Dilettante: A Tale of Two Lunches

Posted Wednesday, September 7, 2011 in Culture

Dilettante: A Tale of Two Lunches

by Jan Brennan

KENNEBUNKPORT — As one of only two restaurants in the Kennebunks that have direct ocean views, the Cape Arundel Inn could charge its patrons pretty much whatever it likes.

Unfortunately, it does.

This elegant old inn, built in 1895 on a bluff with an unobstructed view of open ocean, had long been my family’s favorite restaurant. For years, my husband and I celebrated our wedding anniversaries with dinner there. Its legendary breakfasts, with inventive food and gracious service, were an affordable treat for our children.

Sadly, some years back the inn changed hands and the new owner, Jack Nahil (creator of the White Barn Inn), quickly dropped the public breakfasts, and upped the prices at dinner. We tried it once, felt it had become an outrageously priced tourist trap, and stayed away.

About a year ago, the inn was sold again. Its new owners seemed to be making an effort to lure back the locals by offering low-priced dinner specials on certain days in the off-season. This summer, when they announced the inn was now serving lunch, I was excited at the thought that I could return to my old haunt and not empty the piggy bank.

I was wrong.

Arriving at 1 p.m. on a Thursday in August, my husband and I found the dining room almost empty. We were quickly seated at a window table. Ah, that view! An approaching storm was whipping up the waves, which crashed dramatically over the rocks and made a mesmerizing show. In the distance, a lone lobster boat chugged past the Bush family’s compound at Walker’s Point. The dining room, too, was as pretty as I remembered it, all gleaming woodwork and white linens and big windows lining two sides of the expansive room. It was good to be back.

The menu, though, was not as impressive as the ambiance, being comprised mostly of a few uninspired salads and sandwiches. Nothing really appealed to me, so I jumped at the waitress’s mention of the day’s special: a spinach salad with heirloom tomatoes. My husband ordered off the menu, the “grown-up grilled cheese”:  cheddar, provolone and goat cheese with sundried tomatoes and spinach on whole wheat. No fries, chips or side salad came with the $12 sandwich, so we ordered a side dish of homemade potato chips for $3.

I wanted a glass of white wine with my salad, but at $9 and up, none of the offerings seemed worth it. Instead, the specialty cocktail of homemade lemon/limeade with herbs from the garden and lemon-flavored vodka sounded intriguing. It did not live up to its description. Though there was a stick or two of herb sprigs in the glass, there was no herby flavor, nor any discernable vodka presence. The drink just tasted like a very sour, not very good lemonade — not worth the $11 it cost. My husband was satisfied with his simple bar tequila and tonic. We sipped our drinks without any accompanying munchies, not even the bread that we had to flag down our waitress for, and which she finally brought when she served our entrees. (Of course, we didn’t need it by then. How I wish restaurants would hire competent servers, rather than just pretty ones!)

My husband liked his grilled cheese, and we both enjoyed the side order of chips, even though they were too thick-cut for my taste and carried none of the rosemary flavor promised on the menu.

My spinach salad was just OK: baby leaves, a nice dressing, soggy croutons that I had to remove, and oddly, a thick slice of bacon (Was I supposed to crumble it over the salad myself? I don’t know; I ended up just eating it whole, with my fingers.). Four large slices of the heirloom tomatoes – red, yellow and orange – looked pretty but didn’t taste any better than my garden Romas. I suppose it was these tomatoes that justified the salad’s $15 price, but for that sum, I would rather have had some more substantial protein — chicken, shrimp or cheese — to make it more of a meal. At this point I was grateful that the bread basket had finally made its appearance.

Only three items, all $8 each, made up the dessert menu: fresh fruit, a chocolate torte, and a cobbler. My husband ordered the peach/blueberry cobbler with vanilla gelato. He liked it; I didn’t — small slices of peaches turned a dark color by the flavorless blueberry sauce, topped with a too-sweet gelato. It wasn't bad, exactly, just ... eh.

Now came the bill: including tax, $64.73. After adding the tip for our underwhelming server, the total was $74.

That seems quite high for a cheese sandwich, a salad, two drinks and one dessert. In comparison, the previous week I’d lunched with a friend at Buffleheads in Biddeford Pool. I had a cold, creamy soup of crabmeat and avocado served with half a BLT; both were delicious. My friend had a huge haddock sandwich, steaming hot and crispy, which came with fresh-cut fries. We each had a glass of wine – French white Burgundy, a steal at just $4.95 a glass. For dessert, I had crème brulee with fresh raspberries, and coffee. So, for a similar meal of two entrees, two drinks and one dessert — plus coffee, and both entrees featured fresh seafood rather than just cheese and spinach leaves, we paid a mere $42, including tip. AND we had an ocean view, as well. Same ocean, better food, much better service, and a fraction of the cost — I like Buffleheads!

My advice: If you're a New York City hedge-fund manager with money to burn, enjoy your lunch at Cape Arundel Inn. Better yet, go for dinner, when entree prices hover around both sides of the $40 mark. But if you're a regular working-stiff Mainer, pack a picnic lunch and dine al fresco on the rocky coast outside the restaurant. The view is the same — but the price is way better.


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