Look, I love lobster as much as—no, way more than the next guy. I come from a line of New Englanders who eat the slimy green tomalley and knock back "claw shots" to savor the remaining juice. But I'll admit that lobster doesn't dress up well. Maine menus are rife with whimsical takes—lobster spring rolls, lobster @#$%ing nachos—but do any chefs improve on the classic, saltwater-steamed preparation?Hardly ever.
Jonathan Cartwright does. The chef at Kennebunk's White Barn Inn has developed a repertoire of inventive lobster riffs that are clever but never cloying. Funny, too, because WBI is a resolutely old-school place, with linen-topped tables and a tuxedoed pianist. The menu spells out the prices ("eighty-nine dollars" for a four-course prix fixe). Jackets are required; if you forget yours they'll issue you a spare—invariably navy with brass buttons. And service is impeccably formal: our waiter said things like, "I'll give you a moment to explore the menu," then returned to ask, "Are you tempted to enjoy anything you see?" It's a throwback in every way, except for Cartwright's cooking.
You can order lobster for every course and never tire of the flavor. Our meal began with a sensational amuse: a coddled egg served in the shell with poached lobster medallions and a subtle, not-too-sweet maple compote. Next came a zesty lobster gazpacho, sharpened with roasted pine nuts and accompanied by a miniature lobster roll on warm brioche. A powerful grapefruit sorbet served as a palate cleanser (another retro touch). Then came Cartwright's signature dish: a 1 3/4-pound lobster removed from its shell and steamed in a reduction of Cognac, cream, butter, and coral (lobster roe), then served atop a nest of white fettuccine with snow peas, carrots, and ginger. The dish is richer than the couple at the next table and ridiculously good.
But let's face it: coddled eggs and Cognac are kind of cheating, no?Sometimes you simply need a great lobster roll. For that, you head a quarter-mile down the road and queue up at the Clam Shack, next to the Kennebunkport Bridge. It's been said by every food writer who ever passed through here, but the Clam Shack's lobster roll really is the best in Maine. Actually, it's tied for first with the one from Red's Eats, another roadside stand up the coast in Wiscasset. Both are generously filled (Red's claims to use an entire one-pound lobster per sandwich). And each comes with your choice of mayo or drawn butter—or, if you're insane, both. Both make a point of shredding the meat by hand instead of by knife, to avoid the taint of oxidation; the resultant morsels are pleasingly intact and clean-tasting.
The benches outside were occupied, so we ate the rolls while leaning against the railing of the bridge, watching the yachts and sailboats bob gently in the Kennebunkport Marina, alternating hits of salty air with tangy, sweet bites of lobster. In the end, it was the Clam Shack lobster roll that proved the tipping point in our Maine-indoctrination experiment: Laura was thoroughly converted. We're all going back for another go-round next month. See you at Chase's—and, for God's sake, save us some tomatoes.
Peter Jon Lindberg is a T+L editor-at-large.