A Trip to Wolfeboro’s PAVILION

Under the new ownership of former “Top Chef” contestant Chris Viaud, PAVILION offers an approachable, charming take on farm-to-table fine dining
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PAVILION’s duck breast, complete with a dusting of dukkah, sunchoke, leek, apple and jus.

I’m a man who loves food. Life is essentially one long sensory experience, and eating, as it was, is one of life’s most enjoyable base sensory experiences. I mean, think about it: You take arduously-arranged chunks of killed animal or harvested vegetation or some wonderous combination of both and shove it all in between the bones lining your mouth, gnashing and gnashing until it’s malleable enough to slide down your esophagus and transmute nutrition to your muscles and bones and body. Pretty disgusting, right? Well, it’s also pretty lovely. So many caring and careful hands go into the preparation of that food before you put it into your body that it’s entirely mind-boggling; the farmers who planted the produce, the farmhands who plucked the vegetation from the ground, the buyers who chose the product, the restaurant owners who hired the chefs, the line cooks who cook the meal, the waiters who bring it to you and then, finally, you chomping it up, enjoying the sensory experience of flavor and satiation and all the other feelings of eating. Kinda wig some people out, right? Well, sure, but it’s also amazing how us humans have pretty much tailored our entire existence to the many various ways we can put nutrition into our bodies, and, at this point, heartily enjoy that experience. Because it is, after all, an experience — and, thus, one we all may as well enjoy.

So, I like eating. I like food. I like the experience of tasting flavors and trying different cuisines and having meals with my friends and family and the way that whole huge experience can say something magnificent and eloquent about identity and culture and where we come from and what we value and where we’re going. I consider it one of the most enjoyable base sensory experiences. But here’s the catch: I’m 23 years old. I haven’t had many fine dining experiences, needless to say. Would you like to know why? It’s because I’m broke. I’m 23. I graduated college less than two years ago. I have looming student debt dangling in suspension and just got my first full-time job a few months ago (shoutout to Yankee Publishing). So, you see, I can’t exactly go out and pay for a fine dining experience and then continue to afford rent like nothing happened. So, I haven’t eaten much fine dining in my life. But what I have done is watched others do it on TV — and my favorite example, hands down, is “F*ck, That’s Delicious,” a show where rapper, former chef, gourmand, all-around renaissance man and true purveyor of life’s sensory experiences Action Bronson goes out into the world with his crew of dear friends and eats different meals. Many of the places they journey to are little holes-in-the-wall in Flushing, Queens, where he grew up; many of them are in foreign countries while he’s traveling and touring; many of them are fine dining experiences. By the sheer force of his charisma and likability, he makes all those vastly-different experiences feel the same, reminding the viewer that food, and the social constructs around it, bring people together and tell a story. I’ve watched Action and Co. eat a whole lot of fine dining meals, and thought that it’d be pretty neat if I ever got to, too. And now I finally have.

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The Bees Knees cocktail in the foreground; a Maine Beer Company pale ale in the background.

As part of that full-time job I started five months ago, I get to go out into the world (or, in this case, New Hampshire) and try some things free of charge in exchange for my written words about them. The subjects typically have to be timely, relevant and of some importance — and in this case, it’s all three. Chef Chris Viaud is a restaurant owner and Granite Stater with considerable buzz, thanks to his appearance in Season 18 of the popular reality-cooking-competition show “Top Chef.” He’s known for his acclaimed farm-to-table restaurant in Milford — called Greenleaf — and its offshoot — called Ansanm — that celebrates his Haitian roots by serving authentic Caribbean food. Chef Viaud recently acquired PAVILION, an already-beloved Lakes Region fine dining spot, with his Northern Comfort Hospitality Group company. Under his ownership and culinary direction, the restaurant released a new menu pretty similar to Greenleaf’s — but with a distinctive, northern New Hampshire twist. After hearing from his publicist, Laina Terry, that this was all going down, I prepared to attend the restaurant’s soft opening and bear witness to my first fine dining experience.

About to undertake an exploit concerning the taste buds, I knew just the man to call. My most loyal readers (I know you’re out there somewhere) may remember Max Schoenfeld, aka Scoville, from our journey into the meaty underbelly of Kelly’s Roast Beef in Salem. Well, who else would I call upon in my hour of opportunity? To refresh your memory, Scoville is a man with a big heart and an even bigger appetite. He’s traveled to six continents; he has a nonpareil passion for foreign cuisine; and he’s the reigning 2022 Drift Collective Dumpling Eating Champion, dominating 39 dumplings in five minutes with an additional five dumplings in overtime. The man is a beast — not to mention a top-flight photographer who would be able to capture the occasion from behind the lens. With Scoville on board, my fine dining extravaganza kicked off to a smooth start.

We loaded into my Crosstrek and began our drive up north to the Lakes Region — that romanticized summer destination bathing in the mind’s remembered sunrays. No, it wasn’t quite summer yet — in mid-March, spring still peaked around the corner, just out of view — but driving to the Lakes certainly made one yearn for those easy days of outdoor leisure. In the intervening 45 minutes we discussed some of our past shenanigans up on Winnipesaukee, none of them enough to compensate for the cold wind that propelled our sweet white chariot forward. Soon enough, though, those long-gone summer days would be back in full swing, and maybe Scoville and I would be enjoying them from a PAVILION window seat, sipping on locally-brewed lagers, Hawaiian shirts unbuttoned to the navel…

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Chef Emilee Viaud’s Parker House rolls alongside a roasted garlic and herb butter.

Nonetheless we arrived in Wolfeboro with hungry stomachs and hungrier curiosities. I was more than eager to try Chef Chris’ food; I had heard nothing but good things, and from my research earlier that day, I gleaned that PAVILION would be another farm-to-table ordeal guided by his expert insight. We got inside and ordered drinks — just water for Scoville, a Maine Beer Company pale ale for me — and awaited Laina’s arrival. The place had a tranquil, rustic ambience, with dim, warm lighting, a subtle fireplace and plenty of dark exposed wood. Given PAVILION’s South Main Street location, we could see the shores of Winnipesaukee beckoning to us in gloomy sublimity from just outside the window. For all my under-30 readers, it was quite a vibe; I was in my cottage-core era.

With Laina’s appearance we buckled down into the menus and chose our prizefighters for the evening. As Chef Chris’ publicist, Laina had an extremely keen menu acumen and got us started with Parker House rolls — made by Chris’ wife, Emilee Viaud, an accomplished pastry chef in her own right — and a New England cheese spread complete with brioche crostini, apple butter, Asian pear, honeycomb and almonds. The brioche crostini were like tiny little pieces of crispy toast, and the apple butter went ridiculous paired with slices from the cheese spread, a sweet-and-salty taste explosion. The Parker House rolls held their own weight, puffy-and-pullable pieces of perfectly-baked dough complemented by a roasted garlic and herb butter. The rolls were fluffy and golden-brown and warm, like a hug from the appetizer menu. Conversation oscillated between Laina and Max’s mid-Atlantic roots and the intertwining vagaries of the PR and journalism industries. Laina enjoyed the “Bees Knees” cocktail — a Barr Hill gin, honey and lemon drink — and the bartender brought over another cocktail, which I think was the “Chai & Spice,” that Max tried. While I stuck to beer, the drinks looked exquisite — and with eight original cocktails on the menu, offered a solid selection to choose from.

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The roasted beet trio — at once firm and soft, sweet and tart, with a crunch from sprinkled wheatberries and a freshness from garnished leeks.

It was time to get into the thick of things. No more light fare and easy conversation — we had to roll our sleeves up, get our elbows dirty and do what we went there to do. For small plates, we ordered the roasted beet trio, Spanish octopus and scallop crudo, and for large plates, zeroed in on the New York strip steak (me), pan-roasted duck breast (Scoville) and local mushroom risotto (Laina). The beets, featuring tahini, leek, smoked shoyu, wheatberries and scallion, were a gentle revelation; at once firm and soft, sweet and tart, with a crunch from the wheatberries and a freshness from the leeks, the dish tantalized my tastebuds in a showy-but-subtle array. I had never really eaten beets before but wow, were these tasty. They were delightfully light and full of flavor — a perfect small plate, in my opinion. And the octopus…oh, the octopus. Salsa macha lent a crunchy exterior, while orange slices provided a sweet counterbalance with basil pulling up the rear for a little added zing. The octopus itself was chewy and juicy and thin, just a wonderful little snack harvested from the ocean, reminding us of the magic and mystery hiding in that vast, salty expanse. I may as well have been hanging off the back of a boat, wind whipping my salt-dried hair as I ripped into an orange piece of octopi leg. And right there on the ship’s deck, lying next to the fresh octopus, was the scallop crudo: fine cucumber slices, lightly sprinkled fennel, drizzled chili and green apple complementing the small chunks of white mollusk flesh, a really dazzling combination that checked all the boxes.

Before we dug into our large plates, I had to reflect on the experience thus far: Being completely green to fine-dining, I was a little on-edge, only because of my complete ignorance to the manners and rituals of the whole process. Midway into the meal, though, I couldn’t have felt more at ease; the staff was friendly and attentive, the energy was relaxing and rustic, and the food was approachable and delicious. I really had nothing to fear. Nobody was making fun of me for never having heard the word fennel before that day (well, Scoville may have mocked me a little bit, but that’s just a good sidekick keeping me grounded), Laina explained each dish and every ingredient in detail, and the wait staff was happy to delve into further explanation whenever prompted. It was their first day with a new menu and they jovially checked their cheat-sheets, admitting to not completely memorizing the menu yet. The whole experience felt beautifully human; no judgements, just amiable energy. At one point Laina described Chef Chris’ method as “approachable fine dining,” which I couldn’t agree with more. As she said it, people wore jeans to PAVILION; it was suited to the salt-of-the-earth vibe of the Lakes Region, but still offered premium dining for those hearty Granite Staters. A valiant mission in all respects.

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PAVILION’s New York strip steak — an insanely-succulent large plate.

The witching hour was upon us: My New York strip steak stared up at me, daring me to take a bite. Three cubes of meat lay on the plate, surrounded by cippolini, butternut squash funnels, parsnip, pepitas (aka pumpkin seeds) and a delicious jus. The steak was simply next-level — a lightly-blackened crisp on the crust, with a tender chewiness on the interior, dancing in tandem with crunchy pepitas, soft onions and slightly-firm butternut. What else can I say? It was crazy. I loved every bite. Dipping each forkful in jus brought me immense joy. I’m beside myself even thinking about it, conjuring the juicy squall of each mouthful in my mind’s eye to write this. Amazing.

Scoville devoured the duck breast, thin slices dusted with dukkah laid upon a bed of sunchoke, leek, apple and jus, and Laina let us try the risotto, a hearty dish with kale and sweet potato in the mix. Both dishes looked just as wonderful as the steak, meticulously-prepared plates bursting with color and natural flavor. After putting our heads down and doing away with the main courses, we decided on dessert: a rectangular slice of brûléed banana cheesecake and a dainty vanilla pâte sucrée. While the pâte sucrée was really good — the thin layering of the pastry crust via Chef Emilee floored me — the cheesecake dominated the space. The coconut anglaise and white chocolate crémeux washed over my tastebuds in an airy, delicious blend, and the meringue and raisins only elevated the texture profile. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the brûlée — that sweet, delicate sugar crisp topping the cheesecake ever so delectably. This was —and is — a mind-melting dessert. I had two bites and my life will never be the same.

PAVILION is a great restaurant. As far as fine dining goes, the food is simple but inventive, delicious but accessible, by no means intimidating without sacrificing quality. It was an exceptional entry point into fine dining; Scoville and I had a really wonderful evening, catching up, bombarding our tastebuds, enjoying the ambience. As someone who loves food, PAVILION did not disappoint. Plus, feeling like Action Bronson for a night is an epinephrine shot of joy right to the jugular. All that’s left to do is try Chef Chris’ Haitian cuisine at Ansanm, and then, of course, return to PAVILION in the summer months — the warm wind billowing Scoville and I’s unbuttoned flower-print shirts, swilling glasses of Chianti, taking a breather from the debauchery out on the glistening Lake Winni waters to soak in the moment. One day. For now, warming up over plates of Spanish octopus and daydreaming of those blissful summer escapades isn’t a half-bad compromise. Make the trip to Wolfeboro to find out for yourself. You won’t regret it.

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The brûléed banana cheesecake — one of the best desserts I’ve had the honor of devouring in my entire life.

Categories: Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews