Friday, August 15, 2014

Where To Eat in Stratford, Ontario: A Too Brief Guide

This is for archival purposes. Please read my updated blog post: Look What's Happening in the Stratford Restaurant Scene for 2015 Season


I recently attended the 7th Annual Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival. It was an exceptional experience again this year. What draws me time and time again to Stratford — besides world class theatre and the fact that it is a great walking and biking town is the city’s vitality as an agriculture and culinary hub. Start you're walking tour of the downtown at the historic 12-sided red-brick City Hall built in 1899. Stroll the leafy streets and browse the charming shops as you explore the captivating town which exudes natural beauty. Stratford is full of stimulating and niche specialty shops situated on its heritage streetscapes or off the beaten path on side streets. The town has attractive outdoor gardens flanking the banks of the Avon River. Among the city’s culinary assets is the presence of the venerated Stratford Chefs School, where students work with local culinary luminaries and chefs from across Canada and around the world. Culinary pros and alumni have stayed on in Stratford, adding innovation and prestige to the local culinary scene. The Stratford Chef School is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

 Savour Stratford has effectively supported Stratford and Perth County’s position as one of Ontario’s most unique and distinctive culinary regions. Collaborating and fostering individual relationships with  area farmers, artisans, chefs and the Stratford Chefs School to reinforce the awareness of sustainable agriculture and the local terroir has helped to create a culinary identity truly characteristic of the area. A visit to Stratford for a few days has always been a perfect for a culinary getaway. You can experience Stratford’s and Perth County’s terroir at restaurants, cafés, food specialty shops, farmers’ markets, tutored tastings, epicurean treks and culinary walking tours. A stopover in the area is not complete without a stay in one of the many hospitable inns or bed and breakfasts.
 Stratford boasts a large number of agricultural resources and has been nurturing a local culinary heritage since 1832. Stratford Farmers’ Market is the year round market operating since 1855 at the Stratford Rotary Complex Agriplex.. 353 McCarthy Rd., Stratford. 7 am—12 pm every Saturday. The producer-based Farmers' and Artisans' Sunday Market returns to the historic Market Square behind Stratford’s City Hall each May. It is definitely worth a visit.

Stratford offers a charming group of independent cafés which are part grab-and-go, part bakery, and part casual dine-in restaurant. Baristas in Stratford know how to pull a proper espresso. The quest of coffee drinkers for artisanal, small hand-batched roasts with diverse flavour profiles is unmatched.  Anne Campion’s Revel Café off the market square featuring Las Chicas Del Café and Slave to the Grind Stratford's quirky espresso bar - owned and democratically operated by Your Local Market Co-operative, are among my top picks for an outstanding caffeinated experience.
 If your tastes run to the uber cool gadgets, gewgaws and gizmos or retro-inspired confectionery, be sure to visit the Small-Mart General Mercantile, a unique and delightful contemporary take on the old-style general store that has just relocated. Great places to grab a picnic lunch include: Janet Ashworth’s At The County Food Company on Erie Street. Ashworth’s philosophy is a simple concept: Seasonal local ingredients, gifted chefs, innovative selections and affordable dining. Pick and choose from a range of irresistible entrées and salads.

Chef Yva Santini’s Italian kitchen at Taverna Pazzo brings a new sensibility to Stratford’s main corner. Sustainable seafood such as oysters, crab and lobster make up the heart of this season’s menu, and are joined by house-made pastas and gnocchi, and locally-sourced meats and produce. Check out the recently opened Pazzo Bambino next door for lighter fare and delicious grab-to-go options. Chef Sirka Sie is the talent behind the stunning food (and delectable zeppole) in the Pazzo Bambino. Co-owner Jeffrey Leney tells us that the new Pazzo Bambino, located in the former Pazzo Bakery, is essentially a food shop serving pizzas, sandwiches, antipasti, salads, Italian sweets, espresso drinks and focaccia with a focus on take-out. There are 30 seats for those who wish to dine in. Designer Ron Nuhn took the former bakery concept and blew it up, creating an operatic ambience and an exciting space.

 Monforte on Wellington
 If you like ethical farm-to-table dining that won’t break the bank; Monforte on Wellington is the hands-down winner. The kitchen has developed a synergy between the local terroir and the diner, no doubt, inspired by Monforte Dairy founder and cheesemaker, Ruth Klahsen, whose deep-rooted affection for all things sustainable, local and artisanal seems to continue to both fortify and nourish her creative drive and innovative entrepreneurism. The restaurant is a casual seasonally –inspired osteria featuring an ever-changing selection of artisanal cheeses, charcuterie, and pastas, salads, soups, preserves, pickles and other signature specialties, prepared by Monforte’s culinary team. The restaurant is BYOW with a corkage fee of $15.00, or if you order a glass of VQA wine they might bring you a full bottle and charge you for what you drink. There is an area at the front entrance that retails Monforte cheeses and other interesting jarred goods- to- go. The kitchen is open to the dining room and there is a passageway beside the kitchen that leads to a 35-seat courtyard with umbrellaed tables for al fresco dining.

 The Restaurant at The Bruce
 The newly built and handsomely appointed 25-room Bruce Hotel, set on six and a half acres of property and a short walk from the Festival Theatre, is the third hospitality undertaking for Birmingham. The restaurant and the hotel are named after her father, Bruce, a former president of the Bank of Nova Scotia who passed away in 2010.
 Word has it that Birmingham wooed Stratford culinary luminaries and owners of Bijou, Aaron and Bronwyn Linley, to join her at The Bruce. Aaron is the Executive Chef and Bronwyn is Food and Beverage Manager. Aaron’s resume comprises sous chef positions at Rundles in Stratford, Scaramouche in Toronto, Maple Bistro in Halifax with Chef Michael Smith, and chef at Le Nouveau Parigo in Toronto. Bronwyn’s pastry chef and sommelier experience includes Stratford’s Pazzo and Down the Street, Pan Chancho bakery in Kingston and pastry chef at Maple Bistro and Biff’s in Toronto. Returning to Stratford in 2001, the Linley’s opened Bijou. What has made Chef Linley’s cooking unforgettable is the brilliance of his regionally-sourced ingredients paired with multi-cultural elements. For many years his culinary opus at Bijou was the standard for inspired, locally-procured food in Stratford. The Restaurant at The Bruce is positioned to be a contender in the uppermost tier of Stratford fine dining: the venerable Neil Baxter at Rundles and the enigmatic Bryan Steele at The Prune, (which, sadly, is closed for lunch this season), both have restaurant pedigrees that run deeper than Linley’s. 
There are two rooms that comprise The Restaurant and entry is through the clubby lounge. The dining rooms are white linen, chic and understated with square-backed upholstered chairs and settees. This is contemporary elegance and indeed Linley’s menus are loaded with ingredients that term evokes. Chef has dispensed with the main-course concept and offers a small-plates menu at dinner. Lunch is à la carte. There is an expectation of a particular level of care in a restaurant befitting a well-run luxury hotel. Among the hotel’s amenities are a gym and an indoor pool. (Rooms are $500.00 and “petit” suites are $650.00 per night and include a sumptuous prix fixe breakfast. Some have private courtyards.)
Chef Linley describes his cuisine as “Nouveau Ontario,” using French technique and ethnic influences “applied to the good things of this province.” The menu is prix fixe, offering two Beginnings and Dessert for $58.00, one Beginning and Middle for $58.00, or a Beginning, Middle and Dessert for $68.00. This arrangement is meant to expedite the challenges of pre-theatre dining where theatre-goers arrive and depart simultaneously and later, there is a respite. There is also a 5 course tasting menu available after 7:30 pm for $80.00 per person, and only available to an entire table. The Lounge offers a separate menu.

 Mercer Hall 
The restaurant at Mercer Hall Inn offers chef-inspired artisanal food and drink featuring local cuisine, Ontario focused wines and house-infused cocktails. Mercer Hall was recently included in the 2014 Top 50 Restaurants in Canada, as determined by a roster of chefs, food industry professionals, connoisseurs, and travel and food writers. Lead by chefs Tim Larsen and Sean Collins  the culinary duo draws its inspiration from a local, seasonal items with quality ingredients sourced in Quebec, both Canadian coasts and the best of Europe. The menu is primarily Ontario focused with a European sensibility. The hospitable Jesse Larsen, an alumnus from the Conestoga College Hospitality program who also happens to be married to Tim, runs front of the house. 
Regional specialities and local ingredients abound on the Mercer Hall menus and include addictive house-made salumi and other gourmet charcuterie which are found on the ploughman’s board at lunch and the charcuterie board on both the "Nosh" menu and the evening prix fixe. After all, Perth County pork is legendary. This is the home of the Pork Congress. A charming wooden bread board of classic air-dried cured meats include: thin slices of perfect fat-to-meat coppa (pig’s head), paper-thin slices of Andalucían-inspired loma (pork loin), and Churchill Farms distinctively flavoured prosciutto. The charcuterie is accompanied by pickled vegetables, piccalilli, shavings of Montforte Dairy’s Toscano pecorino and a sous vide egg. When the perfectly cooked egg is punctured with a fork it releases a river of perfect protein-rich golden liquid. Other pork products on the menu include Fred and Ingrid De Martines’ succulent Tamworth pork belly confit served with braised chard, broth and pickled mustard seed. There is also roasted Marrow bone served with crostini and butcher’s salad.
Signature dishes together with contemporary interpretations of classics have resulted in a varied menu of tastes, temperatures, textures and influences. Mercer Mac and Cheese is a combination of cheddar and parmigiano infused béchamel, cornbread crumble, onion marmalade. Colonel Collins' Fried Chicken for two: boneless thighs, southern style kale, cornbread, apple and cabbage slaw with Mercer house-made hot sauce, gravy and house-cut fries. 108 Ontario Street; 519 271-1888

 Bijou Restaurant
 The entrance to Bijou is hidden in plain view behind a block of Wellington Street buildings with ivy-covered brick walls located in a laneway off the Erie Street’s municipal parking lot, next to the Queen’s Hotel. There is an iron gate and a canopied black door at the front entrance of the restaurant. The exterior sign is an unobtrusive copper and metal graphic. Bijou’s inconspicuousness is part of its allure. 
Bijou’s culinary philosophy embraces the ideology of local and seasonal; however, the kitchen puts its own characteristic stamp on the ever-changing chalkboard menu. The Bijou culinary oeuvre may be representative of the local terroir, but Asian, French and Italian culinary influences, which involve techniques as well as ingredients, redefine convention. The kitchen shines when it is expressing the nuances of the local terroir. 
The food at Bijou is modern, never predictable, and the offerings evolve to highlight seasonal ingredients and the best local food procurement available. The restaurant provides a good “local” taste experience. The restaurant was an early proponent of cultivating personal relationships with farmers and suppliers and showcasing Perth County products and ingredients. 105 Erie Street; 519.273.5000;

 The Prune 
Three chic rooms in a heritage home overlooking a courtyard provide a sublime setting for one of the consistently best dining experiences in the city. Chefs Bryan Steele and Ryan O`Donnell serve up contemporary seasonally -inspired cuisine. Menu items celebrate local and regional producers and growers. The influences of disparate world cuisines alongside traditional French recipes create interesting juxtapositions designed to enrich and enliven your dining experience. An intelligent wine program showcases boutique vintages from local and international growers. In the aim of broadening Chef Steele's cooking style to a larger audience, the Prune is featuring a new prixe fixe menu with a lower, more accessible price point and an expanded selection of offerings. It is their intention to continue to maintain the standard of high quality that the Prune has been renowned for the past 34 years. May to October 151 Albert Street; 519.271.5052

 Little Red’s Pub and Eatery in St Mary’s: Chris and Mary Woolf have returned to St. Marys, at 159 Queen Street. Little Red’s Pub and Eatery opened in mid- February. Chris and Mary Woolf always made a sojourn to the former Woolfy’s well worth the drive. The Woolf’s have been true pioneers when it comes to supporting culinary regionalism: dedicated and loyal supporters of the area’s farmers, artisans, sustainable and organic producers for two decades. Chris was re-interpreting culture-specific culinary specialties with homegrown ingredients long before the term “local” became part of our culinary lexicon.  www.little

The Savour Stratford Maple Trail is the third in Stratford’s culinary trail offers. This self-guided tour presents 10 maple-inspired stops with offerings that range from aged maple balsamic vinegar, to a maple-smoked bacon BLT and a maple chai latte. If you are looking for chocolate there is a Chocolate Trail—a self-guided tour of local sweet and savoury treats much like the maple trail or bacon and ale trail. You can purchase a pass in person at the Stratford Tourism Alliance. The $25 pass includes tickets that entitle you to choose 6 of the 20 stops you would like to visit. Be sure to stop at Chocolate Barr’s Candies, Rheo Thompson, and the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. Chocolate Barrs has relocated from 136 Ontario Street to 55 George Street West (formerly The Sun Room restaurant).

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