KENNEBUNK — Over the years, including the six I have been writing this column, the White Barn Inn has come up for discussions focused on money.
Could its prix fixe dinner possibly be worth the price? My answer is yes.
From an exultation over the lobster bisque to hallelujahs upon tasting the halibut, the venison and the salmon, our dinners gave us joy.
And if, toward the end, when my blood-sugar level was spiking and the urbane server detailed the chocolates with an insinuating voice that brought to mind John Cleese telling Mr. Creosote, “wafer-thin …” well, never mind. Too much is just right, every once in a while, so long as it is so exceptionally good.
My newspaper-supported dinner budget stretched high enough only for one person, so I am grateful to two friends who paid their own way, allowing me to taste multiple dishes and discuss all we were experiencing on a higher-priced Christmas Prelude Weekend night ($105 per person). The a capella group Women of Note sang two holiday songs each hour for the three hours we dined, enlivening the room with excellent harmonizing and a really jazzy alto section.
The long, sophisticated wine list winds through realms and bottles beyond my reach. My one quibble with the White Barn Inn was its list of wines by the glass: only one priced in the single digits, and the highest priced $34.
Rutherford Ranch Merlot ($10), a rich red wine touched with oak and flaunting dark berries, began things well, and the St. Francis Cabernet Sauvignon ($13), darker and more lush, made elegant sense with the venison. The first was poured in a Bordeaux glass and the second into a Burgundy glass. Pascal Jolivet Sancerre ($16), a French Sauvignon Blanc, was pronounced excellent.
We chose three courses and a dessert after a spell of pleasant agonizing, and welcomed the man with the bread basket who listed the six-plus kinds of bread he had on offer. Fresh, lovely butter and a fruity olive oil in a tiny carafe sat on the table on a silver tray.
Our table looked into an open porch stuffed with greenery, branches of red berries and a Christmas tree hung with gold angels and ribbons, all girdled with strings of white lights. The restaurant is in a barn – the walls paneled with worn, gray wood – but white tablecloths, shaded lights and silver animal and bird sculptures on the tables make up a fraction of the decor that transforms the space into an art-filled cocoon.
When any of the food items swooped in, they were carried by a phalanx of servers and set in front of each of us simultaneously, along with a quiet description. The service of every course at every table resembled a performance of synchronized swimmers who were careful, as one of my companions had been on her high school team, to always smile.
A little, wonderful first bite arrived made with a slice of lobster tail, creme fraiche, lemon vinaigrette, pineapple-melon salsa and a dab of caviar.
Lobster spring roll wrapped a crisp wonton wrapper around tender lobster nested in finely shredded carrot, crunchy snow peas and daikon that oozed a wonderful aromatic liquid.
Half a tiny roast quail on a trumpet royal mushroom – not likely in the plural, since the slender, delicious thing was quartered lengthwise – made a few delicious mouthfuls along with a liver stuffing sweetened with pomegranate reduction. A half moon “tortellino” was stuffed with sweet corn. But the truly intoxicating taste on the plate was almost-raw foie gras, astonishingly liquid, light and deliriously good.
Lobster bisque held all eyes and ears, as it was devoured with eruptions of delight.
Executive chef Jonathan Cartwright had been interviewed on “The Charlie Rose Show” on PBS the night before we ate his food, talking about “85 Inspirational Chefs” and “Chefs At Home,” books to which he contributed. We were pleased for him but just the same so happy to learn he was in the kitchen, infusing his mastery into the dishes.
The deep, roasted intensity of the bisque lent that soup an incredible power, something between roasted and burned, requiring some unerring courage to edge toward the boundary of what’s it’s possible to enjoy.
“Intermezzo” meant cranberry sorbet with a teeny vial of raspberry vodka (one diner thought the liquor gave the sorbet too much bitterness), a “Bon Bon” that was a pasta dumpling filled with Parmesan with prosciutto foam, and a cup of clam chowder that shared with the bisque a taste that was mineral-like and sharp, like the tang of saltwater.
Atlantic farm-raised salmon was silky, cooked through as requested but ordinarily served medium rare, the “chef’s temperature” that you can revise when you order. Baked fingerling potatoes were adorable, squeezed open in a cross-cut and filled with creme fraiche topped with farm-raised California osetra caviar.
Halibut was opaque, and the curl of smoked lobster tail beside it introduced the element of fire amid paprika butter sauce. Shades of past lobster bakes rose from the plate.
A venison loin with a ruby center and browned edges held pure iron in contrast to shredded red cabbage cooked with vinegar, a sliced chestnut stuffing on top, and cranberry gastrique, a tart sauce based on sugar and wine or vinegar with fruit.
Potato croquettes with chopped mushrooms, poached cranberries and toasted chestnuts roasted after they were peeled elaborated on the forest of wintry flavors.
The raspberry panna cotta under lemon cream and a shard of crunchy toffee was a pre-dessert.
Chocolate-covered cheesecake, with a sturdy texture and a more pronounced cheese flavor, was remarkable. White chocolate creme brulee pleased nicely. And, set on crisp gingersnaps, cranberry and cider sorbet, ginger and cinnamon ice creams were each excellent, the cinnamon ice cream wearing two paper-thin slices of crunchy, dried green apple.
A silver dessert display with multiple arms and tiny trays held little chocolates with lime, white chocolate and white peach gelee, and each tiny square was perfect – but we were flagging despite the smooth, hot and strong coffee.
Little cranberry cakes arrived with the check – in which only wine and tax was additional – but by then, only one of us had the stomach to take one last bite, and it wasn’t me.
N.L. English is a Portland freelance writer and the author of “Chow Maine: The Best Restaurants, Cafes, Lobster Shacks and Markets on the Coast.” Visit English’s website, www.chowmaineguide.com.