I will preface this post with the subtitle–“A Tale of Two Restaurants.”
A few years ago, I fell hard for former New York Times food editor and (then current) Gourmet Magazine editor, Ruth Reichl. I read a number of her books, which would fall under the increasingly growing sub-category of “food memoir,” but became particularly smitten with Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise. In Garlic and Sapphires, Reichl discusses her tenure as Times restaurant critic and the costumes, meals and emotion involved in the job. The book is an easy yet interesting read, divided into chunks that centered on the restaurant she was reviewing and how that fit into her life at the time.
Two interesting side notes to this book. First, my best friend borrowed the book shortly after I finished it. She, too, enjoyed it immensely, but owned up that she had spilled red wine on my hardback copy and had gotten me a paperback replacement because that was all that was available at the bookstore. Instead of taking the new book, I opted for my increasingly tattered and now wine stained book because every tear, wrinkle and stain tells a story. The other story is a bit more serious. Five years ago, my father was in the hospital for a month with an undisclosed lung infection that necessitated a medically-induced coma. I sat faithfully by his bed each day until he shocked the medical world (true story) by turning the corner and is in impeccable shape today. Because I was so distraught by his illness, it was difficult for me to concentrate on anything serious. Instead, I spent hours reading and rereading Garlic and Sapphires, allowing Reichl’s words to take me to another place with Bob Dylan and the Band on repeat on my ipod. I saw Ruth Reichl at a reading at the Free Library of Philadelphia a year or two ago and became emotional when I had the opportunity to meet her. It’s amazing to think how much someone can have an affect on your life without even knowing.
But I digress yet again.
In Garlic and Sapphires, Reichl is often faced with the dilemma or wrapping her head around the “meaning” of her job. Although she held a lofty position and had the opportunity to have red carpet treatment at every restaurant in the City, she wanted to be sure she was able to truly and honestly critique the restaurants for “the people.” She wanted every Tom, Dick and Harry to understand what his experience would be like should he opt to eat at Le Cirque, for example, rather than having them read about her amazing meal only to come and be treated like a (gasp) normal person or worse. To combat this concern, she had different personas that came complete with wigs and costume overhauls so that she truly got the everyman’s dining experience.
Although we did not wear costumes at The Kennebunk Inn’s Academe Brasserie in Maine, we had the unique opportunity to do something we’ve never done before–eat dinner at the same restaurant two days in a row. Let me back up a bit. My husband and I were planning a trip to New England to visit his aunt, sister and brother-in-law. We decided to take a side trip up to Kennebunkport, Maine, which is only about an hour north of Gloucester, Massachusetts. In googling “dog friendly hotels Kennebunk” (more budget friendly lodging than the ‘Port as locals call Kennebunkport) I came across The Kennebunk Inn. It turns out we stayed at The Kennebunk Inn three years ago when we were last in Maine. According to the dog-friendly website and a confirmation call to the hotel, dogs were not only allowed, but we would be able to leave her in the room if we wanted to partake in any dog-unfriendly activities in Maine. Score! Many of the supposed dog-friendly hotels will not allow you to leave your dog in the room unattended.
We got into Kennebunk mid-day on Wednesday and went immediately to Kennebunkport for a lobster roll and clam strips at the Clam Shack and a stroll around town. Stay tuned for my lobster roll post. We went back to the hotel room and I found a local pet supply store while my husband explored the area on his bike. When he returned, we took Jewels to the beach for her first experience with waves. She loved it!
The weather was lovely and we decided that we would have dinner at the Inn that evening. We headed to the private courtyard and made ourselves comfortable (despite the wicked Maine mosquitoes) while waiting for our martinis. For $7.50 and $8.00 for dirty Absolut and Beefeater martinis respectively, we got a great deal. Especially considering the mini shaker that came with another half a martinis worth on the side.
The martinis were fine although I still haven’t found one that holds a candle to James or Le Virtu’s skilled bartenders. We enjoyed them while we perused the vast menu. I had already checked out the menu online and couldn’t help but be drawn to the chicken croquettes. Why? I’m not sure. However, I couldn’t peel myself away from them. I decided to be piggy and go with the chicken croquettes and the lobster pizza. When in Maine, right? My husband ordered the specials–haddock chowder and an intriguing scallop dish.
Our appetizer arrived we tore into after the deliciously moist and fresh out of the oven rolls. My croquettes were larger than expected.
The order came with three substantial croquettes surrounding a heap of crunchy romaine, cucumbers and tomatoes with ranch dressing. Where shall I even begin…The chicken was smooth and creamy, yet chunky enough to grasp the freshness of it. The cool crunch of the salad played perfectly with the warm creaminess of the croquette and I loved the light breading on the outside. Although these were phenomenal, I only ate 2/3 (well, a little less with tastes by my husband and the dog) and brought one back to the room for a midnight, Top Chef watching snack.
The Haddock chowder was creamy and flavor rich with huge chunks of Haddock. We had a fair amount of chowders on this trip and Academe’s haddock chowder stands out as one of the best–heavy on fish, light on filler.
Look at those big chunks of haddock!
Our entrees came out rather quickly afterward, although we had some interesting dialogue with both the chatty folks at the next table over and the quirky and absent-minded yet friendly and eager-to-please waitress. My lobster pizza had a nice combination of freshly picked claw and tail meat.
I would have liked to see a little more of the truffle flavor and less of the roasted tomato. In my mind, lobster warrants a white pizza and while this one did not have sauce, the chunks of roasted tomato confused my eager palate.
My husband scored big time with the scallops
The dish was complex and well thought-out. There were four nice sized diver scallops pan seared with roasted figs and tomato carpaccio topped with pancetta and a reduction of grapes from their garden. On the end of the plate sat a large goat cheese ravioli. I am not, unfortunately, a scallop eater, due to a nasty bout of food poisoning the night before the Eagles’ Super Bowl appearance, but my husband enthusiastically devoured them and gave them two thumbs up. I had a small yet satisfying bite of the ravioli which had a thin and tangy goat cheese filling.
We finished the evening with a glass of port and decided to forgo dessert although they had really interesting sounding desserts including a reverse root beer float that had vanilla soda over root beer flavored ice cream. They also allowed for moderation portions, which are smaller portions of any of the desserts for an affordable $3.50. This is my kind of place.
If you want to read an awesome review of an amazing meal, stop reading now. If you want to read the full story, please continue.
The next day we had a bit of a snafu with the dog-friendliness of the hotel. This is a food blog so we’ll leave it at that, but I will say that I am out $35 for a kayak trip that I was unable to take. Instead, I shopped with Jewels who was admired by many. After my husband returned from his solo trip, we drove out for more lobster rolls, chowder and clam strips (ah, life is good) and then returned to the hotel where I shopped and he went for a bike ride until 5pm when the beaches are open to dogs. Because we were having such a nice time, it was 7pm before we left the beach and the three of us were tired and hungry. Due to the bark nazis at the hotel and the fact that we greatly enjoyed our meal there the previous night, we decided to just return to Academe.
We got to the restaurant around 7:40. I waited in the courtyard with the dog while my husband went inside to get us seated. He came out shortly afterwards with two menus in his hand saying that the hostess had asked him to seat himself. This should have been our first warning, but we practically didn’t notice. After ten minutes had passed (and I had difficulty deciding because I wanted to hear the specials) with no server in sight, I went inside to speak with the hostess. Our conversation went as follows:
Me: I just wanted to check to see if anyone knew we were outside?
Her: Um. Probably not. I’ll tell them
Me: **A little confused** OK, thanks
I went back outside and we waited another 5-7 minutes. I got up again, much to my husband’s chagrin. I tracked down the hostess and tried again.
Me: I was just wondering if anyone was going to come outside
Her: Oh, no one has given you anything?
Her: No water, no nothing?
Me: No, and I am staying here at the Inn and I ate here last night and right now I’m pretty unhappy.
Her: OK, I’ll have someone come right out.
I turned around on my heels, absolutely furious at this point. It took another 3-5 minutes for a waitress to come out, followed by the hostess hurrying to fill our water glasses. The waitress sat down and I expected to hear wholehearted apologies from both of them. Instead we got hurried apologies and a recitation of the specials, while our waitress got a comfortable seat. We ordered our drinks which came out slowly and put in our food order.
I am a bit ashamed to say that I did another thing that I have never done before. Not only did we eat at the same restaurant two nights in a row, but I also ordered the same thing–chicken croquettes. They were so darn good the night before that I decided to have them again. I also ordered the other pizza I had been eying the previous night–shaved beef with mashed potatoes. Interesting. My husband went with the iceberg salad and the surf and turf.
While we were waiting, waiting, waiting for our appetizers (and our waitress disappeared time and time again) we heard the kitchen banter through the screen connecting the kitchen to the outdoors. I enjoyed hearing the orders being fired and the working chatter of the kitchen. I did not enjoy hearing out waitress ask about rolls only to hear her response–“oh shit.” Shortly thereafter she brought out our appetizers with no silverware. When I asked for rolls she said “we’re working on that” and returned with some lukewarm crusty bread that may have otherwise been good, but was no replacement for the luscious rolls. Apparently they had run out.
Luckily, the croquettes were just as good as the night before. Yes, I took another picture.
You’ll notice that the picture quality is not quite as good. This is was getting progressively darker during this long, long meal. My husband got the simple yet refreshing iceberg salad. He was hoping for a wedge, but this was probably our fault for not reading the menu carefully enough. The salad was tasty and refreshing with all the crunch that iceberg offers. Besides, there was a healthy sprinkling of bacon on top, so he couldn’t really complain.
Our entrees were good, yet didn’t quite reach the first night’s success. I enjoyed the interesting flavors of my pizza–beef, mashed potatoes and a vanilla port reduction, although I didn’t love the pizza itself. This is my fault for ordering pizza two nights in a row–oh yeah, and for ordering pizza in Maine period. It was still an interesting dish and made for some tasty late night, Jersey Shore watching snacking.
The surf and turf was interesting. The beef was extremely tender–no detectable chewiness whatsoever–and was cooked perfectly. The lobster corn croquette, on the other hand, was overpowered by vanilla while there was not nearly enough lobster. We had both been eying the dish since the previous night, so I’m glad he ordered it. It was just underwhelming.
Although we were planning on getting desserts, the mosquitoes were killing us and we could not bear to sit outside for another moment after the interminable meal. It took me 15 minutes to even get the bill and pay while my husband retreated to our room with the dog. When I got the bill, I noticed that we were charged full price for everything. I do not own a restaurant and thus would never tell someone how to run their business, but I will say this–unhappy customers should be appeased in some manner. I felt as if the apologies we were given were fruitless and nothing more than lip service. I would have asked to speak to the owner(s) had I not known that they are both chefs. Last time I had a poor experience at a restaurant, they bent over backwards to apologize and make up for the errors that I will certainly be returning. The next day the hostess (who was also working the front desk) apologized and told me that they were overwhelmed with diners that evening. Well, after they’re on the Food Network’s “Best Thing I Ever Ate” for their lobster pot pie, I hope they’re ready, because this ain’t gonna cut it. The Academe Brasserie is an excellent example of a place that has tons of potential but needs some fine tuning in the front of the house to counter the interesting and just plain fun things that are going on in the kitchen. Best of luck to them and here’s hoping it’s just growing pains.