Thursday, April 30, 2015

Look What's Happening in the Stratford Restaurant Scene for 2015 Season

Renaissance and Revival in the Stratford Restaurant Scene for the 2015 Season

Winners at the 2014 Savour Stratford Tasting Event

I will be adding to and updating this post over the next few months as I write about each restaurant.
Some of you may not yet know that the vision for Savour Stratford has changed;
it is no longer a two day festival. More information is available at this link.
Monforte Dairy Cheese

The Stratford Festival, now in its 63rd season, started as an epiphany for small-town journalist Tom Patterson. His inspiration was the renowned Shakespeare Festival, held in this town's British namesake. The Festival begins May 25th with the premiere of Hamlet, William Shakespeare’s most iconic tragedy. The previews of the season’s production begin April 21st, while the season itself runs from May 25th to October 18th.

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. Bradshaw's a premier culinary retailer is celebrating its 120 year anniversary. 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 restaurant scene. The Stratford Chef School is celebrating its 31st anniversary this year.

This year the restaurant scene is having a renaissance  one that has been a long time in the making, and one that will serve to strengthen Stratford's already stellar reputation as one of Ontario's premier dining destinations.

Chef Sean Collins

The Red Rabbit

Chef Tim Larsen, Jessie Larsen and chef Sean Collins, have left Mercer Hall to build a new community- shared restaurant on Wellington Street, called the The Red Rabbit. The trio raised start-up capital with a core staff of like-minded culinary zealots who invested as owners, instead of taking out a loan. Then they turned directly to their customers and the community to purchase "restaurant vouchers" by prepaying for future meals. For instance, a $500.00 share gets $600 in "rabbit dollars" which can be used incrementally over three years.The idea is a take on Ruth Klahsen's  innovative community-shared agriculture initiative.

Alternatively, The Red Rabbit has dismissed the archetypal restaurant business model, and is working on a sustainable profit-sharing prototype. While the ownership model has evolved, the restaurant will have an overriding message of purpose.The farm-oriented dining experience will be built on years of deep symbiotic relationships, that will remain at the heart of the Red Rabbit.

Collins will be the leading the kitchen at the worker-owned venture with a team comprised of sous chef Jon Naiman, and a core group of other kitchen and front-of-house staff. The 50-seat restaurant with have an additional 12 seats at the bar. The menu will have a thoughtful focus on local ingredients from area farmers, local producers, local brewers and distillers and continue to be a strong voice in Ontario's farm-to-table movement.

The Revival House (formerly The Church Restaurant)
Rob Wigan and Candice Sanderson -Wigan of Molly Bloom’s Irish Pub in Stratford have purchased one of the city’s iconic restaurants, The Church Restaurant. The former Baptist church turned fine dining establishment will re-launch late May as Revival House and is expected to be open year round. Chefs Kyle Rose (late of London’s former Auberge du Petit Prince) and Byron Hallett will operate the expansive kitchen, emphasizing local and seasonal ingredients on the daily menu. Revival House will offer "dining as an event" for two to two hundred.Upstairs will feature The Chapel, an intimate 80-seat gastro-pub, and a VIP lounge called Confessions. Stratford design consultant Martine Becu is transforming the three dramatic rooms.

Monforte's Charming Interior

Dining Al Fresco Late night at Monforte

 Monforte on Wellington
If you like ethical farm-to-table dining that won’t break the bank; Monforte on Wellington is a hands-down winner. Chefs Loreena Miller and Sarah Sinasac 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 continues fortify her creative drive and innovative entrepreneurism. The restaurant is a casual seasonally–inspired osteria featuring an ever-changing selection of artisanal cheeses, charcuterie, pastas, salads, soups, preserves, pickles and other signature specialties. 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 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 is open year round.

White Linen and Crystal at The Bruce
 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.
 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. 
The new chef at The Bruce is Arron Carley. Carley has an impressive background, coming from Oliver & Bonacini’s Canoe in Toronto where he was their sous chef. The Bruce also has a new Food and Beverage Manager, Kevin Wallace.  Wallace who has an extensive background in the hospitality business started at the beginning of April, arriving from Harvest Kitchen in Toronto.
The Bruce describes the cuisine as “Nouveau Ontario,” using French technique and ethnic influences “applied to the good things of this province.”

The Bar at Mercer Hall

Mercer Hall 
Bill and Shelley Windsor who also own The Prune have purchased Mercer Hall. Chef Ryan O’Donnell will be overseeing the kitchen. 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 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.
108 Ontario Street; 519 271-1888

New Wellington Street Entrance at Bijou

Bijou Restaurant
Chef Aaron and Bronwyn Linley have sold Bijou after 14 years, and handed over the reins to Mark and Linda Simone in March. The Linley’s have been operating the restaurant in The Bruce Hotel for two years, and recently decided to move on when their contract expired at the end of March. It is rumoured that the Linley's are opening a food shop.

Bijou has always provided an unparalleled “local” taste experience. The Linleys and their culinary brigade cultivated personal relationships with farmers and suppliers and are proponents of showcasing Perth County products and ingredients. In the past, that spirit of teamwork was a hallmark of Bijou’s distinctive and unique regional culinary sensibility.
Bijou will have a new entrance off Wellington Street, a new bar in the front area, and is expected to have extended hours and operate for 10 months of the year. The new chef of Bijou is now Max Holbrook formerly executive chef at The Parlour and Foster’s Inn.
Holbrook will be honouring the tradition of inventive seasonally-inspired farm-to-table French bistro cuisine. Daily prix-fixe offerings are presented on the chalkboard menu. The regular prix fixe menu is complimented by a new Global Tapas Bar – internationally-inspired shareable small plates featuring quality Perth County ingredients. These small plates will be paired with small craft wineries and the best of old world classics. Join Bijou for Global Tapas after theatre service beginning daily at 7:30 pm until close.
Comfort Food Sundays will showcase three food cultures - French, Italian and chef’s surprise. Each Sunday Bijou will feature 3- course classic comfort meals for under $30 (prix fixe).
Blackboard prix fixe – farm to table chalkboard menu that changes daily.
First seating 5 pm to 6 pm and second seating 8 pm to 9 pm

Dinner pricing:
2 courses $48 (does not include dessert)
3 courses $54
Global Tapas- internationally inspired shareable small plates. Menu after 7:30pm
105 Erie Street; 519.273.5000;

 The Prune
The Prune will open their doors on Friday, May 15th for the season.
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 '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 35 years. May to October, 151 Albert Street; 519.271.5052

Chef Yva Santini

 Pazzo Taverna and Pizzeria
Will Gaynor is still the head chef in the Pizzeria and Yva Santini is still the head chef in the Taverna. Bambino shut down permanently in January to refocus on the Taverna and the Pizzeria. Steve Doyle formerly of The Bruce and Bijou has joined Pazzo as the Taverna manager and is heading up some changes to the cocktail and wine programs.
Taverna at Pazzo’s street-level ristorante proffers rustic Italian-inspired cuisine in a contemporary setting. Chef Santini’s menu offerings feature local ingredients and products working in conjunction with regional producers to offer seasonality to the dining experience. Sustainable crustaceans and bivalves paired with house-made pastas and gnocchi alongside locally-sourced meat. (Who can forget her Red Fife cavatelli?) Think gnocchi with baccala, cream, lemon and black pepper or silky braised beef cheeks with polenta sweet bell peppers and gremolata. The Pizzera continues to serve the best thin crust pizza in the area. Pazzo remains a steady ship amidst all of the change.  70 Ontario Street; 519.273.6666;

Down the Street
After 22 years, Down the Street’s Susan Dunfield, has sold her restaurant, which will re-open year-round under new ownership. Partners Jacqueline Hayton and Cassandre Frost are excited to unveil the restaurants refurbishments and long-time chef Lee Avigdor’s new menus. Alondra Gálvez is the new manager, Greg Hims the sous chef and Ulises Sanchez the bar chef.

 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.


Rundles is eliminating the Sophisto-Bistro and is continuing with the the tried and true pre-theatre and late dinner seatings that they built their stellar reputation on.
Chef de Cuisine Neil Baxter began his apprenticeship at the age of 16, in Cheltenham, England, and completed four years of college training in cuisine, breadmaking, and confectionary. He has been chef de cuisine at Rundles since 1981, and has done stages in France at such renowned Michelin three-star restaurants as Jamin (owned by Joel Robuchon), Tour D’Argent, Taillevent and Troisgros. Recently, Baxter completed stages in Noma, in Copenhagen; and Frantzén in Stockholm.

Rundles  re-opened for their 39th season in May, with dinner service only, on Tuesdays through Sundays. The restaurant will close for the season after dinner service on Saturday, September 19, 2015.
Situated just off the banks of the Avon River, Rundles is an idyllic spot for premiere pre-theatre dining in Stratford

Pre-Theatre seating (Tuesday to Sunday): 5:00, 5:15, 5:30, 5:45, or 6:00 p.m.

Late Dinner seating (Wednesday to Saturday): 8:00, 8:15, or, 8:30 p.m.

Late Dinner seating (Tuesday and Sunday): 7:00, 7:15, or, 7:30 p.m.

Following on the heels of last fall’s opening of Black Swan Brewing comes Stratford’s own micro-distillery, Junction 56 Distillery. Owner Michael Heisz began his first batch in April, and aims to bottle in June. “I’m starting with vodkas, then vapour infused gins, and then whiskeys,” says Heisz. “We’ll be doing a lot of experimenting along the way.” 

Crowd Funding and Culinary Innovation in Stratford

The rise of crowdfunding campaigns highlight how the platforms are emerging as an innovative testing grounds for small businesses. These campaigns have recently emerged as a viable alternative for sourcing capital to support innovative, entrepreneurial ideas and ventures. Several restaurants and food-based establishments in Stratford are now asking their customers and the community to help raise capital.
The idea originated locally from Ruth Klahsen, the owner of Monforte Dairy and Monforte on Wellington. Requiring capital to rebuild her business, she offered her investors a 150 per cent return – as long as they collected it in the form of cheese, dinners or anything else available at Monforte. In just over a year, she raised $500,000. Klahsen has since used a similar program to put a $250,000 down payment on 40 acres of farmland, which is being used for young farmers to start their careers
Six different businesses are employing crowdfunding as an alternative means of financing renovations, expansions, start-ups and new equipment in Stratford. Madelyn’s Diner, Revel Caffe, Monforte, The Red Rabbit, Wicked Pickle and the Downie Street Bakehouse are among them.

 Here are links to some of the crowdfunding campaigns ongoing in Stratford right now:
· Monforte:
· The Red Rabbit:

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