Originally published in the December 2017 Issue of Down East Magazine
Photographed by Douglas Merriam
2 Pier Rd., Kennebunkport, 207-204-0707
At first glance, Musette seems much like The Wayfarer, the restaurant that occupied its clapboard-sided home in Cape Porpoise for nearly 60 years. The dining counter and swivel stools are still in place, the beverage policy is still BYOB, and the Wayfarer’s longest-tenured server, Bert Austin, a local celebrity of sorts, is still waiting tables. But the similarities end there, which is obvious as soon as you bite into a warm slice of baguette schmeared with whipped butter, flecked with pieces of crispy chicken skin and seasoned with Old Bay — a more thoughtful dish than you’d have found Bert serving last year.
‘I wanted to transition into cooking food that isn’t fussy,’ says Cartwright, a 20-year veteran of Kennebunk’s White Barn Inn.
Chef Jonathan Cartwright is one of the few people who could take over this storied space and garner the blessing, and loyalty, of longtime patrons. He’s known locally (and throughout the state) for his 20 years as executive chef of Kennbunk’s venerable White Barn Inn. After leaving there in 2015, he spent his time traveling and keeping his eyes open for a place to open Musette.
“I had been looking everywhere, from Long Island to Vermont, but what I wanted was to be close to my kids, who live in Kennebunkport,” Cartwright says. He opened Musette in June.
Musette serves breakfast, brunch after 11 a.m., and dinner, with no particular theme — just food that Cartwright likes to eat. That might be a comforting bowl of slowly cooked blue-corn grits with sherry vinegar-glazed roasted vegetables, arugula, and grated Parmesan, a preparation he picked up during a stint cooking on a ranch in Texas. Or it might be a velvety oyster stew, generously laced with butter, its oysters added at the last minute so they’re just barely cooked.
“I wanted to transition into cooking food that isn’t fussy,” Cartwright says, “and to create an environment for my team that centers around enjoyment, rather than feeling like punishment.”
Not that this is a short-order joint. Dinner entrées are in the $20 to $30 range, and while he leaves most of the kitchen operation to chef Leonora Palaima, Cartwright himself is often behind the stove during breakfast. “Each ticket is essentially a custom order,” he says, “and reading them as they print up at such a rapid pace is like learning a new language.”
Native Lithuanian Palaima’s résumé includes several years at Kennebunk’s legendary, now defunct Grissini. “Leonora brings a maturity and consistency to the kitchen — two of the most important traits of a great restaurant,” Cartwright says.
Together, they’ve assembled a menu that’s both easily recognizable and versatile, anchored by dishes like roasted Maine lobster. The lobster is lightly boiled, split in half, and seared, before being finished in the oven. As it cooks, a ragout of claws and knuckles simmers in cream, sweet corn, potatoes, and lobster jus. Swordfish — often cooked to oblivion at many restaurants — is tender and served at medium temperature, accompanied by chorizo, fresh herbs, and New England succotash.
Such dishes are quick to make and straightforward to plate — essential in a small kitchen like Musette’s. Likewise, the list of ingredients on the menu is concise, an accommodation to minimal storage space. All the same, preparations are quite varied. In fact, there are more side dishes on the dinner menu than anything else.
“We wanted the menu to encourage sharing,” Cartwright explains, “and for people not to feel intimidated to ask for substitutions or, for example, an entrée-sized portion of one of the sides.”
I can certainly understand wanting a big bowl of the crispy broccoli, doused with a mixture of soy sauce, garlic, and chilies. The preparation, and resulting texture, is similar to that of pan-fried brussels sprouts.
The breakfast and brunch menus hew to the same philosophy of streamlined, flexible dishes, and it’s comforting to know that the sirloin used for the morning’s steak and eggs is the same grade and quality as what’s served with red wine pan sauce and herbed compound butter at dinner. Morning or night, the gleaming Cimbali espresso machine produces superlative coffee that’s the perfect perk-up after your meal (and maybe some champagne).
Cartwright’s ambitions, for now, aren’t grand; he admits he purchased Musette in the hopes of simply breaking even. These days, he says, what he wants most is to enhance his community, spend time with his family, and “not be chained to the stove anymore.” It’s the same relaxed mentality that long characterized the old Wayfarer space — and more proof that Musette is a worthy successor.