A guide to living local in New Hampshire

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A Serving of Contemporary
Tavern Fare,

Hold the Pretention

By Tom Long / Fiddlehead Contributing Editor

Wolfe’s Tavern has been serving tourists and townies since 1812, but that’s not to say the menu is set in stone. The burgers, beer and other standard fare are supplemented by lobster tacos, beef cheeks and other more creative dishes, many featuring ingredients from local providers.

“We call it sophisticated comfort food,” said Shelley Burch, general manager of the Wolfeboro Inn, where the tavern is situated.

The eatery is named for General James Wolfe, the British army officer remembered for his victory over the French in Quebec in 1759. To visit the pub is to enter the 19th century. Thousands of metal tankards hang from the rafters. There are working fireplaces, exposed beams and a tin ceiling. Maurice, an exuberantly antlered preserved moose head oversees the proceedings and sometimes even participates.

The original property for the inn was bought by Nathaniel Rogers in the late 1700s, for four pounds of spring beaver, according to Burch. Rogers built a house on the property that was later expanded to become a rooming house when the railroad came to town in the 1880s. It later became an inn.

So, are there any spirits (of the non-alcohol kind) hoisting a tankard?

“I don’t believe in ghosts,” Burch said as she sat at a booth in the tavern. “But there are rooms overhead, and some people have left in the middle of the night.”

The metal mugs on the ceiling are a source of great pride to the regulars. Here’s how it works.

Regular customers are given a beer card that is punched every time a brew is ordered, with a two-drink limit per night. After the 100th beer is ordered, you must kiss Maurice the Moose and are awarded with a numbered tankard, to be engraved with any name you like, which is then suspended from the ceiling.

Then, every time you return, you can ask for your personalized tankard. There are now about 2,500 hanging from the ceiling.

“It means a lot to have a mug,” said Burch.

And tankard-seekers, as well as anyone visiting the tavern, have a wide selection of local and imported draft and bottled beers from which to choose. For those who prefer their drinks on the cocktail side, the tavern’s mixologists have come up with a list of house cocktails, including crowd favorite, Smashing Good Thyme, made with gin, strawberries, fresh thyme and soda; and the Shrub a Dub Dub, with Flor de Cana, pineapple shrub and cinnamon syrup.

While Maurice presides over the pub, Chef Hoke Wilson presides over the kitchen. Unlike the screaming celebrity chefs on television, his is a benevolent presence.

“Hoke’s kitchen is an ego-free zone,” said Burch.

“I see myself as a mentor-teacher,” he said as he took a break from the kitchen to spend a few minutes with visitors. “I’ve been doing this for 40 years. I don’t want to tell people how I do it. I want to inspire others to be creative and come up with new ideas.”

Wilson took an indirect path to the kitchen. “I went to Rhode Island School of Design and studied illustration,” he said, “but there was no work in the field. I ended up at the Rainbow Room in New York.”

He worked at the iconic New York restaurant in Rockefeller Center for several years before joining the staff at the Carlisle Hotel, also in New York, where he learned the French kitchen brigade system – Paul Newman, Richard Widmark and George Steinbrenner were among the regular diners.

Wilson was later chef at the Stonehurst Manor in North Conway and The Inn at Thorne Hill in Jackson and owned his own restaurant for several years before coming to the Wolfe’s Tavern seven years ago.

“We serve contemporary tavern food,” Wilson said. “We try to be creative, use local ingredients when possible and steer clear of pretension.”

The summer menu includes shrimp banh mi sandwiches, fried lobster claw tacos, braised beef cheeks and folded shellfish ravioli stuffed with lobster shrimp, mussels, summer vegetables and parmesan-crested fennel with a lobster sherry sauce. There is even a creative twist to the breakfast menu, which includes smoked salmon benedict and coconut blueberry porridge with organic stone ground oats cooked in coconut milk, topped with fresh blueberries, toasted coconut and drizzled with agave.

The dishes are created with ingredients from local producers including Mountain Heartbeet Farm in Effingham, North Country Smokehouse in Claremont, New Hampshire Mushroom Company in Tamworth and Top of the Hill Farm in Wolfeboro.

Wilson spoke of the challenges of delivering locally sourcing dishes.

“We ask the farmers to surprise us and bring what they have. It forces us to be creative,” he said.

“Mountain Heartbeet once brought us 200 pounds of kohlrabi. We made kohlrabi fries and they were a big hit. But we had to take it off the menu because we ran out.

“I want to create an exciting environment to work in, to be supportive and mentor the staff. It’s fun to bring pleasure and show that sustenance can be combined with excitement. I want them to say, ‘hey, let’s try this’ and if it’s good and it fits our style, I’ll add it to the menu,” Wilson said. “We hire promising line cooks and allow them to be creative. Nikki Hanna, a line cook, created the fried lobster tacos.”

Hanna stepped forward to describe the dish herself, a delicately fried lobster claw served with shaved fennel and brown butter orange aioli.

They have an open mic night every other week that takes advantage of the wealth of local musical talent. They call it “band practice.”

Once a month there is also community-wide art walk and the tavern is a stop on the stroll. This inspired bar manager Josh Cleland to concoct the “Lakeside Daydream” drink made with Tamworth gin.

Wilson is the regional executive chef for Hay Creek hotels and creates the menus for their other historical establishments, including the Centennial in Concord and the Exeter Inn.

“I love food,” he said. “I recently ate at Le Bernardin in New York City. I sat down and it was like the curtain went up and I was ready. Ready to eat. Ready to be entertained. And that’s just what a restaurant should be – a welcoming place.

“That’s what we strive for here. As soon as you enter you become part of our community. We don’t want to be pretentious. We want to be unique. We want you to have a wonderful time.”