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R&IEditorial Archives2004 — May 15 — Special Report

2004 Ivy Awards

The White Barn Inn
Kennebunkport, Maine

The White Barn Inn’s grilled yellowfin tuna loin on corn-and-shellfish hash with smoked tomato coulis features fish caught in Maine waters.

The White Barn Inn is big on surprises, exceeding expectations at every possible turn.

“Guest expectations are becoming more and more sophisticated,” says Laurence Bongiorno, proprietor for the last 14 years. “So we have to improve ourselves constantly and never lose sight that we are only as good as the last meal we served.”

For Bongiorno and Executive Chef Jonathan Cartwright, an unsurpassable dining experience is seamless, from the moment guests arrive at the coastal Maine restaurant until they depart. Opportunities to impress, they say, go beyond the meal.

Guests are warmly greeted by a valet well versed in the history of the 29-room inn and restaurant. In inclement weather, the valet is equipped with umbrellas to keep rain or snow from dampening guests. When diners enter the restaurant, a gasp, smile or nod tells Bongiorno and Cartwright that they are ready to be dazzled.

Awe is drawn by the rustic, dramatic, sweeping space created by the restoration of a 140-year-old barn that makes up the three-story restaurant. Seating is divided between the ground floor and second-story loft, forming a celestial sense of space that’s enhanced by flickering candles on white tablecloths and an outdoor garden framed by floor-to-ceiling windows. Any notion of stuffiness, however, is allayed by the nearby gallery of full-size model farm animals and barn implements, such as pitchforks, buckets and baskets.

Opened: 1979
Seats: 120
Check average: $125

“We attempt to surprise and please the guest at every step,” says Bongiorno, from the amuse bouche and intermezzo to the silverware and china. “The service itself is simultaneous—if it’s a table of eight, eight servers place a plate down in front of each guest at the same time.”

Should a server see a guest squinting to read the menu, a flashlight is immediately brought to the table. A diner warding off a shiver is brought a shawl. Servers eye the room like hawks, ever watchful to swiftly meet any need.

Indeed, an on-cue staff takes practice and diligence, says Cartwright, who took on front-of-the-house responsibilities last year to ensure coordination with the back of the house.

“We prod, cajole and train our people constantly in a role-playing environment so we can brush up skills,” Cartwright explains. The method is particularly important because the restaurant is closed during slower winter months, reducing opportunities to hone skills.

Local specialties at the 29-room inn and restaurant (top) include Kennebunkport lobster on mango salsa with osetra caviar (middle), and Maine peeky toe crab cakes and pan-seared shrimp (above).

Peers act as diners and servers are put to the test fielding questions about food, origin of ingredients and whether and why a particular dish would match a certain wine.

“The more information the waitstaff is armed with, the more confident, knowledgeable and fluent they are with guests,” says Cartwright. “We don’t have wine stewards because the waiters should be fluid in all aspects of the dining experience.”

Knowing the menu, the source of food and how it is prepared takes on new importance as a result. While Bongiorno and Cartwright say that food is only a part of the equation, they know it is a significant factor that merits close scrutiny.

The prix-fixe seasonal menu at $85 per person and the tasting menu are shaped by New England history, the bounty of Maine’s coastal region, local farms and creative twists from the kitchen staff. Maine lobster is steamed and served on house-made fettuccine with carrot, ginger, snow peas and cognac butter sauce. Pheasant, from a farm in nearby Vermont, is roasted, served with a bean ragot and finished with a foam of Madeira café au lait sauce.

“The sauce of veal and pheasant stock, a touch of Madeira and cream is lighter as a foam,” says Cartwright.

Cartwright is the main idea man but the fuel is a collaborative effort among the kitchen staff, including chef Sébastien Pfeiffer. “We talk about how we are going to do it, what will make it taste and look great every night,” Cartwright says. “All the dishes are tried, tasted and discussed.”

Cartwright, however, knows that the menu must be balanced with familiar and innovative turns. “Our guests have certain expectations but we never want to be staid or predictable,” says Cartwright, who has cooked at the inn for nine years.

For example, Spain and the innovation shepherded by Ferran Adria of El Buli in the country’s Basque region is influencing the White Barn kitchen.

The kitchen staff crafts combinations by juxtaposing contrasting flavors. New England goat cheese and spinach come together in a risotto appetizer with tomato foam and Parmesan cheese cannelloni. Diver-harvested scallops are seared and served with sweet pepper relish, Catalonian spinach and basil pine-nut foam.

The collaborative team approach extends to pastry, leading to unsuspecting winners such as warm chocolate fondant cake with a chile-infused gelée center and white chocolate cappuccino sauce.

“It’s demanding but very rewarding to work here, says Bongiorno. “But we give the staff a reason for it to be worthwhile. We mentor, encourage and support the staff so they want to excel and be the best at what they do.”

Land and sea

  • Influenced by New England and its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, the menu changes regularly to reflect the seasons.
  • Grilled breast of guinea hen on creamed ramps with potatoes, fava beans and woodland mushroom sauce
  • Seared local cod fillet, deep-sea shrimp and calamari with celeriac, apple ravioli, chorizo-braised spring greens and champagne foam
  • Smoked almond-crusted North Atlantic halibut fillet on orange-braised fennel, endive and Chianti butter sauce

  • 2004 Ivy Award Winners
    Ivy Recipes


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