Drive & Dine Jackson to Gorham
Natural wonders and great food await
What’s better than a visit to quintessential New Hampshire and a drive through scenic wonder with several high points along the way? By high points, I mean more than altitude. Natural wonders and darling towns are always worth the trip, but a wonderful restaurant as a final destination can make every minute of the drive worthwhile.
Friend/foodie, cookbook author and “Slice” writer Hillary Davis agreed to make the journey with me this past April. We were treading awfully close to the heel of New Hampshire’s famous mud season, but we looked forward to a great experience with food, meeting new friends and keeping our boots relatively clean.
Heading up Rte. 16 we passed through the shopping mecca of North Conway — drove right through it, keeping our pocketbooks zipped up tight. We had other fish to fry. Just out of town on the right, Hillary spotted the Sunrise Shack. I patiently listened to her stories of great breakfasts, yada, yada. Unfortunately, I only slowed down. I suggest you stop. The chef is CIA-trained and puts much creativity into the menu for both breakfast and lunch, and the place is an official North Country gem.
A few miles up the road we headed into Jackson through that iconic red covered bridge. Even Walt Disney would have given that gateway a thumbs-up. This town really has a village sensibility. It’s much more than a tourist spot. When people vacation in this area, they want to live here. And they can. In addition to shops, restaurants and obvious physical beauty, there is a grade school, a beautifully refurbished library and more than the one requisite coffee shop.
We wandered into the J-Town Deli, a locals’ favorite for one of their famous sandwiches. They were fresh and made to order in the tiny kitchen. The dining area is charming with vintage tablecloths serving as window treatments and ’50s-era mismatched tables and chairs. As a country store, it’s stocked with all the necessities for a camp, including house-prepared foods in the freezer, plus gift shop items — local jewelry, funny cards and humorous signs. Loved the sign that said, “Booze, Better than Therapy!”
Continuing into the center of town, we discovered another delightful breakfast and lunch spot, the Backcountry Bakery & Café. It’s the kind of place you always hope to find. Comfortable seating in overstuffed furniture, a deli case packed with irresistible sweets and a menu board with creative sandwiches. I suggest you get one made with owner Alicia’s rosemary bread. The coffee is White Mountain Gourmet and pleasantly smooth. A rather sophisticated espresso machine and vast array of bottled Italian flavorings holds promise for a great coffee experience.
Freed from the tyranny of hunger, we browsed in Dutch Bloemen Winkel next door. It’s the loveliest of flower shops, worth the stop for smart and inexpensive gifts in case you have no room for a beautiful bouquet in your life at this particular moment. The next door down is White Mountain Puzzles with a vast array of puzzles, from 24 pieces to 1,000 pieces with 200 of those shapes just pure blue sky. Winters are long up north and satellite TV is vastly overrated.
There’s plenty more shopping in town, including Flossie’s General Store, just packed with gift ideas, but the mother lode is RavenWood Curio Shoppe. The shop itself is a marvel of stick-and-stone construction. It was hand-built by the owner with an eye toward fantasy — you will be enchanted. There are unique ornaments and statuary for the lawn, whimsical creations, and sophisticated, but affordable jewelry. It’s a must-stop — and I do whenever I am in town.
Reluctantly leaving Jackson, we headed to Gorham with Libby’s Bistro and the SAaLT Pub as our destination. Past views of Mount Washington, past a few last skiers threading down Wildcat, we pushed on through the unmolested landscape of the White Mountain National Park. We arrived at our accommodations for the night at the Mt. Washington B&B, oh, about 30 minutes late.
Our hostess, Mary Ann Mayer, was quick to note that we must have used GPS. “It doesn’t work up here,” she informed us. My nav system kept moving the location. Very weird. Must be something about the mountain that confuses satellites. Anyway, the diversion gave us a few more spectacular views when we headed west instead of east.
The Mt. Washington B&B is not to be confused with the grand hotel. Although, this rambling, white clapboard building, like the hotel, has always been used for accommodating guests. The floors creaked a bit and not every upright sightline was parallel to the next, but that is the charm of a historic property. Our rooms were quite pleasant and the views of the mountain were pristine. The barn on the property is classic white with black trim outlining the edges — just beautiful.
Heading back a few miles into Gorham, we parked in front of Libby’s Bistro and walked down the sidewalk. We were immediately hailed inside by a fellow standing at the door. How did he know where we were headed? Seems we were to be the guests of honor. Oh, boy, this evening was to be more special than I had imagined. Seems owner Liz Jackson takes the month of April off and our visit was ill-timed for a restaurant visit, but perfect for the staff party they were throwing.
In a side room, the table was set family-style with nice china, wine glasses and pretty blue water glasses. The 16 press back chairs stood ready and were later filled with the most interesting people — including the owners of Moat Mountain Smokehouse and Brewing Co. and a fellow starting a company in North Conway for runners who want to trail-run the Alps and volunteers maintaining local mountain bike trails. Obviously, they all loved Liz and the love was mutual. They even pitched in to prepare food and later clean up. What an evening! The food was downright amazing. Liz had prepared a sampling of the type of foods she is offering at the bistro and the pub. Front and center are her artisanal breads and accompaniments, including marinated grapes. The organic greens salad was perfectly dressed, the mussels savory, plump and delicately perfumed, while the sweet potato gnocchi were tender and served with succulent braised beef. In another family-style bowl was a hand-rolled pasta, lightly dressed with a Bolognese sauce. This wasn’t a typical dinner at Libby’s or the pub, but it highlighted the focus and quality of her menus.
Liz explained she doesn’t feel right preparing large slabs of meat anymore. Now her dishes are flavored with the succulence of beef or pork, especially her house-made pastas and other grain-based dishes. The menu is changed weekly in the Bistro and features a three-course, prix-fixe dinner for $25 to $30. The dining is exceptional and far from ordinary. The pub has a separate space and menu. Several years ago, Liz and her husband Steve rearranged the seating areas in the former bank they originally renovated in 1997. The pub had gotten so popular they moved it upstairs and made the bistro smaller.
The pub menu is pub-inspired but gastronomic. You’ll find some of the best poutine in the nation, along with local beef burgers on homemade buns, bowls of pasta or grains dressed with layers of flavors. Other grain dishes travel the world for tastes of India in an eggplant korma, and Thailand with bamboo rice scented with lemongrass, coconut milk and topped with shrimp. Moroccan spices can be savored with chicken and grains. There is so much flavor packed into the menu that one visit would never be enough. Gorham residents are lucky — and they know it.
The SAaLt Pub is not a secret in the North Country, so be forewarned it can be difficult to get in. Call ahead for reservations for parties of more than six — way ahead. Otherwise, a call may help you with the queue.
We headed back in the morning after a great breakfast by our hostess Mary Ann. I managed to get into the woods at Great Glen Trails with a short snowshoe hike during that precious slice of time when you don’t need mittens or bug repellent. Located across from Mount Washington, they offer opportunities for hiking, mountain biking and even kayaking in the summer season. Their Outfitters Shop will rent whatever gear you may need. Across the highway, the Auto Road is the way to the top of the mountain with a vehicle — either yours or a shuttle van. In the winter, a SnowCoach will take you above the tree line with the option to cross-country ski back down the road.
The mountain seems to always be in view.