Originally published in Maine magazine, August 2022.
I’m sitting at the six-seat bar in the 190-year-old building that now houses Wolfpeach, a new fine-dining restaurant in downtown Camden. My back is to the historic brick hearth that doubles as makeshift wine storage, and I’m enjoying a few deviled eggs and an intriguing terrine made from eel and pork. I finish the last of a flight of four house-made soft drinks— kombucha and kefir flavored with various tree saps and herbs—then turn to the cocktail list for my next drink. As I decide on a gin and tonic made with Blue Barren Distillery gin brewed in nearby Hope, a casual remark from owner Gabriela Acero makes me completely reevaluate the experience of my meal up until that point.
As she prepares my drink, Acero tells me that she doesn’t use lime as a garnish: would I like a pickled carrot instead? That’s when I realize that nearly all the food and drink served at Wolfpeach is grown or made in Maine. That seems easy enough to accomplish with dishes like smoked herring and crispy potatoes, but the owners’ goal also extends to less visible but crucial ingredients, like sunflower oil and apple cider vinegar. I take another look at the beverage list and see that the wine selection is exclusively from New England and Canada, while Maine beer and spirits fill out the beverage offerings. And, naturally, that means there are no lime wedges.
Wolfpeach, which takes its name from the Latin word for tomato, opened in December 2021 after Acero, who grew up in Waterville, and her partner, Derek Richard, bought the building once occupied by the Drouthy Bear, a Scottish pub. The two had met when they helped to open Oxbow Beer Garden in Oxford, where Richard developed the sourdough pizza recipe and Acero was the general manager. Richard, who is originally from New Jersey, worked in the kitchens of Blue Hill at Stone Barns and then at Barley Swine, a fine-dining hyper-local restaurant in Austin, Texas, before moving to Maine. At Wolfpeach Acero and Richard use locally grown and foraged ingredients to create what Richard describes as “just really good, simple food.” He pauses before he adds, “Well, seemingly simple.”
The menu’s short descriptions belie complex flavors that Richard and his crew create through days and even months of effort. A robust fermentation program produces flavor-packed ingredients, like the vinegars that replace the acidic element typically provided by lemon juice, and a fish sauce called garum that is made from various seafoods and salt. Between the kimchi, garum, miso, and vinegars, Wolfpeach’s kitchen is full of bubbling containers of fermented condiments to amplify each dish. “All our ferments are funneled into the sauces, just helping with flavor,” Richard says.
All that behind-the-scenes effort is apparent in my entree, a smoked pork loin. Its preparation started a week prior, when Richard dry-aged the pasture-raised pork, then rubbed the meat with a fermented tomato powder before it went in the wood smoker. Before dinner service, Richard warmed the meat in a bath of liquid smoked pork fat, a trick he says he learned during his time in Texas, and then seared the chop to order. The thick slice of bone-in pork arrives, perfectly tender with a blackened, crispy edge, in a dark puddle of jus, the result of a multi-day process of reducing pork stock and a bottle of red wine from Cellardoor Winery into a rich, sticky sauce.
Dishes are served à la carte at Wolfpeach. A side of tender, charred collard florets complements the smokiness of the pork loin. The slight bitterness of the greens is offset by a silky house-made aioli that delivers a salty kick from the addition of a few raw oysters that were blended in. Richard says his goal is for the menu items to complement each other—and ideally be enjoyed with a side of his signature sourdough bread. He uses Maine Grains whole wheat flour, which results in loaves with a tender interior and a nutty, hearty crust. The butter, also made in-house, is mixed with locally grown kelp and then fermented for a few days, making it salty and slightly tangy.
Richard has a deft hand with pasta dough: he is filling thin sheets with spinach and a tangy cow’s- and goat’s-milk cheese. He flavors the mixture with a maitake mushroom miso and then serves the stuffed pasta in a browned butter sauce. He tells me he felt the dish needed to be finished with Parmesan cheese, so he bends his rules to include the Italian import. Of the exception, Acero says, “We’re not trying to make any aggressively hard-and-fast rules. At the end of the day, if we think the food needs something, we will use it.”
As I enjoy my dessert—a scoop of honey-thyme ice cream made by a local farmer—I’m left thinking that so often the discussion of a meal made exclusively with Maine foods focuses on its limitations—no lemon, no olive oil, no French wine. It’s a testament to Richard’s skill in the kitchen and Acero’s natural hospitality that you can be halfway through the meal at Wolfpeach before it occurs to you that anything might be missing.
Wolfpeach | 50 Elm St., Camden | 207.230.8315
No Tips, Please
Wolfpeach operates on a no-tipping model. Servers are paid $20 an hour, with the goal of everyone reaching $25–$35 an hour. Although the idea is not without its detractors, Acero says customers are receptive to it despite the higher prices. She’s quick to say that she knows the model doesn’t work for many small businesses: due to several factors Wolfpeach has “a deep freedom to do things the way we want.” (Although the prices initially seem higher, the total cost of the meal ends up comparable to that of a tipped fine-dining restaurant.)