78 Wakefield St., Rochester, N.H.Looking for a great spot for a casual dinner in the northern reaches of the Seacoast area? Don’t let the Governor’s Inn’s formal appearance fool you.
The stately brick mansion just north of downtown Rochester is indeed a lovely small hotel, but there’s nothing stuffy about its restaurant, known as Spaulding Steak & Ale.
We went out for dinner after watching our Teenage Bottomless Pit in a sporting event, so we were a bit concerned that we might be a little underdressed for the place, but as soon as we walked in to see the jeans-clad waitstaff, popcorn machine in the hostess area and a bustling bar, we put that worry behind us.
Actually the inn has two restaurants: A pub-style, live-entertainment spot called The Garage is next door, but Spaulding Steak & Ale is part and parcel of the main hotel. Spaulding is rather pub-like itself, and is divided into two primary rooms — the bar to one side, the main dining area to the other. Across the hall is a smaller, more private and formal dining room with six or eight tables.
The main dining area is comfortably appointed in deep reds with gold and white woodwork; the walls are lined with framed posters from theatrical productions presented at the inn and other local venues (dinner theater shows are still offered at the inn).
The Spaulding menu has something for everyone and is reasonably priced, with most entrees around $15 to $18. We decided to start with a couple of classic appetizers we haven’t ordered in a while: Calamari ($9.95) and Scallops Wrapped in Bacon ($10.95).
The calamari was a nice mix of rings and tentacles, all lightly breaded and perfectly fried, with not a rubbery piece in the lot. A zesty lemon aioli was a great addition, as were fried slices of red cherry peppers and jalapenos, all of which more than made up for what I thought was a lack of seasoning in the coating.
The Dining Companion picked the scallops, and she was smiling from the first forkful to the last. The large sea scallops were moist and delicious, wrapped in bacon broiled to crisp perfection. The highlight, in TDC’s eyes, was the light drizzle of maple syrup that added a touch of sweetness to the savory dish.
I went with beef for my entree, but opted for a little more seafood as well. The Sirloin Tips and Scallops Johnny Walker ($21.45) comprised a generous grilled portion of each, served in a whiskey-based sauce with mushrooms. The beef was tender and nicely seasoned, grilled to the medium rare I requested, but it was curiosity about the sauce that prompted me to order this dish.
I’m not a big fan of many whiskey-based marinades and sauces, as I think they tend to be too strong and too sweet. But this one, true to the name, was made with Scotch rather than the more typical bourbon, and indeed it was much less sweet, though it still had a deep aromatic whiskey undertone. A touch of butter, or another source of salt other than the shaker on the table, would have been a good finishing touch.
After going back and forth, TDC finally decided on the Chardonnay Mushroom Chicken ($14.95) — a grilled chicken breast topped with sauteed button mushrooms and a chardonnay, butter and garlic sauce. The chicken was extremely moist and tender and the sauce was rich and flavorful. The vegetable du jour was steamed zucchini and summer squash. The squash was al dente, just the way she likes it, but had a bit too much butter for her liking (though I thought it was just fine).
After a filling entree and appetizer, I entertained the idea of not ordering dessert, but our waiter assured me that the Limoncello Cake ($6) was a light, refreshing choice. Indeed it was: a two-layer, custard-filled lemony cake, with just enough of a hint of alcohol to remind you that the dessert is made with the Italian lemon liqueur. In fact, this was probably the most liqueur-forward of any Limoncello dessert I’ve had. But like the others, it was refreshing and delicious.
Our visit wasn’t flawless: The service was a bit slow, it took several tries to get TDC’s request for a soda water with lemon correct, and the aroma of popcorn wafting through the dining room occasionally distracted us from the food.
On the plus side, the staff was friendly, the food was good, the atmosphere comfortable and the prices very reasonable. All of that adds up to a relaxing dining experience worth checking out.