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Strafford's Stone Soup: Excellent Food, Not Cell, Service

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SARAH PRIESTAP
  • Sarah Priestap

There's no cell service in upper Strafford village, which is just a handful of antique homes clustered around a green with white clapboard churches on both ends. The town also has a post office and a town clerk's building — and the Justin Smith Morrill Homestead is just a quarter-mile down the road. While many of the buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places, no shops or other attractions draw visitors to town. And no signage marks the hamlet's sole restaurant, Stone Soup, which has stood at 7 Brook Road for 44 years.

In the 1970s, the food was different; the restaurant's original owners proffered a groovier, more countercultural flavor than co-owners Gil Robertson and William Milne serve today. That pair, who live on the property, bought the place in 1984. As they restored the 1799 building to a polished 19th-century sheen, the food evolved, too. "It began to look a lot better in here," Robertson said, "and we began to cook differently."

By 1990, supper at Stone Soup had become a lush, multisensory experience. Thursdays through Saturdays, nine tables serve up to 25 guests in one seating. In summer, visitors can wander through blooming perennial gardens, cocktails in hand, before dining. In winter, they whet their appetites on couches before an open fireplace.

Post-Y2K, as food culture migrated online, the restaurant abstained from internet engagement. No website narrates its history; no Facebook page describes its cuisine; no Instagram feed offers well-composed photos of evening specials. Aside from a phone number in the local white pages and user-generated Yelp and TripAdvisor pages, scarcely a published trace of the place exists.

"We're a little publicity shy," Robertson said, uneasy but chatty on the phone during a rare interview last week (his third, he estimated, in 33 years). His residual southern drawl sang softly over the line, recalling half a life in North Carolina before he moved to Strafford. "We're very private people," Robertson added.

Yet the restaurant offers a window into a pair of lives that appear to be lived with well-worn, genteel charm and a reverence for quiet, simple pleasures. At dinner on a recent, torrential late-winter's eve, the tables were set with pressed white tablecloths and pale tapered candles that flickered in glass boxes. Tiny vases held pale pink carnations, and dinner for three was delivered on old English china and sturdy 1970s-era stoneware. Vintage cutlery — two forks per setting — glowed with silver luster.

SARAH PRIESTAP
  • Sarah Priestap

Our meal began with warm bread and butter. First-course options consisted of soup or a house salad ($7); all entrées ($25 to $32) were sided with a blend of sweet and savory roasted root vegetables, the seasonal roughage du jour.

Robertson said the spare, old-fashioned format is practical: He and his partner split the cooking, with him on prep and Milne on a one-man "line" during service. With just four hands, plus one server to do everything else, the restaurant leans on well-crafted but unfussy dishes that can be prepared ahead and fired quickly to order.

Prior to buying Stone Soup, neither owner had significant kitchen experience; the cooking is less about parading fancy skills than about showcasing fresh ingredients. So a bowl of ochre cauliflower soup tasted light and pure, all puréed cole crop without a sulfur-y brassica bite. The green salad was as crisp as a moonlit summer night.

Then came a plate of springy scallops, gently seared with shallots and walnuts softened with white wine. The mollusks were soft and creamy in the middle, resting on wild rice cakes that tasted of mushrooms and earth.

My mother-in-law's braised lamb shank — seasoned with aromatics, then slow-roasted with tomatoes, alliums and fresh rosemary — fell effortlessly from the bone into an unctuous stew of soft white beans. My husband's Cornish hen, with its herbed cornbread stuffing, was baked to a crisp, amber hue and hinted at warm nuts and an autumn forest after a soaking rain.

Though we were full midway through the entrées — portion sizes are ample without crossing into gluttony — we kept going. "We appreciate having people come in and giving them a lot of good food," said Robertson.

From a business perspective, the formula works primarily because the kitchen uses luxe ingredients sparingly and keeps labor costs low. If you're paying people to cook, the budget has to give somewhere else. "Restaurants that can't cut corners with the labor have to cut corners with the food," Robertson said. Stone Soup's owners would rather be generous with their plates than hire outside help.

Nor do they fuss with time-consuming niceties such as "making swans out of meringue or folding pralines into little cones," Robertson added. However, they do make pralines. At dessert, the almond cookies formed brittle bookends for scoops of vanilla ice cream, drizzled with salty caramel to dazzling effect. Rare, indeed, is the discovery of a dazzling ice cream sandwich.

As the conversation hushed over dessert — with spooned slices of wobbly, candied-ginger custard and port-soaked peaches dissolving on my tongue — I couldn't help but overhear diners at the next table. Their chatter drifted from the goings-on at a nearby hospital to models for good medical schools to agenda items for the upcoming town meeting. Inevitably, someone took a jab at America's new president.

A woman at the table groaned.

"So you don't want to talk national politics?" the jabber asked. He seemed willing to let it go.

"I guess we can," answered the woman without enthusiasm, "if you want." As they mulled over whether to go there, awash in dancing candlelight, cellphones remained tucked away in pockets or bags — perhaps even in cars. A bitter February rain pounded mercilessly outside.


The original print version of this article was headlined "Supper Without Static"

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