If I put my ear to the ground, I could probably detect it. A tentative muttering, as if a massive waterfall many miles away were pounding the earth; a distant fury. I’ve been feeling a strange tug, a magnetic attraction to the north these days. It has been gaining strength this summer. Perhaps it’s always been with me, but my annual re-read of R.M Patterson’s Dangerous River tended to quell the urgency in the past. This year it was particularly acute. Given the requirements of a busy restaurant, I did not think that I would be able to indulge the draw. In the end, I did make it up north and I am the better for it.
I love Muskoka and the Kawartha lakes. I think Peterborough is beautiful, as are the Islands of Georgian Bay, but none of them hold a candle to Algonquin Park. Land of the moose and the bear, lakes the colour of weak tea and forests carpeted in pine needles, it is as close to the real deal as I can get within a three-hour drive of Toronto. I used to camp there many years ago with the lads; they were arduous sojourns deep into the park for which all supplies are carried on one’s back (including the canoe during portages). It is the kind of place where it is real a slog to get around, every merry-looking fire is hard-won and the difference between sunshine and rain is the difference between bliss and misery. It is a place of extremes. I love it there.
As I’ve gotten older and had kids, the idea of sleeping on the bare rock of the Canadian shield and having to strap a 65-pound pack to my back doesn’t have the same appeal it once had. The park still calls, so I devised a fiendish way to enjoy what this special place offers, whilst getting a proper night’s sleep and not breaking my back: The Spring Lake Resort. It is with a little shame that I realize I am getting soft, but I suppose because my wife and children are in tow, the old way of doing Algonquin simply wasn’t in the cards. This way, I travel into the park during the day, explore by canoe or on hiking trails, and then return to a cold beer, a warm meal and dry bed: that is what I call luxury.
What I find interesting about my trip this year, and to bring this post back to something that has some connection with food, is that the owners of this small hotel on the edge of a massive forest, made some pretty decent scratch-made Polish fare. This was definitely a surprise given the very bad past experiences I have had with restaurant food along the highway 60 corridor that runs in and out of the park. There is one restaurant in particular that I had visited on previous trips, and I won’t name names, but it is located on a prime, beautifully forested bit of road and has amazing potential. It has a cozy patio that overlooks the forest. The decor is pretty much what one would expect: lots of knotty pine, camping paraphernalia on the walls and an old vintage snowmobile on display: all perfectly acceptable given the surroundings. Unfortunately it represents not one, but two of my worst dining experiences ever.
Eight years ago, I ate there with my wife. We had enjoyed a couple of day-trips into the park. We emerged tired and hungry and this restaurant on the roadside beckoned us like an oasis of cold drinks and grilled food. Unfortunately, my beer was flat and warm, and given the fact that the restaurant was empty, I found it odd that it took so long to get said flat and warm beer. That alone, given my thirst at the time, was crushingly disappointing. Being famished, I was craving bloody meat, so I ordered the steak – a grievous error. Medium rare was what I requested. Shoe leather is what I got. In fact, I suspected that the steak had been cooked more than once. It was gristly and tough, grey cardboard. The fries were cold and flaccid. The server looked harried, frightened and well-aware that the restaurant was bad, but it appeared to be largely out of her control. If anything, I pitied her and did not want to be the 30th person that day to complain.
At least it had the view.
Fast forward, and I returned with kids and wife earlier this summer. The place looked exactly the same after eight years. I mentioned to our server that I had been there eight years previous and she said that they had new management since then. I thought that sounded promising. A visit to the washrooms proved otherwise. A tangled yellow strip of sticky fly paper hung, literally, in front of the men’s room door. I had to duck my head under it. It was covered with flies in various states of death and decomposition. Even stranger, in the dead centre of the hallway floor was an overturned box spilling out elastic-banded bundles of sales receipts for the restaurant. I had to step over it to get to the restroom door. It was like running the gauntlet just to have wee. Out of curiosity, I picked up a bundle of receipts (I mean, they were right there on the floor in my way, who wouldn’t snoop?). They were receipts from four years previous. Just lying on the floor in a public-used hallway, as if the manager, disgusted with poor sales unceremoniously dumped the box there in huff and no one had the wherewithal in this pathetic place to actually do anything about it. Who knows how long it had been sitting there; an obstacle in the middle of the hallway for customers to negotiate. If the public-viewed parts of this establishment were in this sorry state, I shuddered at the thought of what the kitchen would look like.
The meal was predictably bad. My daughter ordered the ‘mini-pizza’, which was likely a frozen McCain job. The fries were, as before, cold and flaccid. I wisely avoided the steak and opted for the burger: burnt, dry and unseasoned on a stale bun. It was a Saturday of a long weekend and the place was dead. As the proprietor of my own restaurant, my mind looked at this restaurant like a puzzle to be solved. What would I do? I wondered. How would I improve this space? I started to think out loud about it and my wife gently put her hand on mine and silently mouthed the word ‘no’. One restaurant is enough dear.
So when I ordered food in the quaint little dining room at the Spring Lake resort this past week, only a few miles further down the road, I did not have high hopes. Things got off to a good start: the beer was cold. And local. The owners of the resort are a family from Poland. Polish dishes appear on the menu. We sampled it all: cabbage rolls, perogies, pasta with wild Polish mushrooms, schnitzel and sauerkraut (the Polish variation thereof), dill laced mash potatoes and wonderful cheesecake. All this while sitting outside in view of a spring-fed lake surrounded by miles and miles of Algonquian forest. What a difference a few kilometers of highway made between restaurant one and restaurant two. I very much intend to return to the Spring Lake resort.
Needless to say, the trip was all I hoped it would be. Our wildlife tally included half a dozen snapping turtles, several frogs, a seething ball of garter snakes (some kind of mating orgy? Who knows), a brown snake, a few common loon, some prehistoric looking dragon flies, and a distant wolf howl on night one. Although we were disappointed that we didn’t see a moose, we did see moose droppings, which while certainly not as good as seeing the animal that left them, it made us happy to know that massive critter was lurking around somewhere.
I am back and refreshed and about to head into my restaurant to prepare for our return to business. It will be a bit tricky working around a rather involved re-build of the back half of our building, but I am sure we will manage. The fall menu is starting to develop on paper and we look forward to the coming season. It’s good to be back.