Recently, I had the opportunity to return to L’Espalier (lunch) and White Barn Inn (dinner), my two favorite New England restaurants. Because I have already reviewed each restaurant twice on this blog, I figured I would adopt a different approach for this write-up and compare them. They are the most formidable outposts for luxury dining in New England and so I think they make for a natural comparison.
Obviously, the starkest difference between the two restaurants is that L’Espalier is located in a large city while White Barn Inn is situated in Kennebunkport, ME. Both restaurants are heavily defined by their settings. Since relocating a few years ago, L’Espalier now exudes a polished urbanity. On the other hand, White Barn Inn is very self-conscious of its summer community location and is a bit more whimsical in its décor; not only is it housed in a barn, but a plethora of antiques on the upper level of the barn generate a sense of vacation land nostalgia. One could dine at L’Espalier without feeling as though they left their external environment, while White Barn Inn exists more as a world unto itself. Despite its seclusion, the fantastical White Barn Inn setting is not out of line with Kennebunkport’s identity. The pleasures of dining at L’Espalier center on the luxurious, big-city feel of gazing down from the second-story dining room onto the street below. In contrast, I appreciate White Barn’s dining room for its incorporation of kitschy artifacts and nostalgic Maine-centric antiques. In any event, the two well-integrated settings stand in contrast with Menton, one of the only other ultra-fine dining New England restaurants, which imposes itself on its working class neighborhood to the point that the restaurant feels awkward and insecure.
Comparing L’Espalier with White Barn Inn really demonstrates how regionality can refer not only to the ingredients themselves but also involves a conceptual, folkloric dimension. Both restaurants use local ingredients; L’Espalier sources many of their ingredients from their affiliated farm, Apple Street Farms, and the cuisine changes to accommodate whatever is fresh at a given moment. Similarly, White Barn Inn makes good use of Maine ingredients like scallops, sole, and lobster. Both restaurants draw from French cuisine, although L’Espalier is more committed to the actual dishes of New England and therefore embodies the conceptual dimension of regionality. For example, they often feature a New England-style clam bake and my main course on my recent lunch was broiled salmon with Boston baked beans—a terrific Bostonian treatment of high-quality seafood. Meanwhile, the cuisine at White Barn Inn is far more static, although to be fair it isn’t static in a dated sense so much as a timeless one. The menu structure reminds me of Everest in Chicago, as signature dishes such as the steamed lobster and the salmon with scallop and ham never seem to leave the menu and continue to get praised. In the end, both restaurants are whimsical, but White Barn does so in a more abstract, globally-inspired manner that draws less from classically New England dishes.
What We Ate
Bread service at L’Espalier was rosemary focaccia and sea-salted rolls. Both were made in-house and delicious.
The amuse bouches were pumpkin financiers and creamiscle gelees.
Our appetizers really showcased the kitchen’s proclivity for two-dimensional compositions, and there is definitely more of a pristine, understated aesthetic than at White Barn Inn. I had the warm Wellfleet oysters with smoked bone marrow, charred leak, faux gnocchi, samphire, and vermouth, while my dad chose butternut squash soup with wild orange custard. Both had very rich flavors that managed to avoid being overly heavy.
There were two main courses I wanted to try, and so my dad and I shared one of them: East coast halibut with English peas, toasted farro, and sauce gaspard. In Maine, fish is almost always grilled (and I don’t care for halibut grilled), and so it was a real treat to be able to enjoy halibut in a more delicate form. The kitchen was kind enough to give us separate plates, each with all of the accompaniments.
My main course was broiled salmon with garden vegetables and Boston baked beans. The vegetables were poorly matched with the fish, but the molasses in the baked beans was a genius pairing with the salmon.
My dad’s main course was beef tenderloin with bone marrow custard, and caramelized Vidalia onion. L’Espalier is following in the lead of a number of New England fine dining restaurants by sourcing its beef from Maine, and it was outstanding.
In my experience, the one area of deficiency for L’Espalier is their pastry program. Roughly a year ago, they lost their all-star pastry chef, Jiho Kim, and promoted the second in command. I never tried Kim’s desserts but I can only imagine that the pastry program has really suffered because I have never been impressed with what I’ve received from them. On this visit, I had apple tarte tatin with fromage blanc ice cream and kataifi. As with past desserts I’ve had at L’Espalier, the components never went together well, which is also reflected in the disjointed composition.
Our dinner at White Barn Inn was more ritualistic. Even though White Barn Inn offers a four-course prix fixe with many options, I dine at the restaurant to revisit the renewably entertaining steamed lobster with cognac coral butter sauce, one of my favorite dishes anywhere. My dad chose the same option for his main course.
There were several breads nice breads offered; the amuse bouche was a generous portion of duck liver with rhubarb gastrique.
For a starter, I had the Kennebunkport lobster bisque with lobster wontons, and my dad chose the lobster spring rolls. Both of these obviously showed an Asian influence; I loved each, as they had an appealing textural contrast without overpowering the lobster. As I noted in my last writeup, White Barn Inn is the rare Maine fine dining restaurant where the lobster dishes are actually the most impressive items on the menu.
Kitsch is a prominent aspect of White Barn Inn, and it is to their credit that they incorporate this component into both the cuisine and ambience. One notable example was the enthusiastic crab below, which was made of silverware and served as the centerpiece for our table.
Campy elements surfaced periodically in the cuisine. For example, our palate cleanser of raspberry sorbet included test tubes of raspberry vodka.
Our lobster main courses showcased a familiar balance of flavors and textures. Meat from a whole lobster is served with housemade fettucine, snow peas, carrots, and cognac coral butter sauce. Somewhere in the dish is a mysterious ingredient supplying a moderate dose of heat.
Our pre-dessert was white chocolate mousse with blueberry and granola.
For dessert, I chose a doughnut duo: an old-fashioned blackberry donut and lemon zeppola. They were served with matching coulis and pistachio ice cream.
My dad chose roasted banana soufflé with dark chocolate sauce and burnt caramel ice cream. Both of our desserts were terrific; I don’t care for soufflés but the execution was flawless, while the doughnuts were creative without being alienating.
We closed with an impressive mignardise selection and chocolate financiers.
It is both fitting and counterintuitive that L’Espalier and White Barn Inn should coexist within the ultra-fine dining sector. They are each time-honored institutions that have existed for at least 35 years and rely on regional ingredients, although L’Espalier offers a much more urban, contemporary experience. With both restaurants, there are modernist touches, although they never become the dominant theme of the dish; it is for this reason that I argued in my last writeup that L’Espalier offers one of the more accessible interpretations of molecular gastronomy that I’ve encountered. Both restaurants draw heavily from Europe, although L’Espalier tends to incorporate elements of historical New England cuisine while White Barn Inn draws from Asia and other regions. Compared with each another, L’Espalier and White Barn Inn reveal the flexibility of the ultra-fine dining category in New England.