Two unorthodox decisions paved the way, recently, for one of the best dinners I’ve had out all year. The first was when I reserved a table for a wedding-anniversary date night at a new-ish restaurant my wife and I had never visited. A roll of the dice! But we’d been slow to call around, and all our favorite spots around Camden were booked solid. So when I saw a single 8 p.m. slot available at wolfpeach, a farm-to-table, fine-dining place that had opened last winter, I nabbed it without even consulting Elsa.
wolfpeach’s proprietors, Gabriela Acero and Derek Richard, stylize the name (a translation of the Greek-derived scientific name for a tomato) with a lower-case w, the kind of convention flouting that irks copy editors and that, frankly, this magazine would typically choose to ignore. Except this was among a handful of details Elsa and I had absorbed about wolfpeach that had given us the vague impression it might be, well, a bit precious. It surely didn’t help that the restaurant occupies an 1840 modified Federal that was formerly the Drouthy Bear, a Scottish pub shuttered by the pandemic that we liked for its burger and lack of pretense. Or that photos of lovely, spartan dishes on wolfpeach’s social-media feeds were accompanied by declarations about “centering community and creating joy, both of which are their own forms of power and resistance” — perfectly admirable sentiments that could nonetheless read a little woo-woo. And maybe something rang a smidge messianic about the GoFundMe video Acero and Richard circulated last fall, explaining how wolfpeach would depart from the flawed “normal restaurant model” by, among other things, abolishing tips and paying all staffers a living wage.
But ugh, these were petty observations of a grumpy, aging Xer who’s lived in small-town Maine for too long. And on one’s anniversary, one must eat. So we went, and man, am I glad we did.
One option each night, big on baked goods and often more wholesome than sweet. A recent visit found a peach rye upside- down cake, indulgent but subtle, served with rosemary cream.
Though it’s a bit of a fine-dining splurge, Acero and Richard envision a community restaurant rather than a destination one. wolfpeach has hosted pop-ups, art shows, and cooking classes and is available gratis to community groups on nights it’s closed.
The space that houses wolfpeach has lost none of its charm since the pub moved out. It’s a former B&B invariably described as snug, with wood floors and a beautiful, six-seat bar separated from the main dining room by a big brick hearth. Cozy as it is, the room is uncluttered: Windsor chairs, fresh flowers, a single bookshelf. Low lit, its walls minimally adorned (with, among other works, some cool abstract inks by midcoast illustrator Chelsea Witt), the place has a parlor feel, graceful and welcoming and not at all precious.
That feel of elegant simplicity extends to the menu, which on our visit contained just 13 items, none described in more than six words. The single word “love” alongside a fermented dilly-bean starter was probably the twee-est thing about the whole evening. But what more to say? We did love the crisp and tangy beans, grown down the road at Monroe’s Second Frost Farm (I asked). We also loved, off the small-plates list, a tray of oysters from South Thomaston’s Weskeag Oyster Company, a jar of bright and piquant kimchi, and a basket of sourdough bread, a passion of Richard’s, which was near to the Platonic ideal of sourdough: crispy outside, cloudlike inside, and served with butter flecked with bits of kelp from Biddeford’s Atlantic Sea Farms. (We over-ordered starters; a table of two could suffice with one or two.)
Local sourcing is enshrined at wolfpeach, as Acero and Richard explained during a follow-up visit. “I feel bad when I get food that’s from, like, southern Maine,” laughed Richard, who runs the three-person kitchen, while fiancée Acero oversees the beverage program and front-of-house. Restricting ingredients to what’s farmed, fished, or foraged nearby isn’t just an ethical decision. “I kind of like forcing myself and my cooks into limitations,” Richard explained. “I think when you have access to everything, then you can’t make anything. But if it’s like, ‘We only have these 10 things — how do we make a creative menu out of that?’ then there’s much more room to use different techniques and approaches. How do we make a tomato three different ways on our menu, and they’re all delicious?”
Beet salad, with shiitake mushrooms and smoked candied walnut; smoked pork chop with peach-and-poblano compote.
Acero, a Waterville native and a vet of several buzzy NYC restaurants, and Richard, who cut his teeth at the Hudson Valley’s Michelin-starred Blue Hill at Stone Barns, let that essentialist approach inform the restaurant’s whole concept. Initially, they conceived it as a “Maine riff on a chophouse,” Acero said, “kind of paying homage to old classic scenes in New York and Montreal and Chicago, but not necessarily using beef at all.” The influence is evident on wolfpeach’s approach to entrées: three are typically on offer — usually a meat, a veggie pasta, and a lower-on-the-food-chain fish (don’t come looking for tuna or halibut) — and they’re served unaccompanied and simply plated, to be complemented, if you like, with something off an a la carte menu of shareable salads.
Which brings me to my second unorthodox decision: I am an ambivalent carnivore who almost never orders a big slab of meat. But Elsa got the pasta alla norma, and I wasn’t up for the whole trout, so I ordered the smoked pork chop, and hoo boy. It was downright luscious — a generous loin, impossibly tender and pleasantly gamey and just a little sweet, ringed with a halo of smoky char and fat, topped with a peach-and-poblano compote and sage crisped in butter. The meat was raised at Bristol’s Broad Arrow Farm, where, coincidentally, I’d been the week before, my kids tossing acorns and bread chunks to the pasture-raised heritage hogs. About every two weeks, Broad Arrow supplies wolfpeach with a pig, which is butchered in-house.
Other than the chop, my plate was bare. “I’ve just always hated extraneous garnishes,” Richard told me later. “I think a lot of chefs count on plating techniques and the amount of ingredients in a dish to cover up for technique and skill.”
Elsa’s pasta was similarly simple and decadent, with savory eggplant playing nicely off dollops of sweet and garlicky Dairy Duet cheese, a cow-and-goat-milk blend, from Washington’s York Hill Farm. A succotash-like salad of charred corn and tomatoes, in a fermented tomato vinaigrette, was light and just right as a shared side. (wolfpeach is big on house fermentation — not least because Maine’s winters are long and its growing season short.)
The unique beverage program deserves more attention than I’m giving it, totally focused on the Northeast, with no European wines and a small, smart list of beers, ciders, and unconventional spirits, all made in Maine or nearby (Acero and Richard met while helping open Oxbow Brewing Company’s Oxford restaurant and beer garden). We stuck to cocktails, Elsa’s a refreshing concoction of cucumber and aquavit from Rockland’s Luce Spirits, mine a “parsnip punch,” made with a blackened-parsnip simple syrup, house bitters, Vermont-made ice cider, and rum from Camden’s Blue Barren Distillery. It was, like the entire evening, sophisticated but none-too-complicated — and deeply comforting.
Also none-too-complicated? Settling the bill without tipping. Acero expected some diners to be perplexed by it, but for the most part, she says, everyone seems to like the no-tipping mandate, and questions about the policy have made for welcome entries into deeper discussions about wolfpeach’s philosophy and approach. The service, meanwhile, was gracious and didn’t miss a beat. Sometimes, unorthodox moves are the right ones.