As the saying goes: Everyone loves progress; no one likes change. And, no one certainly likes it when you mess with a good thing. So, when Matthew Padilla took over as executive chef at the venerable White Barn Inn Restaurant, a rare AAA Five Diamond and Forbes Five Star dining experience in Kennebunk, Maine, well, there were mutterings.
“It was a bit intimidating,” Padilla admits. “I was nervous about living up to the reputation of the restaurant and past chefs, but I was also excited about the opportunity to put my own stamp on things.”
Padilla is a Relais & Châteaux veteran. He was executive chef at Dos Brisas in Washington, Texas, and oversaw the fine dining restaurant at The Little Nell in Aspen, Colo., also a Relais & Chateau property. He’s worked at Michael Mina’s flagship Michelin-starred restaurant, and spent several months training at the award-winning Noma in Copenhagen.
“This is my first time on the East Coast,” he said. “I was really drawn by the history and the role that food has played in the region. The history of the property was also a driving force for me.”
The beloved and longstanding White Barn Inn Restaurant will celebrate its 46th anniversary this year. When it opened in 1973, it was a pioneer on the culinary stage, offering ultra-sophisticated dining in a refurbished Maine 1860’s barn. The juxtaposition of elegant, stylized dining in a rustic setting was revolutionary, way before “rustic chic” became common.
The setting is much the same: high ceilings and timber beams, glossy pine floors, and rafters filled with farm implements. Tall windows allow views to lighted paths and gardens. Under the rafters sit white linen-topped, candlelit tables, and original art.
But the menu has changed subtly and slowly under the helm of Padilla, who must play a delicate balancing act between the old and the new, attracting younger, more adventurous diners while still satisfying the generational clientele and staying true to the property’s culinary pedigree. For example, the former lobster fettucine in a cognac sauce has been replaced with a lighter, lobster and morel mushroom linguine with carrots and Calabrian chili, topped with crunchy chicken skin cracklings, and served as a small bowl appetizer. The beef tartare is brilliant: a roasted trough of warm, buttery bone marrow serves as the platter for strips of raw tenderloin, lightly drizzled with a parsley aioli, sprinkled with crispy shallots and served with brioche. It hits all the right warm-cold, soft-crunchy, sweet-savory notes. A duo of foie gras comes with sauterne gel, apple cider gastrique, and caramelized apples. The creamy, ultra-fresh beet soup is garnished with trout roe, adding depth and pop. Main dishes have been updated, too. Yes, there’s more lobster; locally caught, shelled, and deconstructed, served with champagne lobster glace, cauliflower, gnocchi, fennel, and morel mushrooms. The seared scallops come with kumquats, crispy sunchokes, sweet potato, and sautéed spinach. The prime beef ribeye is served with black trumpet mushrooms and black garlic.
Padilla’s forward-thinking approach includes a strong local, farm-to-table ethos, and a commitment to sustainability. “As a chef, I want to have less impact on the environment by working with local purveyors and with sustainable ingredients,” he says. “I think that’s a powerful thing to do.”
And, if anyone’s missing the old standby dishes? “Periodically, and on special occasions, we’ll bring back the classics on the menu,” he says. White Barn Inn Restaurant at White Barn Inn, Auberge Resorts Collection; summer hours: Monday-Thursday, 6-9 p.m., Friday-Sunday, 5:30-9 p.m., 207-967-2321, www.aubergeresorts.com/whitebarninn/
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.