Wednesday, November 01, 2006

JOHN CHUCKMAN RESTAURANT REVIEW: WINDOWS ON THE WATER, KENNEBUNKPORT, MAINE

Review of an outstanding restaurant written for The Maine Sunday Telegram when I served as restaurant reviewer there. Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.

RESTAURANT REVIEW: WINDOWS ON THE WATER, KENNEBUNKPORT, MAINE

John Chuckman

Windows on the Water is at the end of a short, quaint, residential street with a gradual slope, appropriately enough called Chase Hill Road.

The ambiance of this restaurant comes from a pleasant mix of elements, no one of which is by itself outstanding. The view - the walls facing the river are lined with tall windows - is pretty rather than breathtaking. The room's decoration - framed prints, mirrors, and dried floral arrangements on warm white walls with a pinkish faux-marble section below the chair rail - is relaxing rather than glamorous. Tables are neatly set with a double layer of crisp white linen, wine and water glasses, silverware, and tall, rectangular smoked-glass candle holders.

The windows once looked directly on the river, but a low, rather nondescript, commercial building now stands between the hill and the water, although you still enjoy a view of the river and other aspects of the pretty village. The hill on the windows' side is steep and handsomely landscaped with a stairway up from the small looping road below.

A sense of intimacy is suggested through the restaurant's division into smaller rooms. Intimacy is also suggested by the cooking area in an alcove of the room nearest the entrance. You pass the cooks on your way in and out. This is a very agreeable arrangement and communicates quite literally the importance of cooking.

The ambiance of these rooms is enhanced by the most exceptional service I have experienced in years. Our waitress displayed knowledge, humor, and true grace in her work. She was supported by a busboy who was well-trained, pleasant, and exceptionally helpful. I have no way of knowing whether these qualities characterize all staff at Windows on the Water, but I can't imagine the slightest suggestion for improving the service we enjoyed.

Windows serves a soft-textured, herbed bread with a bottle of garlic-infused olive oil. These are both excellent, but I think a crustier, provincial-style bread would better match the olive oil. Sweet butter suits this kind of very refined bread.

There is a four-page wine list with selections from all major wine-growing areas, California being most prominent. While there are some pricey wines, there are many bottles under $25. About half the selections are available by the glass. We both had glasses of Erath Pinot Noir, 1998 ($7.50), an Oregon wine we had never tasted. This is delicious stuff - smooth, with a good range of pleasant undertones.

Well equipped with bread and wine, we studied the menu. I was disappointed that an appetizer that had riveted my attention on Windows' Internet site - seared duck and ginger dumplings in orange, fennel sauce - was gone from the current menu. (Ah, even the miraculous Internet requires regular, old-fashioned up-dating to work its wonders.) Prosciutto-wrapped shrimp ($10) seemed a promising substitute. Portabello carpaccio ($8), deliciously described on the menu, made an easy second choice.

The shrimp did compensate for the missing dumplings - four large shrimp, with the flavor of fresh horseradish, each wrapped in a slice of prosciutto, lightly grilled, and served on tiny cubes of fresh mango and pineapple - absolutely delicious.

The portabello plate was beautiful - thin, very fresh slices of the large, meaty mushrooms, drizzled lightly with crème fraiche and a mild balsamic reduction, sprinkled with parmesan, and served with fresh, mixed greens.

Windows offers some intriguing salads. One influence at work here, just as with some of the appetizers, is what sometimes is called fusion-cooking, the combining of elements from vastly different cuisines. Without disciplined culinary imagination and judgment, fusion-cooking can be disastrous, but the requisite talent is quite apparent here.

We had non-traditional greens ($3 with dinner/ $10 a la carte) - a salad of baby greens, roasted shallots, dried cranberries, golden raisins, and pomegranate dressing. The baby greens, like all those used at Windows, are notably fresh, tender, and crisp - a good indicator of care and knowledge about food. Pomegranate syrup, used in cooking from North Africa and the Middle East, is rarely found here, but it is a delicious, tartly sweet ingredient for dressing a salad like this. I recommend this salad highly to those wanting to try something a little out of the ordinary.

Our other salad was the chef's weekly selection, which this particular week consisted of a serving of orzo, large, beautiful slices of red and yellow tomatoes, a sprinkling of pine nuts, and a nicely balanced vinaigrette ($7) - excellent.

Windows' entrees emphasize seafood, but a sirloin, a filet mignon, a sensational-sounding rack of lamb (herb-crusted with Madeira demi-glace and Kalamata tapenade), and a chicken dish are on the menu. As well, the menu promises best efforts at any special request. Our choices were pan-seared Atlantic salmon ($23) and sautéed haddock fillet ($22).

These entrees are served in large, colorful, shallow bowls that carry a pleasant association of bounty, and the entrees are generous. The salmon is a thick, crusted fillet, topped with a compote or salad of cucumber and red onion, two little mounds of creamy mashed potatoes at its sides, and a thick carrot-sauce underneath. The salmon is lightly and pleasantly crusted with sorrel, a slightly sour herb. The flesh was cooked a touch beyond my ideal (and difficult to obtain) point of perfect succulence, but it was moist and delicate. The compote was tinged with ginger. The carrot-sauce, a thick puree really, had Asian undertones and made an excellent match for the salmon. The mashed potatoes were creamy perfection.

Our lightly sautéed haddock, again a generous filet, came with rissoled potatoes, a caper-and-tomato topping, and a lobster-based broth flavored with dill and lemongrass. These flavors blended beautifully, the capers being especially nice with haddock.

I was delighted with the whimsy of the dessert menu's root-beer float (Window's own brew and house-made vanilla ice cream - $6.75), a deluxe version of what children of the Midwest call a black cow. Nothing could have appealed more strongly on a summer evening after a substantial meal.

Our other cooling choice was three flavors of house-made sorbet ($6.75), the evening's flavors being mango, raspberry, and watermelon. The mango and raspberry were pure, sweet essence of chilled fruit - sensational. The watermelon was not successful, but this was not surprising, since I have made watermelon sorbet from two recipes, both unsuccessful. There is something about the delicately sweet flavor of watermelon that does not tolerate the additional sugar required for sorbet.

Our bill was $126.60. I left with regrets over not trying the crème brûlée, about which the menu makes very heady claims, but, for the sake of variety in writing, I try avoiding dishes I've mentioned a couple of times. I equally regretted not trying, for the same reason, the lobster bisque which is said to be award-winning. But then, that's how it should be with a truly excellent restaurant: There's always reason to return.

Windows On The Water
12 Chase Hill Road
Kennebunkport
967-3313
http://www.windowsonthewater.com/Food: 4 1/2
Atmosphere: 4
Service: 5
Dinner hours: 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday to Thursday
5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday
5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturday
Lunch hours: 11:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily
Credit cards: all major
Vegetarian dishes: on request
Price range: entrees $20 to $38 (one at market)
Reservations: recommended
Bar: full
Wheelchair access: throughout
The bottom line: Excellent cuisine and great service in a pleasant, informal setting

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