On summer evenings, as the light of day turns golden, the waters of Lake Victoria drift lazily under the bridges of downtown Stratford, Ontario, caressing the drooping boughs of willow trees, and gently pulling canoes, kayaks,swans and ducks along with them.
It’s a time of day when people also drift down to the park along the lake, for a stroll on its footpaths, which snake through the manicured grass bank, along stone walls and flower beds.
T-shaped lampposts, dressed up with hanging baskets of assorted pink, white, mauve and red flowers, mark the footpath’s route, lending it a formal English airthat’s suddenly punctuated by the clanking engine of an old red double-decker London bus, recycled into service for moving tourists around town. It, too, makes its final run along the river drive before turning in for the night.
At one end of the park, sitting on a rise above the river, is the grand Festival Theatre to which a stream of ticket holders – men in jackets and women in sleeveless dresses and shawls on their shoulders against the cool evening air – head for the last performance of the day.
There is something very orderly and civilized, and un-American, about it all.
Down at the other end of the waterfront park, just a block from the epicenter of town, near the imposing Word War I monument flanked by two silent, aging cannons, the day has just gotten fully under way. The dining room of Rundles, one of the best restaurants between New York and Chicago, is abuzz. The orchestration of food and place and service is proceeding in perfect balance and pitch.
Eating at Rundles, which is open only from the end of May to Canadian Thanksgiving (usually the second weekend in October), is an immersion in an as-close-to-perfect dining experience as can be found.
Rundles walks a culinary high wire onto which very few restaurants either dare to step, or have the skill to do so. It’s a place where artistry is food, and is based on modern forms of French cooking, a neo-nouvelle cuisine-plus, complete with updated influences and flourishes that come from everywhere else: Morocco, Thailand, Mexico, China and other places.
And, it’s no wonder. Chef Neil Baxter, who has been at Rundles since 1981, has apprenticed at several of the top 10 restaurants in France and North America: Jamin, Tour d’Argent, and Taillevent in Paris; and Hotel des Frères Troisgrosin Roanne. On this continent, he has done the same at JoJos and the Quilted Giraffe in New York; Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., and yet others.
The influence of those great restaurants shows up in everything Baxter does. Textures and flavors that alternatively are palate-cleansing and refreshing, dense and then light, for example, play off each other. Such is a first course of smoked rainbow trout with green apples, guacamole, Peruvian pepper vinaigrette and tomatillo gazpacho. Or, there’s a more traditional opening course of foie gras, in which the goose liver is cooked wrapped in a cloth (au torchon), seared and chilled and served with a deep-fried pork belly salad.
And another, a ceviche of ocean trout and fluke, shredded cucumber and lime dressing, is totally simple but so intense in combination of flavor and freshness, and calmed or offset by the coolness of the cucumber.
The menu at Rundles is very brief, a traditional table d’hôte list. And just as are the menus at restaurants of the great French chefs – Paul Bocuse’s in Lyon, for example – it is utterly simple.
While part of the magic is in the ingredients – they must be the best – the rest is the preparation. For example, a vegetable terrine of baby carrot and shiitake mushroom with spiced and gingered yogurt seems ordinary enough, but in Baxter’s hands, it’s masterly.
On a recent visit, one of the hands-down favorites at our table was a poached skate with Israeli couscous and tomato confit in a pepper and coriander broth, as was a crisp confit of duck with garlic sausage and cassolette of vegetables.
Rundles isn’t simply about food. It works on the classic model of the three legged stool: a balance of service, place and food. For place and service, Rundles has a calm and soothing effect. To some, the service will seem officious, but that’s more the nature of a classical style of training and attention that owner James Morris brings to Rundles.
“I like peace and serenity. And that’s what I want in my restaurant,” says Morris, who created Rundles in 1977.
But there is also a theatrical quality to it, appropriate considering the influence that four highly reputed theaters have on a town of only 30,000.
“When we opened in 1977, I had this idea about doing a medieval theme,” Morris explains. (The word rundle is old English for “stream.”) “But it kept backfiring on us, luckily, until we had to make up our minds about what this restaurant was going to be.
“I decided Rundles should be the ultimate complementary experience to theater and at the same time distinct from any other restaurant,” Morris says. “It needs to be a breath of fresh air for people, and not oversatiate them after they have been to the theater.” That’s something Morris understands well.
Morris was born in Ireland, where he trained in hotel management. He made his way to London in the 1960s, with aspirations for a career in theater.
“At the time, Ireland was very Catholic, very church dominated, and England was freer and much more fun. And a lot of people just wanted to escape,” Morrissays. In London, he found work with a hotel company, and in the evening pursued his interest in acting by studying voice and movement.
Then, with a group of friends, Morris planned a trip around the world. They would first drive to India and make their way to Australia. “Our plans fell apart,and we ended up with a couple of people continuing, so we reversed everything and went to Canada first,” Morris says. He stayed.
With his European education in the restaurant and hotel business, Morris hired on at Winston’s in Toronto, a watering hole for the city’s power brokers. During the summer months, he joined the throngs who head to Stratford for an injection of Shakespeare and other playwrights.
“There really was nothing here in terms of restaurants at the time,” Morris says. “I looked around and saw what an opportunity this was.”
Although its surrounding are traditional, Rundles is modern and somewhat dramatic. Take just the sign announcing it: a steel I-beam from which its name has been cut by blowtorch in a Bodoni typeface, removed and then mounted in relief next to the beam itself.
The approach is a concrete slanted walkway that continues uninterrupted through the glass frontdoor, inside of the restaurant and up to the hoststand, creating the effect of blending the outdoor and indoor. It’s helped at night by a dozen halogen spotlights embedded flush to the concrete.
Everything inside is carefully thought out, such as white canvas-covered chairsand the cutlery, which comes from design collections. There are also Irish linen napkins with the restaurant’s name woven into the fabric and folded in a simple rectangle barn door pattern that Morris saw done at the Windows on the World, the fine-dining restaurant lost in New York’s World Trade Center collapse.
While many Detroiters think of Stratford as a distant place where they do gloomy English theater, it’s much more than that and a lot closer than many would think: roughly the same distance as Grand Rapids, and about half the distance and time it takes for people to drive to Traverse City.
But you can be guaranteed you won’t find anything even remotely similar in quality and distinction in either of those cities as you will at Rundles in picturesque Stratford.
9 Cobourg St., Stratford, Ontario; 519-271-6442. Lunch: Sat. and Sun. Dinner: Tue.-Sun. Open from the end of May through mid-October.
Cook is the chief restaurant critic of “Hour Detroit.” E-mail: email@example.com.