The first surprise of the evening arrived after the hostess directed me and my wife, Heidi, past the bar and grand piano to a table by the two-story picture window. As we sat down, staff members promptly flanked us, folded our napkins, and laid them across our laps, taking over a procedure I was accustomed to managing on my own. We’d known we were in for a posh outing, but there were details we hadn’t anticipated.
The White Barn Inn Restaurant, in Kennebunk, opened in 1973 in a 19th-century barn. Dishes such as bacon-wrapped scallops in oxtail consommé and maple-Dijon cream appeared on early menus, which soon earned a reputation as Maine’s finest. In the mid-’90s, a new wave of restaurants in Portland started catching up with the kitchen’s skill and creativity, but the dining room always delivered service unlike at any other establishment in the state. Even today, all of the head servers have worked there at least a few years, most longer. The wine director started in 1993.
When it came time for us to order, I was indecisive, at least in part because this was likely an experience we wouldn’t repeat anytime soon. “The best decisions are often made in the line of fire,” our server pronounced. (“He’s an elegant man, isn’t he?” an older fellow at the next table later observed to his wife.) In addition to four courses, at $125 per person, we ordered a $55 bottle of California chardonnay — pricey enough, we hoped, to keep us from seeming cheap.
A “peanut butter and jelly” dessert made with peanut-butter mousse, concord grape, and caramelized-brioche ice cream. The grand piano is a grand spot for a drink; oven-roasted duck breast with kohlrabi, huckleberry mostarda, celeriac puree, and king trumpet mushrooms.
The second surprise of the evening hit us as we snacked on an amuse-bouche of butternut-squash panna cotta: for an expensive and formal restaurant, the clientele was not so gray as we’d expected. There were older parties, but also younger ones. A woman who looked to be in her early 30s — about our age — noted to her husband that they’d dined at the very same table before. A man and a woman no older than 24 or 25 chatted about their extensive international wine travels and sent the pianist a glass of red from the bar.
37 Beach Ave., Kennebunk. 207-967-2321.
Price Range Four-course menu, $125, with an optional wine pairing, $75; six-course lobster menu, $195.
Accolades The White Barn Inn has a five-diamond rating from AAA and a five-star rating from Forbes. It’s the only Maine restaurant to hold either designation.
Dressing Down Jackets are no longer required for men, although most still wear them. The White Barn Inn also opened a bistro several years ago as a counterpoint to the restaurant. Food comes from the same kitchen, but the atmosphere is casual and the menu is à la carte.
It was easy to forget that food was involved in all of this, until it arrived. Since chef Matthew Padilla took over two years ago, he has constantly revised the menu (although he takes requests from regulars for some old favorites). A salad matched bitter chicory with subtly sweet sweet-potato hummus and a spicy dressing made with chili-infused salami spread. Agnolotti, pillowy little pastas, were filled with a blend of beets and blue, mascarpone, and ricotta cheeses, then topped with roasted beets, crumbled blue, and pine nuts. Butternut-squash bisque tasted spot-on classic, as did broccoli-cheddar soup (but instead of setting florets adrift in quasi-fondue, Padilla did a puree that presented a lovely shade of spring green).
Oven-roasted duck breast, an entrée, was crowned with a mix of fennel, peppercorns, and star anise, lightly glazed with honey, and served with a huckleberry mostarda, cubed kohlrabi, king trumpet mushrooms, and shaved black truffle. Short rib, with delicata squash and an onion sous-vide puree, melted at the touch of a knife, and saffron arancini provided crunch.
Later, as we sat by a fireplace in the inn and the front desk phoned us a cab, we rhapsodized about what we agreed was an all-time favorite dessert: olive-oil cake with fig-crémeux filling, on a plate with maple whipped cream, figs, candied pecans, and the silkiest brown-butter–pecan ice cream. Earlier that day, I’d been feeling skeptical. Is it ever right for food to cost so much? Were we walking into some patrician fantasy? A few hours hadn’t resolved anything, but the night did deliver one final surprise. Lounging in a fireside chair, I suggested, almost reflexively, “Maybe we can come back next year?”