Lighting matters. It’s usually not the first thing out of people’s mouths when they talk about a restaurant – that’s food or service – but people do notice, especially when they encounter a dark dining room. Often, you can tell when a restaurant has made things a bit too dim when you spot diners surreptitiously pulling out their cell phones to use them as flashlights to read the menu. Musette in Kennebunkport’s Cape Porpoise village is not one of those restaurants.

With full-wattage pendant lights dangling over every table, ceiling spots and an interior design scheme that favors light wood cladding and white paint, Musette’s dining room is incandescently bright. “It’s like a surgical theater,” one of my dinner guests remarked. “Does anyone look good at night, under this much light?” another wondered aloud, adding, “I think I would have worn something different if I had known.” Perhaps we all should have figured it out earlier, because Musette’s exterior, with a powerful floodlight and three, lighthouse-worthy sconces, can be seen half-a-mile down Route 9 – possibly even from space.

Until 2016, the well-illuminated building was familiar to locals as the home of The Wayfarer, a popular local diner-style restaurant. When former White Barn Inn executive chef Jonathan Cartwright and his business partner Travis McKenzie took over and opened Musette in July last year, they kept nearly everything about the décor the same, right down to the giant placard over the wooden lunch counter stenciled with the former restaurant’s name.

“We didn’t buy the name with the transaction, so we changed it to Musette, to the dismay of many locals. As long as they don’t make their checks out to the Wayfarer, I’m fine,” Cartwright said.

The restaurant’s name does not refer to a little muse, but instead to a bag of food handed off to cyclists during a race. “They grab it as they go, sling it over their shoulder, put the food in their pockets and then get rid of the cloth bag it came in,” Cartwright told me.

Cycling, it turns out, is how McKenzie and Cartwright met. The two have also created a luxury bicycle tourism company that plans vacations across the country, including in southern Maine. Musette acts as the home base for that particular trip. “We’re trying to bring the café together with our cycling and cycle tour company. We want it to be welcoming to sports people,” Cartwright said.

With the front-of-house still run by zany and colorful Bert Austin, a beloved fixture in this space for the better part of 30 years, they are off to a great start making the restaurant hospitable to everyone, regardless of whether you know your calipers from your derailleurs.

Strangely though, apart from the restaurant’s name, there really are no indications, visual or otherwise, that Musette has any link at all to cycling. The menu certainly does not announce itself as part of a training-friendly regime, with plenty of hearty dishes like a Wayfarer holdover: haddock chowder ($9), prepared with substantial chunks of pan-seared fish and undercooked cubes of potato. The evaporated-milk-based soup is sweeter than many chowders, not to mention pale yellow and a little tangy, thanks to a white-wine deglaze of the haddock pan.

Indeed, several of Musette’s dishes seem to be foods more geared to chopping firewood and hibernating – plates like tender but oversalted braised short rib ($26), served with hard-seared, apple-and-bacon-glazed root vegetables, crunchy fried onions and red wine sauce, all over a bed of exceptional whipped potatoes.

Or a side of deep-fried crispy broccoli in a sweet-and-spicy sauce ($6) made from reduced soy sauce and ponzu. It was also far too salty, as was the cavatelli with sautéed portobello and oyster mushrooms ($18). While the pasta itself was cooked al dente, the excessively savory combination of melted Fontina, sherry sauce and grated Parmesan made this plate hard to finish.

Another indulgent dish is the Classic Burger ($12), a pre-ground, pre-formed beef chuck patty, topped with the salt-walloping combo of Tabasco-infused bleu-cheese mayonnaise, bacon, pickles and cheddar cheese. I loved the grilled brioche bun and crisp, fluffy French fries (the least heavily salted component on the plate), but my patty was cooked nearly well-done and crumbled apart as I ate.

Cartwright himself acknowledges that the burger is out-of-step with serious exercise, or at least, not the sort of dish you’d want to discover in your own musette. “It’s the ultimate burger after a 100-mile ride. I only eat one of these if I’ve done that,” he said. “It would be a little bit of a welcome home for me.”

Personally, I’d rather celebrate feats of heroic pedaling with dessert. Very likely, I’d choose a slice of Musette’s Bee Sting cake ($10), a riff on a German Bienenstich, made with layers of melon sponge (that our server told us were “really soft vanilla cake”) and yeasted honey cake, crème pâtissière, walnuts and a generous drizzle of honey. Imagine the flavors in an ultra-rich, sticky-sweet baklava, something that, as one of my guests noted, “you have to eat with black coffee,” and you’ve got the idea.

I also might opt for the dark chocolate mousse ($8), served frosty-cold with fresh raspberries, whipped cream and a disc of special chocolate bark prepared by Cartwright’s daughter. “My littlest daughter Yasmeen is 11 and fancies herself a pastry chef,” he said. “It’s something she makes at home. She puts granola left over from the morning service in there along with chopped cranberries, then spreads it and sprinkles cocoa nibs on top.” Dishes like this make it hard to skip dessert at Musette.

I certainly wouldn’t, if I were cobbling together my own perfect Musette meal. One dish that would undoubtedly make the cut is the roasted free-range chicken breast with herbed butter, Brussels sprouts and cinnamon-spiced sweet potato purée ($23). On a chilly evening, I can think of little more satisfying than spearing a piece of each of the elements on the tines of my fork, swabbing it through the amber pan jus and popping it into my mouth.

Another dish I’d include is the panko-breaded seafood cake ($10), a thrifty starter that tastes anything but. “It’s actually made with the trimmings of whatever we have in at that time of the season and whatever we’re featuring on the menu. Salmon, crab, lobster …” Cartwright said. Plated with a dab of whole-grain mustard remoulade, a ruffle of micro-greens and long, dangling shreds of coleslaw dressed in housemade mayonnaise, it’s a striking dish. Turn it one way, and it’s an appetizer; turn it another, and it resembles a mixed-media collage of a jellyfish, drifting weightlessly with the tide. My table mates and I took turns snapping Instagram-worthy photos of the plate before we tucked in – all of us grateful in that moment that we did not need a flash.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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