Wednesday, May 11, 2011

JOHN CHUCKMAN RESTAURANT REVIEW: INN BY THE SEA IN CAPE ELIZABETH MAINE

Review of an enjoyable 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 Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.


The lobby to the Inn by the Sea is not large, but it is very pleasant with its inviting plush couches and fireplace. After inquiring at the desk about our reservation, we were asked to sit while the restaurant was advised that guests had arrived. Very shortly, a waiter appeared and offered drinks. Well, what could be more delightful just in from the cold than a perfectly made Manhattan ($7), especially under the spell of an artfully frosted Christmas tree and quiet gas fireplace?

The waiter returned in a few minutes to show us to our table. What an elegant, intimate room, as softly shadowed and warmly highlighted as a Rembrandt interior with candles flickering under shades on tables of white linen and fresh flowers. There are windows on three sides, many looking towards the sea, although, without moonlight on the water, you would not be aware of this. Recorded music of the Johnny Mathis-Bing Crosby type may not be to all tastes, but it was played as softly as the candles flickered.

The wine list has about sixty selections with about half a dozen available by the glass. A modest number of bottles are priced under $35, but many are well above this. There are, pleasantly, half a dozen excellent half bottles. Only something a little special seemed right for the atmosphere - the complex, smooth, but slightly peppery taste of Mont Redon Chateauneuf Du Pape (1997 - half bottle $25) matched the glow of the room.

In such a room and with a menu printed on fine moiré-patterned paper, one naturally expects understatement in all things, so an announcement that the lobster bisque ($10.95) had been voted "Maine's best" naturally aroused my interest. While the soup was thoroughly enjoyable, I found it short of top marks. It was a little on the thin side, and while delicately flavored with sherry and basil, the broth in the soup base was less flavorful than others in my memory. Still, this was a fine, enjoyable bowl of soup, even if a little over-hyped on the menu.

The Audubon winter salad ($7.95) with mixed greens, chevre cheese, and dried cherries in a mild balsamic vinaigrette was good. But the salad also included what the menu called "caramelized walnuts," and these proved to be small chunks of a walnut brittle, just too candy-like for such a salad. Simple roasted walnuts would have been far more suitable.

Considering an appetizer list that included half-shell oysters, crab cakes, and mixed grill - all fine things but none of them appearing to offer the promise of fresh treatment - wild mushroom turnovers ($7.95) stood out. I began fantasizing about delicate slices of wild mushrooms, a savory mushroom-infused sauce, and a perfect pastry.

But my fantasy was brought up short by two little triangles of folded phyllo pastry, clearly, even in soft light, not cooked to ideal delicate crispness. The fantasy faded altogether with the first bite of a filling something closer to a chopped and rather pasty mushroom stuffing, no more distinguished than streams of canapés served at countless cocktail parties. The marinated tomato slices with fresh basil served along side were excellent.

The broth of our cultivated Maine mussels ($8.95), steamed in "local ale," onions, garlic, and herbs, was tasty with very little salt, and the mussels would have been excellent except that they contained enough sandy grit to make your next appointment for a cleaning at the dentist unnecessary. This marked the only time I have been served mussels in this condition. Clearly, the kitchen had not sampled before putting them on the evening's menu, always the appropriate procedure for foods prone to such uncorrectable faults.

My indispensable research assistant does not put complaints quite so bluntly, so our waiter was artfully advised that the mussels were gritty. He whisked them away and very smoothly offered the chef's apologies and said they would of course not be reflected in the bill - another mark for excellent service, but definitely one down for the kitchen's attention to detail.

The entrée menu was not large and struck me as a little dull, including as it does mostly standards such as steamed lobster, rib-eye steak, sautéed sea food, and rack of lamb. Again, there was little indication on the menu of anything new or exciting being done with them.

I actually was a bit stuck making a choice, being mindful of my journalistic obligation to highlight anything special about a restaurant's offerings. There was one item that in all my travels and decades of cooking I had somehow managed never to try, pheasant. Perhaps this lapse is because the name is so thoroughly associated with the strictly posh, a bit like the fine swans eaten on the best tables in Elizabethan times. Pheasant also has some reputation for being dry. But when our excellent waiter advised that these birds were fresh from a local farm and very flavorful, it did seem the right time to try it.

The pheasant ($26.95) made a handsome plate with a generous serving of golden-skinned, slices of breast, a small fruit compote, some mixed wild rice, and beautifully steamed slices of zucchini, carrot, and thin asparagus spears. One could see the flesh of the slices was moist and not overcooked even before tasting. It had a substantial, meaty texture, and a refined, rather than gamy, flavor (but, of course, its being farm-raised may account for this). The compote with its dried fruit ingredient was a less successful accompaniment than had it been based solely on juicy fruit. The steamed vegetables were perfect with a touch of butter, wine, salt and pepper. The rice was very good.

Our other choice was pan-seared tournedos of beef ($26.95). The tournedos (a French designation for a tenderloin cut of less-than-filet quality) plate was handsome, with three beautifully rare pieces of meat topped with some boursin cheese flavored with artichoke hearts. But it had exactly the same rice and the same vegetables as the pheasant. While these were excellent, I do like to see more variety on the plates of fine restaurants. No matter how well done, this repetition communicates some sense of assembly line, rather than each plate being an individual creation.

There were four choices for dessert, all of them in the cake category - carrot cake, a flavored cheese cake, a torte-style tiramisu, and a chocolate cake. The choice again struck me as rather unimaginative for a fine restaurant, all clearly qualifying, no matter how well made, under the category of "dessert war-horses." The choice also reflected poor menu planning. Some pleasantly light or fruity offerings were clearly called for in view of the substantial and meaty entrees.

The carrot cake ($6.95) was tall, thickly coated with cream cheese-based frosting, and had a batter rich with walnuts. The chocolate cake ($6.95) was layered, served with some fresh (very woody) strawberries and the plate was laced with chocolate and strawberry syrups. Both cakes were very good, but we had to have doggy bags for most of them.

Our bill came to $141.94. The Audubon Room is a beautiful place with some very fine service - indeed, on that night at that table, I have to call the service exceptional. While cooking is sometimes excellent, quality is surprisingly inconsistent, and the menu lacks innovative or exciting choices. Attention to detail seems at times absent from the kitchen, as with the gritty mussels and the poorly suited selection of desserts.

The Audubon Room
Inn by the Sea
40 Bowery Beach Road (Route 77)
Cape Elizabeth
767-0888
www.innbythesea.com

Food: 3 1/2
Atmosphere: 4 1/2
Service: 5
Dinner hours: 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Monday to Sunday
Lunch hours: 12:00 noon to 2:00 p.m. Monday to Sunday
Credit cards: all major
Price range: entrees $21.95 to $27.95 plus three "priced daily"
Vegetarian dishes: yes
Reservations: yes
Bar: full
Wheelchair access: full
The bottom line: Beautiful room, fine service - some excellence and
inconsistency with less-than-imaginative menu

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