one encounters at White Barn Inn. There were many unusual choices—examples included pistachio-crusted halibut with lemon coulis and sweet potato custard, and monkfish and lobster paupiette with seafood potato mousseline, root vegetables, and saffron-champagne foam. At the same time, an ambitious menu with seemingly absurd options (such as that of White Barn Inn) is tasked with persuading the diner to suspend disbelief (I find this is an issue with many fusion restaurants), and the ingredient pairings were intuitive enough that I was not turned off by the inventive combinations. I selected the rabbit loin as a first course, fois gras dumpling as intermezzo, and the steamed lobster with cognac coral butter for my main dish. I also added shaved black truffles for the lobster dish, which carried a $30 surcharge. My brother selected quail and fois gras, parmesan ice cream, and a beef duo for his three dishes.
The bread service contained four offerings; I can’t remember what they were beyond the durum bread, which was excellent. White Barn Inn serves their bread with local butter and very high-quality olive oil.
The amuse bouche was breaded short rib on diced apple, frisee, and sunchoke puree. Although the flavors were a bit heavy for this point in the meal, it was a delicious use of seasonal ingredients. The composition also provided a good example of Cartwright’s plating style; most every dish of his involves a brush stroke of a puree of some sort. One of my favorite aspects of going out to eat is identifying the chef’s plating aesthetic, and it was nice to get a feel for his style this early in the meal.
My rabbit was served with spinach puree, katafi fried chanterelle mushrooms, and drizzled honey. I’m usually disappointed with rabbit as it is easy to overcook and winds up dry, but Andrew recommended this dish and I love chanterelles. Fortunately, the rabbit was moist and the honey provided enough sweetness. While I usually dislike mushrooms fried, the phyllo was just light enough and offered some textural contrast. This was a very balanced and well-executed dish.
My brother’s quail was roasted and served with foie gras, apricots, cashew butter, and a cognac thyme reduction. It was delicious and the cashew butter was one among many terrific sauces from the meal.
The intermezzo was the only disappointment. It was listed as duck consommé with foie gras dumpling, but the broth tasted more like a beef stock and it overpowered the dumpling. The vegetables were completely unnecessary.
The lobster with cognac coral butter is White Barn Inn’s signature dish; it is served with sugar snap peas, carrots, and housemade fettuccine. I appreciate that White Barn Inn embraces lobster since many fine dining restaurants in Maine (Fore Street, Arrows, Primo) choose not to emphasize it, eschewing Maine’s most famous ingredient in order to distance themselves from the many lobster-centric touristy restaurants. Serving the lobster with the skull and tail was also wonderfully in line with the restaurant’s posh kitsch identity. The dining room manager, Matthew Swinford, shaved the truffles:
This dish was even more outstanding than the rabbit; I love sauce-based cuisine and the cognac coral butter sauce had depth and richness. The pasta was slightly overcooked for my taste, but contrasted nicely with the crunchy carrots and peas. The richness of lobster makes it a great vehicle for truffles and every component served an active and productive role.
My brother’s beef was one of the safer choices on the menu. It was served on a striking plate that appeared as though it were extracted from a different era, another example of White Barn Inn’s ostentatious personality. The presentation included tenderloin and short rib; the tenderloin had a horseradish crust, while the short rib was coated with diced fall vegetables. The puree was potato mousseline, and there was also a madeira sauce. This was among my favorite beef dishes I’ve tried and another well-balanced dish.
The palate cleanser was miniature strawberry shortcake—refreshing and a nice take on a nostalgic Maine dessert.
My dessert involved another playful composition: local maple syrup pot de crème with merlot poached pears, walnut baklava, red wine chocolate sauce, and cardamom pear sorbet. This dish was much more interesting than the soufflé served on our last visit—an excellent and complex dessert.
My brother chose one of the heavier dessert’s on the menu: local goat’s milk cheesecake on an almond sable, cabernet sauvignon preserve, wildflower honey, and roasted grapes. I didn’t try the dish although he enjoyed it very much.
Mignardise arrived on a candle-like structure—another prop that qualified as elevated kitsch. The offerings were fairly standard, although I did enjoy the fudge, an unusual offering for a mignardise selection.
As a final treat, we were brought white chocolate/blueberry financiers.
This meal was exponentially more satisfying than our tasting menu experience and convinced me that White Barn Inn deserves its 5 star designation from Forbes and AAA. The restaurant’s main accomplishment lies in successfully integrating kitsch within the realm of fine dining, a trait that one doesn’t find often enough. At the same time, it can’t be ignored that I was the one selecting the dishes rather than the restaurant, and so it might be more accurate to say that this was a selectively chosen outstanding meal. I give the restaurant credit for an outstanding meal, although having had several mediocre dishes in my tasting experience, I could certainly understand where someone was coming from if they were unimpressed with their meal. In the end, White Barn Inn will likely serve a ritualistic purpose for me. The lobster dish never leaves the menu and so I can certainly envision myself returning biannually to revisit the lobster and dining room. The dining room is one of the rare ones that manage to elicit wonder—this is difficult to achieve and requires some balance between the ordinary and the spectacular. While I still maintain that the dining room is more impressive than the cuisine, I can now say that a prix fixe meal at White Barn Inn is one of the most satisfying dining experiences in Maine.