Maine has never been known for luxury dining. The emergence of Portland as a culinary destination owes more to restaurants with simple and exquisite seafood than extended menus with opulent ingredients. I wouldn’t necessarily say that grand luxury dining in Maine is underdeveloped, since I’m not sure that the potential clientele even exists for more than a couple restaurants in this category to thrive year-round. This paucity makes it all the easier to appreciate White Barn Inn, which, with the closure of Arrows, is to my mind the clear frontrunner in the grand luxury category. Having spent the last several months living out of state, White Barn Inn was the restaurant I missed most and so my brother and I secured a reservation for Christmas lunch.
Generally speaking, dining at restaurants on holidays is risky, carrying the threat of disinterested servers, tired kitchens, and screaming children in the dining room. Fortunately, these reservations are mitigated at White Barn Inn, as the restaurant’s stateliness makes it an ideal setting for the grandeur of a holiday, while its formality makes it a poor match for children. Where most restaurants just try to cope with holidays, White Barn Inn goes all out for such occasions. Not only do they add holiday items to the menu, but the dining room participates in the fun—in the fall, there is always a giant pumpkin, with Christmas trees installed in December. There was proper Christmas cheer upon our arrival and we settled in for our long and leisurely lunch.
We are usually seated in the far right corner, but for this occasion we sat in a similarly terrific spot, against the window in the center of the dining room. This conferred a fresh perception of the space and we took full advantage, snapping the photo below of the second-story loft. For me, the antiques are an instance of interior decorating bravura; one’s immediate reaction is that they don’t belong in a fine dining setting, but this is recuperated by the deliberateness of the presentation, evidenced not only by the Christmas lights but also the rhyming motion of the swans—these decorations may be silly, but there is a formality to the kitsch. I have to admit, though, that my interpretation would not be so sympathetic if White Barn Inn weren’t a destination restaurant (with Relais and Chateaux, Forbes 5-Star and AAA 5-Diamond designations.) After all, a fine line separates these decorations from the tacky items that litter low-level steakhouses and chain restaurants. Put differently, a restaurant needs to earn the right to bring fake swans into the dining room without forfeiting its fine dining affiliation, and White Barn Inn does so through the precision of its service and kitchen.
Typically, White Barn Inn offers either a four-course prix fixe or a nine-course tasting, but for Christmas diners choose from a three-course prix fixe. There were signature dishes, but many of the choices were traditional Christmas classics. These offerings were as far away from Nouvelle Cuisine as one could get and therefore not in line with the typical fare at this restaurant—beef wellington, roast goose, etc. Desserts were also holiday-themed, with Christmas pudding, buche de noel, baked Alaska, and a few other choices. This menu was obviously a departure from the norm, but White Barn Inn has always incorporated nostalgic elements and so I still feel as though this was a ‘White Barn Inn meal’; one of the challenges of any holiday menu is the need to balance fidelity to the holiday with remaining faithful to the restaurant itself, and this menu was successful in that regard.
We ordered differently across the board. My brother selected chestnut soap with roast pheasant, the steamed lobster with cognac coral butter sauce as a main, and then the buche de noel. I took advantage of the white truffle supplement on offer (a $55 supplement) and chose the black trumpet risotto with shaved truffles as an appetizer. I usually order the steamed lobster dish as a main but, in a rare gesture of holiday spirit, ordered the roast Christmas goose. My dessert selection was an individually-portioned baked Alaska.
Our lunch began with an amuse of chilled lobster with what I believe was a sauternes gelee. I have always preferred my lobster warm but this preparation worked at this early point of the meal.
There were several bread choices, including a memorable durum roll. We didn’t get any pictures of the bread.
My brother’s soup included two pristine segments of roasted pheasant, with the chestnut broth poured tableside. A basket of chestnuts amplified the dish. Note also the noble turkey figurine at the upper right—we had a rooster on our table and these table centerpieces further enliven the setting.
The truffles were shaved tableside. The photo below is my favorite White Barn Inn image of all time. My eyes gravitate not toward the truffles but instead fixate on the gloves that maitre d’ Benjamin Fraser wore—nowadays, wearing gloves to shave truffles is not so common, but the sartorial gesture constitutes a charming anachronism that’s ideally suited to the White Barn Inn. Where these white gloves might have one day been de rigeur, in a twenty-first century context they’re so severe in their formality that they become reconstituted as sheer excess, a costume of sorts that participates in and celebrates the pageantry of the occasion.
There are a few dishes that always stay on the menu, but the lobster dish below is the restaurant’s signature. It’s annoying when restaurants force the customer to de-shell their lobster, but incorporating the shell for its ornamental value alone is gaudy in the best sense and enhances the scale of the presentation—contemporary fine dining is so focused on small tasting portions that there are comparably few dishes that can legitimately claim to being large and proud, but this one qualifies. I maintain that this might by my favorite restaurant dish and my brother, who doesn’t usually like lobster, enjoyed it as well. We also snapped a photo of the lobster facing forward (below.)
The roast Christmas goose was served with Brussels sprouts, braised red cabbage, pancetta bread dumplings, and pan gravy. This was a dish born out of a different century, and somehow this plate synched up with the heavy ingredients; overall, restaurants underutilize the capability for service ware to impart a mood to each course, but this plate worked quite well. Less successful were the actual ingredients, specifically the gravy and goose. The goose was tough and dry and while this may not be visible in the small photo below, the gravy had coagulated. This leads me to suspect that the goose may not have been overcooked, but was ruined by overexposure to the salamander. Our server and the maitre d’ could not have been more apologetic and I chose the lobster as a delicious replacement.
Our Christmassy desserts arrived large and sculptured. My brother loves white chocolate and enjoyed this. The raspberry sorbet was a natural accompaniment; the meringues looked like forest mushrooms, compounding the 3-dimensionality of the presentation.
The baked Alaska could not have been more textbook. Complementary chocolate and raspberry flavors highlighted it.
Mignardises were sponge cakes that we didn’t manage to photograph. Blueberry marshmallows were also handed to us as take-home gifts.
I love White Barn Inn but I’m mystified by how it’s simultaneously reliable and inconsistent. The lobster dishes are delicate, explosive, and everything one could ask for in luxury cuisine—I’ve had lobster at each of my five dinners and every preparation has been exquisite. However, the meat dishes are entirely hit or miss; I’ve had mediocre veal and terrible goose, but at our meal last December, my brother did have a memorable beef preparation. When I think of hot and cold restaurants, I usually think of modernist, experimental ones, but with the discrepancy between its lobster and meat preparations, the White Barn Inn certainly qualifies.
My complaints over the goose course are partially alleviated by the fact that I’ve never had a perfect meal anywhere. At the same time, this meal does raise the question: at which menu length can a restaurant afford to have misfires? With extended tasting menus, one or two weak preparations are to be expected. For example, even at my superb recent dinner at Alinea, I found the tasting of ginger to be a complete misfire. Yet, with a three-course format, having such a poor main dish really stings and it is never fun to send a dish back; I think a menu has to be at least five courses or so before a weak item can appear without really marring the experience. I actually find White Barn Inn to best excel in the shorter format since it makes room for the substantial lobster course, but I will no longer venture away from my established favorites. Without hesitation, I will return, but I also have to ask myself: how can I love a restaurant so much yet be entirely aware of its glaring limitations? This is, ultimately, because White Barn Inn offers luxury dining done right—provided one knows what to order.