[dropcap letter=”P”]elted by rain and plastered with soggy, wind-blown leaves, my friend and I arrived on the doorstep of the Oxford House Inn, which was a glowing welcoming beacon on this bleak evening in western Maine. Stepping inside the 104-year-old manor’s softly lit dining room, we were immediately enveloped in warmth from the fireplace and tantalizing aromas from the kitchen. I had yet to take a single bite of food, but at that moment, there was no place else I’d rather have been.
Oxford House’s ambience hasn’t changed much since the inn opened in 1985, but the cuisine has. Jonathan and Natalie Spak, who bought the place in late 2007, offer contemporary American and Asian-influenced fare. “The food was fantastic before we took over, but the offerings and style of service were dated,” Jonathan says. “The menu is now more progressive, yet still approachable, and the way we treat guests is very attentive but relaxed.”
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Roasted beet and chévre Napoleon with honey-glazed walnuts and blood-orange vinaigrette.
Clam bruschetta with green apple and smoked bacon chimichurri; shrimp gumbo with crispy grits, heirloom beans, grilled andouille sausage, and a green-apple and cabbage slaw.
The Spaks met while cooking together at West Main Café in Lakeville, Connecticut, in 2000, but here in Fryeburg, Jonathan heads up the kitchen and Natalie oversees the front of the house.
Their informal, modern approach to dining is reflected in appetizers like Chip & Dip, a regularly changing snack that on this night consisted of warm sweet-potato chips and a rich mélange of caramelized onion, roasted squash, and smoked Gouda. All thoughts of the tempest outside faded as we started into a bottle of Domaine du Colombier Sauvignon Gris, whose pleasant notes of grapefruit and balance of richness and acidity were a sprightly contrast to the dip’s bold flavors.
I was piling whipped, sweet honey butter (a miracle condiment) onto thick slabs of moist olive-oil focaccia bread, when our first course, Szechuan pork-and-squash rice buns, arrived. The buns were crispy, more like a croquette than a soft roll, and their flavor was nicely offset by tart, spicy accompaniments — bok choy kimchee and cranberry mirin gastrique — as well as crunchy julienned scallions.
Our second appetizer, a roasted beet and chévre napoleon, was a pleasant throwback to the food-stacking trend started by Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in the 1990s. Shimmering ruby beets were layered with fresh, pristine goat cheese, and then topped with blood-orange vinaigrette and a scattering of honey-glazed walnuts. It was nice to look at, and it offered the perfect beet-to-cheese ratio in each bite.
To accompany our main courses — Kobe beef sirloin for me, green curry chicken potpie for my friend — we chose Sean Thackrey Pleiades XXIV Red Blend from Bolinas. Every release of this non-vintage wine is different, as winemaker Thackrey blends freely from several varietals and rarely records the results, preferring to simply taste as he goes. In this case, this unorthodox method yielded flavors of cherries, black tea, candied orange peel, and a hint of clove and smoke on the finish. Natalie, who’s responsible for the wine list,maintains a low markup to make wines like this accessible. “We have some sort of personal connection to about 80 percent of the wines on the list, whether we are friends with the vintners or spent a good amount of time at the winery,” she explains.
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Jonathan and Natalie Spak met while working together in a restaurant kitchen; they took over the Oxford House in 2007.
Apple beignet with dolce drizzle and applejack sabayon.
Cheddar fondue made with Pineland Farms aged cheddar, emmentaler, and Bissell Brothers IPA.
The wine went perfectly with my Kobe beef, which was cooked to a flawless medium rare. Ordinarily, I prefer more marbled cuts of beef (unless it involves a slab of foie gras or crab and hollandaise sauce), but this steak was meltingly tender, exuding its rosemary-flecked juices sinking into the potato gratin with bacon to form such a gorgeous obscenity of a forkful that I’m still thinking about it today. The potpie’s chicken and root vegetables were bathed in a rich, creamy, and spicy curry. Standing in for the pie crust was garlic naan, crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside, and perfect for mopping up every last bit of the sauce.
We indulged in one final course, apple beignets, served very hot and enhanced by the addition of caramel and applejack sabayon. It was like a McDonald’s hot apple pie on steroids — a comparison that might seem like it cheapens the dish, except that when I mention it to one of the kitchen staff later, he agrees wholeheartedly.
We ended our evening downstairs in Jonathan’s pub, nursing snifters of Clément X.O. Rhum from Martinique. Had I known about the pub when I made my reservations, I’d have asked to be seated there. It feels like a hideaway, dimly lit, with funky paintings on the walls, and it offers the same menu as the dining room, plus a few special items not available upstairs. As we relaxed with our rum, we chatted with the kitchen and bar crew, who told me Jonathan manages the kitchen with a we’re-all-in-this-together philosophy, and no one is above any task. It quickly became apparent that they are quite content here — and it showed in both the quality of the service and the execution of the food.