March 4, 2013

Dine Out Maine: White Barn Inn's bistro puts high-end spin on comfort food

By NANCY HEISER

For the sake of argument, let's say that cost isn't an issue when you are choosing a place to eat this month.

click image to enlarge

The casual dining area adjacent to the main dining room is the setting for winter bistro meals, including an unforgettable $25 hamburger, at the White Barn Inn in Kennebunk.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

DINING REVIEW

WINTER BISTRO AT THE WHITE BARN INN, 37 Beach Ave., Kennebunk Beach. 967-2321; whitebarninn.com

***1/2

HOURS: Bistro menu served from 5:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and Sunday

CREDIT CARDS: Visa, Mastercard and American Express

PRICE RANGE: Soup and salad, $10 to $22; light fare, $15 to $22; pizzas and entrees, $18 to $36

VEGETARIAN: Yes

GLUTEN-FREE: Yes. The kitchen is able to accommodate any dietary needs.

KIDS: Welcome

RESERVATIONS: Recommended

BAR: Full. Sizable and well-curated wine list, $31 and up; 22 offerings by the glass.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: No

BOTTOM LINE: The bistro offering at this top-notch luxury inn offers excellent casual food at very high prices in a genteel atmosphere with flawless service. Food is the category I weigh the most in my reviews, and the quality deserves four stars, yet the menu offerings merit one to two stars for value. Five stars for service and atmosphere. Only you know if the mix is right for you.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service and value:

* Poor  **Fair  ***Good ****Excellent *****Extraordinary.

The Maine Sunday Telegram visits an establishment twice if the first dining experience was unsatisfactory. The reviewer dines anonymously.

You have heard wonderful things about grand chef Jonathan Cartwright's prix fixe menu at the White Barn Inn in Kennbunk Beach. That haute dinner experience has been reviewed in these pages (to a five-star assessment) recently enough to avoid a repeat. So I ducked in to see what the kitchen does with "ordinary" dishes from the inn's more casual winter bistro menu. It's offered until the end of March.

The question remains: Would you pay $25 for a hamburger?

Many will say, "No way." Others might concede, "If it's amazing." "That depends," comes the chorus from those who have the money for the occasional splurge but can't quite think through this sticker shock. For that price, even Warren Buffet might stay home and have a Nebraskan rib eye.

What if I say you can enjoy the exquisite ambience of this luxury inn, listen to live music played on a grand piano by a recording artist (Thomas Snow) and find service as perfect as it could be?

And oh, that hamburger? It is perfectly cooked to order -- just a touch of rare, with a thin, crusty coat. It's Waygu beef (a Japanese breed) and sirloin so tender and finely ground that it could pass for filet mignon -- no exaggeration -- and you can also get homemade truffle ketchup with that ($2 extra).

It's an unforgettable burger, and I don't say that lightly. But you might be slightly disappointed in the ordinary steak fries, which are uniform in size and nicely golden, but not as good as those at a few notable lunch spots.

No one lives by burgers alone. So consider the inn's exceptional clam chowder -- a precisely balanced consistency with shreds, not chunks, of clams and potatoes. It's buttery, not too creamy or pasty, and intensely flavored -- the best chowder I've had in a good while ($12).

Minestrone ($10), legume-less and with diced cubes of vegetables in a tomato-y vegetarian broth, is also good but not outrageously so. Both came in small, decorative ceramic terrines. Pretty.

Bread was warm cornmeal scones flecked with caramelized onions and perfectly paired with cool, spicy tomato butter seasoned with horseradish. I can't recall when I've been so blown away by bread service.

If only the salads kept up their end among this array of excellence. Both the "field salad" with walnut dressing and dried cranberries ($11) and "seasonal salad" with English Stilton cheese and balsamic dressing ($14, not sure what made it seasonal -- the robust cheese?), while perfectly presented, didn't hit the same high notes, unless you adore that cheese.

A plate of house-cured salmon ($22), dotted with capers and thin slices of red onion and served, curiously, without crackers, baguette toasts or some vehicle, had lovely flavor but a somewhat ragged texture.

We were back to seafood heaven with the lobster pizza ($26 for a 12- to 15-incher), a crispy, thin crust with yeast bubbles at outer edges, tender bite-sized lobster meat, fontina cheese, slivers of tomato and plenty of fresh basil. This was a perfectly balanced pie, big enough for two (or three as a starter). If you bring home leftover slices, they'll be wrapped in foil and packaged in a glossy box complete with a doily.

I mention these details so you can decide if the disconnect between the type of food (certainly not its quality) and atmosphere is a problem for you. It needn't be, but not everyone wants valet parking and formally attired staff when they go out for a hamburger.

(Continued on page 2)

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