Jonathan Spak didn’t set out to run a restaurant in Fryeburg. He and his wife, Natalie, were on vacation in North Conway, New Hampshire, “and as a joke,” he remembers, “we said, ‘Let’s go see if there’s an inn for sale nearby.’ ” That was March 2007. They closed on the Oxford House Inn that September.

You can be glad they did. Their restaurant, located on the ground floor of the inn, serves classic American cuisine (grilled salmon, pork chops, Maine crab cakes), along with dishes inspired by Asian and Caribbean traditions, and much of it is creative, surprising and flavorful. Fryeburg may be an hour’s drive from downtown Portland (and the pace of dinner here can be decidedly slow – about which more later) but dinner is well worth a journey west.

The restaurant fills several rooms of a rambling 1913 lumber baron’s mansion on Main Street. You can ask to sit on the screened porch at the front of the house (good for people watching), in the “front” dining room (once a parlor), the smaller “middle” dining room (a Craftsman celebration of dark wood, floral wallpaper and leaded glass) or the back porch, which has picture windows framing drop-dead views of Mount Kearsarge in the distance. There’s also a bistro on the lower level where you can have a drink or order from the dinner menu.

We sat in the quiet “middle” dining room and started with smoked salmon served with zucchini-herb pancakes, horseradish cream and dilly beans ($11). Spak has a passion for toying with tradition (and for pickles; each night’s menu features an $8 “pickle snack”) and he calls this appetizer “an homage to the (British) usual salmon plate.” Vegetable pancakes stand in for the bread, horseradish cream takes the place of plain sour cream, and dilly beans appear where you might expect cornichons and capers.

I rolled a thin piece of salty Ducktrap Winter Harbor salmon onto my fork, speared an edge of the golden pancake and added a dollop of cream. The combination of tastes and textures was familiar but also sharper and more focused. It might have been the dilly beans – they were intensely fresh; the kitchen makes them just a week before serving and they added an audible snap and a jolt of brightness. If you try only one appetizer at the Oxford House, make it this one.

A small, crescent-shaped chicken empanada ($10), Spak’s version of a Jamaican meat patty, was filled with jerk-spiced chicken and baked into a simple pie crust. That crust could have been more tender, but the filling – with hints of allspice and cardamom and the slight bitterness of turmeric – was fragrant and flavorful. (Spak says it’s made with “a million and three ingredients and lots of love.”)

Good on its own, the empanada was even better with a drizzle of chimichurri. The flavors of green onions, cucumbers, parsley and vinegar registered loud and strong, and the tart sauce (traditionally served with grilled beef, but Spak’s no slave to tradition) was a fine complement to chicken, too.

Chicken emphatically took center stage again in a tortilla-crusted breast served with black beans and house-made chorizo ($25). The breast meat was moist and barely seasoned – an ideal foil for the salty skin and pungent tomatillo-and-chili salsa. The plate smelled wonderfully of chilies, cinnamon and sausage. It was a dish to make a grown man swoon.

Of course, some timeless recipes are best left alone, and Spak affords grilled filet mignon ($34) the respect it deserves. Served with garlicky whipped potatoes, mushrooms and a green peppercorn sauce, the beef was (again) lightly seasoned but impeccably cooked – tender and juicy, rich and intense. Spak sources many of his ingredients from farms you can see out the restaurant windows: “The potatoes we serve with the beef come from a place in the valley about two miles from here, and we get our mushrooms from a forager who comes by the restaurant,” he says. The filet, however, comes from a supplier based in Boston. “I would love to serve local meat,” he says, “but this entrée is so popular we’d probably eradicate a herd.”

Fryeburg is over an hour west of Portland, and to brace ourselves the journey home we ordered Mai Thai Pie – partly because the waitress gave it high marks, partly because it begged the question: How do you transform rum, cherries, citrus juice – and an umbrella – normally served in a double old fashioned glass, into a pie? Answer: With a blender. (As with the cocktail, you leave the umbrella out and use it as a garnish.) The pie’s achingly sweet filling, coconut custard with whispers of rum and lime juice, filled a crushed macaroon crust. It came with a boozy bitter cherry-and-brandy syrup and that single paper parasol on top. Kitsch rarely tasted so good.

Now about the service … I’ve gone to The Oxford House Inn twice, once several years ago and again last week. On my first visit the setting was spectacular, the food good and the service slow. When I went back last week, the setting was spectacular, the food very good and the service exceedingly slow. (I checked my watch, and our entrees arrived at the table one hour and 20 minutes after we sat down.) The chef acknowledges that his kitchen is small (“it’s tiny – maybe 13′ by 18′ – and we sometimes can seat more than 80 customers.”) If the staff can work out a graceful way to stagger reservations – especially in the summer months – and give the kitchen some well-deserved breathing room, this restaurant will be doing itself (and its customers) a big favor.

And I’ll be even more excited about heading back.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.

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