We’d heard from friends that Libby’s Bistro was good, but our Friday night dinner was so I-can’t-believe-I’m-eating-something-this-delicious that we went back on Saturday evening to be sure we hadn’t been eating hallucinatory mushrooms.
We were in northern New Hampshire for a before-the-tourists-arrive weekend celebrating our birthdays, and on Friday evening we chose Libby’s Bistro, in a renovated Main Street bank building in Gorham. Never heard of Gorham? Most people haven’t. It’s a 45-minute drive north from the nearest tourist Mecca in the White Mountains. That’s 45 minutes of winding roads through the relative wilderness of the White Mountain National Forest.
We hadn’t been eating magic mushrooms, although the Cream of Porcini Soup I began Saturday’s dinner with had clearly been touched with a magic wand. And to our delight, on Saturday it was a completely different menu. On Friday evenings in the off-season, Liz Jackson – Libby’s chef-owner -- serves a special menu based on a single cuisine. That week it was “Friday in Paris.”
We began with fresh pea soup, decorated with swirls of mushroom cream – delicate flavors and a lovely mouth-feel. Beside it was a tiny “BLT” made with sliced grape tomato, and a salad of baby greens with Dijon vinaigrette. Next came a paté so buttery smooth and satisfying that we just told our arteries to pretend it wasn’t happening, as we savored each bite.
The main course presented some challenging decisions. I dearly love braised beef – those flavor-packed cuts that chefs don’t want to bother fussing over – and never see it on a menu. But the Normandy-influenced stew of shrimp and scallops with fried mussels and fennel sounded divine. And as much as I love braised beef, I also love cassoulet. This one was made with rabbit, duck and Cornish hens, and I couldn’t let the chance slip past me. We partially solved our dilemma by ordering it and the shrimp stew, and sharing bites.
Each shrimp and scallop must have been added at the same instant, and the pot snatched from the stove with stop-watch precision, because they were cooked to that perfect almost translucent stage, when the textures are tender – the scallops were like silk – and at they are at peak flavor and texture. Crispy little fried mussels sat above it, and the broth was redolent of carrots, onion and fennel, enriched by a non-Parisian dash of coconut milk. Seafood doesn’t get any better.
The cassoulet was served in its own small marmite pot, and instead of the usual beans with meat, this one was meat with beans. But the white beans were so creamy and melt-in-mouthy, and had absorbed the flavors so thoroughly that I’d have been just as happy to have more of them. Each meat retained its own distinct flavor, at the same time adding character to the ensemble. The lightly seasoned crumb topping balanced the creamy beans with its crunch.
Just as each dish and course was plated to suit its individual shape, size and composition, there was no common theme to the menu selections we tried. We never said “this chef really likes…” because each dish was so totally focused on its own ingredients, its own character and its own presentation that the only theme was to coax the best from each and accent its own unique qualities. Don’t ask me about dessert. I don’t think I had one – I was still nibbling on the long slices of crispy focaccia with my after-dinner coffee.
For us, one of the greatest pleasures of travel is finding a truly great restaurant. It might be the workingmen’s adega in a remote province of Portugal where we were presented with a perfect plate of porco preto, or it could be the paté in a highly acclaimed Boston restaurant. But secretly, we really relish most the small-town surprisess.
Here in Gorham was a restaurant that we’d have been delighted to find in Boston – or in New York or Milan or Madrid. But because it wasn’t in one of these cities, we could get a Saturday night reservation, and the chef’s special 4-course dinner was $32.00.