Kennebec Tavern has a splendid setting. Large windows offer close-up views of the broad Kennebec River and the Sagadahoc Bridge to Woolwich from almost every spot in the 80-seat interior. Outside is a patio with awning and many more tables just a few steps from the water.
The dining room is furnished with booths and Windsor-backed chairs. Part of the ceiling is vaulted, creating an uncluttered and airy feel. The light pours in. On a sunny May evening, the dining room is full, conversations ring and plates clatter.
Portions are large, and choices are diverse: mussels, nachos, sandwiches, salads, burgers, prime rib, pasta, specials and whole steamed lobster are on the menu, which is the same for lunch and dinner. The restaurant aims to hit a broad clientele as well as entice a senior crowd in the off-season. (There is a separate menu).
Does the food have character and interest? That depends. On a Friday night in April, it did not. We had an OK meal, but we decided to go back in May and see if this may have been an off night or if other choices would be more satisfying. Our second visit was an improvement.
On the first try, crab cakes ($11 as an appetizer) were too thickly crusted and served with a sauce heavy on mayonnaise. Happily, the second time they were lighter, rounded and full, the remoulade spicy and tangy — a whole different experience. The crab cakes would prove emblematic.
In April, pan-seared scallops served with tomato, caper and bacon relish (a small plate for $10) came with wintry, flavor-deficient tomatoes, and the pickled taste of capers dominated the dish. The lobster stew ($9 for a cup) contained giant chunks of meat, but the chowder tasted mainly of milk.
In May, a French onion soup in a crock with melted Gruyere ($7) was richly flavored with sherry and stock, and full of onions. Someone in the kitchen was paying better attention.
The inch-thick and enormous roast prime rib (we ordered the mate’s cut, which is $22 for 12 ounces; 16 ounces is $26 and must be staggering in size) lacked a rich, beefy flavor. On visit two, we instead went with the Hell’s Gate sandwich — a haddock filet pan-seared in jalapeno-infused oil to a slight char and served with chili, lime and oregano on a bulky roll ($12). It was a spicy, juicy hit.
A fried seafood platter ($24) piled high on our first visit came with a coating more squashy than crisp. Fries? Skin on, pretty good.
Would the cole slaw boost the lackluster plate? No. Please hold all that mayo. Our second-visit slaw, served with that Hell’s Gate sandwich, was a different batch altogether — crisp, clean shreds, tangy and fresh.
The braised haddock ($16) mounded with sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes and feta cheese — a special in April — was a dish with some character. But the fish didn’t come across as ultra-fresh, and the cooking method — long, slow and moist — was a surprising choice.
On our next visit, I ordered something in a different vein, a grilled Portobello sandwich ($9). The mushroom had a meaty, robust flavor, and paired very well with a cream cheese/spinach/basil spread and red onion on a large, squishy-soft roll. This too was a hit — call it a double.
A sour cream blueberry pie had a thick and chunky pecan crumble topping ($5), but too few blueberries. Next time, prompted by our waitress, we chose a brownie bread pudding ($6), its cakey chocolate interior covered by a white chocolate frosting and drizzled with raspberry sauce. It was festive, like a birthday cake, and good, but you won’t die from the chocolate.
We had no quarrel with service. In April, the job got done, even though a quick wipe of tartar sauce and crumbs between courses would have made the table more elbow-friendly. In May, our waitress was an expert — friendly and swift. She juggled several tables and trays with efficiency and good cheer, knew the menu inside out, and kept excellent track of the details and bar orders.
It’s hard to say what to make of the difference. April seemed to suffer from end-of-winter doldrums. It was as if we were at a different restaurant in May. We tried some new dishes the second time, and some of the same, with divergent results. But reliability matters.
To entice customers to return, the chef would do well to ensure that the food consistently matches the setting that the restaurant enjoys. That overall impression is a mix of the two visits.
Kennebec Tavern has been around for close to 15 years. Before long, boaters will dock here for a meal, tourists will wander down from the city’s inns, and locals will continue to drop in with kids and grandparents in tow. Heaving trays will roll out of the kitchen, and customers will bib up for lobster or settle into a hearty sandwich. Kicking back on the Kennebec will be in full swing.
Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer and editor who lives near Portland. Her work has appeared in national and regional publications.