BY BRYAN LAVERY
When dining in Stratford, I can’t help but be drawn to restaurants that authentically support farmers, vineyards, and food purveyors by featuring quality local ingredients and products. I also like to take note of the ambience, whether the cutlery is polished, and the wine and food knowledge of the service staff. Great restaurants give a lot of thought and attention to their wine and cocktail lists and, most importantly, to genuine hospitality.
For many years the culinary opus at Bijou has been a front-runner in Stratford for inspired, locally-sourced cuisine. The bistro has built a following as a destination restaurant for providing a good local taste experience. Mark and Linda Simone purchased the legacy restaurant last year and added a new entrance on Wellington St. and a small bar in the front area. Chef Max Holbrook has moved on to Downie Street Bakehouse and Dion Lach is the new chef.
The farm-to-table inspired blackboard pre-theatre dinner menu is prix fixe, offering three courses for $58.00. Chef and his team offer a globally-inspired menu of small plates that is available after 8:00 p.m. Duck confit with gnocchi and fresh Monforte Dairy curds is a knock-out, as is the house-made lobster ravioli. There is a superior cheese plate of Monforte Dairy selections. Bijou also serves a “Global Dim Sum” Sunday brunch that is offered à la carte for easy sharing. 74 Wellington Street (front), 105 Erie Street (back), 519-273-5000, www.bijourestaurant.com .
The Bruce Restaurant
The dining rooms are white linen, chic with comfortable square-backed upholstered chairs and settees. This is the top tier of dining; the tasting menus are loaded with the ingredients which that term evokes. Chef Arron Carley previously served as sous chef to Jason Bangerter at Luma, now executive chef at Langdon Hall. He interned with renowned chef Rene Redzepi at Denmark’s Noma, a Michelin two-star restaurant, which has been named “Best Restaurant in the World” four times. Returning to Canada, Carley worked as a sous chef under John Horne, executive chef at Toronto’s Canoe restaurant before being head-hunted by The Bruce. Carley and his team are redefining New Canadian Cuisine. Think wild Haida Gwaii ivory salmon with Wabigoon wild rice, morels, nettle puree, fennel kelp oil and wild ginger broth or Boileau venison striploin with charred and brined carrots, golden beets, reindeer moss, Saskatoon berries, green alder jus and beet puree. They have dispensed with the prix fixe menu they offered the last two seasons. At the time of this writing there is a 4-course tasting menu for $95.00 and 6-course tasting menu for $115.00. Wine pairings are an additional $49.00 and $55.00 respectively. Breakfast, lunch and Sunday brunch are à la carte and The Lounge offers a separate menu. There is a stunning courtyard for al fresco dining. 89 Parkview Drive www.thebruce.ca
A refurbished keystone Alley Café has re-opened under the ownership of Kim Hurley and Anthony Jordaan. Stratford Chefs School graduates, executive chef Cortney Zettler and sous chef Tina Logassi’s menus are driven by local sourcing with an offering of rotating blackboard features. There is a dish at dinner called, 'three little pigs,' which showcases the delicious heritage pork from Church Hill Farms. Herbed crumbed schnitzel with wilted kale; pork truffled pasta with sage crema; and sausage braised cabbage are an early example of this dish. There is a vegetarian taco at lunch which is served open-faced on a grilled flat bread featuring produce from Soiled Reputation, Shallot Hill and other local producers that come to the kitchen door. A lunch feature called ‘meat and bread’ will showcase pork, beef, chicken, lamb and duck procured from McIntosh Farms and Church Hill Farms. We like the grilled “Buffalo” cauliflower with roasted radish, lentils, kale chips, pistachio puree and hot sauce. That is Buffalo meaning the sauce not the city. There is a small wine offering and a smart patio for al fresco dining. 34 Brunswick Street, www.keystonealley.com
Mercer Kitchen, Beer Hall Hotel
The recently relaunched Mercer Kitchen, Beer Hall Hotel offers fifteen draft lines, Stratford’s only cask engine, and over 120 brands including award-winners, and hard to find one-offs that move very quickly. Over half the bottles are Ontario brews. The interior has been refurbished to project a casual more accessible ambience. They have added some communal tables to foster a sense of community and conviviality. In a conscious decision to eliminate any trappings of fine dining the service staff now wear jeans and custom t-shirts. The casual brasserie-style ambience is essentially inspired by the izakaya, the informal Japanese beer pubs that Chef Ryan O’Donnell frequented during his travels in Japan. O’Donnell’s collaborative well-thought-out menus feature items that are meant to be shared communally and are perfect for the lively, dynamic atmosphere. The all-day menu is divided into categories: fresh salads, small plates, medium plates, substantials, fried chicken & wings, sides, burgers & bowls, and desserts. The new 40 plus item menu (which includes some interesting sides and condiments) has Asian culinary influences and underpinnings. Some interesting cultural interpretations include Mercer’s tonkatsu pork schnitzel coated in panko breadcrumbs; chicken karrage (Japanese-style fried chicken) with lemon togarashi mayo; and improbably delicious steamed pork buns with spicy aioli, cilantro pickled onions, carrots ribbons and lime. There are also pig tails with chili potato salad, in homage to the Huron-Perth Germanic heritage with buttered biscuits and baked beans. Pastry chef Simon Briggs who is also an instructor alongside O’Donnell at Stratford Chefs School is also part of the high-functioning 18 member kitchen team. Comfortable guest rooms that have had a recent face-lift are located above the restaurant. www.mercerhall.ca
The Mill Stone Restaurant
The Mill Stone Restaurant is a new arrival in Stratford with seasonally-inspired lunch, dinner and late night menus using locally procured ingredients. The menu evokes the gastropub sensibility with rustic items like ham hock terrine house pickle, apple chutney, cheese savoury, house made bread; crispy pork jowl with arugula; salad and hot smoked salmon with horseradish mousse, peppered watercress and, toasted pumpernickel bread. Charbroiled Blanbrook Farms bison sliders with house-cured vanilla bacon, onion marmalade, brioche and triple cooked fries are extremely tasty. They make a superior Caesar salad. Chef Chris Powell received his culinary training in England and worked in the industry in the U.K. and Spain. His culinary repertoire includes pastry work and Modern European cuisine. There is a refined wine list and hand crafted cocktails. 30 Ontario Street. www.themillstone.ca
Monforte on Wellington
Ruth Klahsen’s down-to-earth three year-old osteria featuring a seasonally–inspired menu is larded with charcuterie and cheese boards, salads and many other in-house specialties inspired by a Monforte Dairy cheese. We love the unpretentiousness, the corn dog fritters with beer mustard, baked brin d’amour with honey and crackers; and the rich, buttery water buffalo ice cream. This is the perfect place for a grilled cheese or some comforting mac and cheese. Klahsen’s deep-rooted commitment to things sustainable, local and hand-crafted seems to continue to both fortify and nourish her creative drive and dedicated entrepreneurism. There is a charming intimate courtyard for al fresco dining where we have been feted by Frances, (the gracious manager), on several occasions. We love the friendly in-depth explanations about the provenance of each ingredient. On a recent visit her hospitality extended to trying to procure us some of the recently released Moonshine from Distillery 56. Now that is hospitality. The casual osteria is BYOW with a reasonable $15 corkage fee, or, if you order a glass of VQA wine, they will bring you a full bottle and charge you by the ounce for what you drink. 80 Wellington Street, Stratford
Pazzo Taverna and Pizzeria
This street-level ristorante proffers rustic Italian-inspired cuisine in a contemporary setting overlooking the Avon River. Stratford Chefs School alumnus, Yva Santini is celebrating her ninth season at Pazzo Taverna. Chef has a reputation for crafting authentically appealing cuisine that gratifies and stimulates, and reinterprets the Italian culinary canon with an eye to seasonality and the Perth County terroir. “Hand stretched burrata and house made pastas and gnocchi, make up the heart of this season’s menu.” All the pastas are made in-house by hand using Italian “00” flour. The restaurant showcases the simple, natural flavours of locally-sourced meats and produce in the Italian tradition combined with a diverse list of Canadian and Imported wines by the glass and bottle. The Pizzeria serves the best thin crust pizza in the area. This is where the locals hang out. 70 Ontario Street www.pazzo.ca
Since 1977, The Prune has been a Stratford favourite. The menu is prix fixe, offering 2 courses for $55.00, 3 courses for $69.00, or 4 courses for $79.00. This arrangement is meant to expedite the challenges of pre-theatre dining where theatre-goers arrive and depart simultaneously. Last year we got caught in the crush. The menu is designed for a prix fixe experience but is also available a la carte upon your request. Appetizer dishes might include chicken liver mousse, seabuckthorn and brioche; or asparagus and frisée salad, soft egg, chorizo, "piperade" vinaigrette. Traditional main dishes might include grilled skate wing with sambal, pineapple nage and cucumber; or glazed Muscovy duck, honey, star anise, currants and cinnamon caps. Grilled rib steak (for two), Swiss chard gratin, buttermilk onion rings has a supplement charge of $10 per person. Sides are an additional $8. There is a modest wine list this season. Charming outdoor dining on the patio under the tree. 151 Albert Street www.theprune.com
The Red Rabbit
“A locally sourced restaurant, run by workers, owned by workers, shared by the community,” pretty much sums up the Red Rabbit’s ethos. Chef Sean Collins terms his cooking as “Flavour First, Ingredient Driven.” Chef says, “We cook food we like to eat.” The lunch menu is served Sunday and Monday from 12 to 2:30 and it is also available 5 to 7, and Tuesday to Saturday from 12 to 2:30. At lunch there is superb creamy fried polenta and duck egg with chermoula. A proper breakfast is served with fried eggs, local pork, beans and focaccia. The heat quotient on the spicy hot chicken sandwich with sweet pickle, tzatziki, house-made bun and hand-cut fries keeps us coming back. The falafel plate is four perfectly prepared chickpea fritters served with seasoned tabbouleh and tiny pots of harissa, tahini and garlic aioli. The prix fixe dinner menu offers roasted McIntosh farm whole duck with awesome red curry and sticky rice; hanger steak with pickled “local greens,” asparagus pancake and nitro hollandaise; sustainably-caught roasted lake pickerel and Shepherd’s pie with Churchill farms braised lamb and trappings. The prix fixe menu is available Tuesday through Saturday from 5 pm to 7 pm, offering two courses for $44.00 and three courses for $49.00. Small plates menu available Thursday to Saturday 7 to 9 pm. The Red Rabbit is known for Colonel Collins fried chicken and waffles. Its secret recipe of thirteen herbs and spices, maple syrup and carrot hot sauce, served with house-cut fries has made it a Stratford culinary staple. 64 Wellington Street
Photo by Terry Manzo
Stratford’s newest home for quality live music, dining, and events continue to play host to many touring and local Canadian artists throughout the summer season. The culinary team are passionate about creating and serving food that expresses the depth of Perth County’s food. Last year we began our visits with an exquisite Ontario Gouda Tasting. This year the kitchen is offering an Ontario Cheddar tasting. There is a sublime torchon of foie with apple, puffed grains, pecans and chervil for $20. Trout tartar is served with celeriac variations, shallot, herbs and Yukon Gold chips. Charcuterie boards are underpinned by technique and skill and the salumi has plenty of flavour. Offerings have included speck (smoked pork leg), lonza (cured pork loin), coppa (salt-cured from the neck) and rillettes. On the dinner menu typical offerings might be monkfish in crispy chicken skin with salsify, tomatoes, parmesan, arugula, and capers, or lamb shoulder with fava beans, charred zucchini, patty pan, pearl onion, and radish with lamb jus. There are some interesting late night après-theatre plates. It should be noted that there were 22 VQA’s on the impressive wine list at last glance. Upstairs, The Chapel features a 60-seat gastro lounge and a VIP balcony called Confession. In season Revival House features a smart patio. 70 Brunswick Street, 519-273-3424, www.revival.house
This is high-end contemporary French cuisine, artfully plated, with a world influence. Neil Baxter has been chef de cuisine at Rundles since 1981. Rundles has always been synonymous with classicism and a rarified level of oenophile sophistication.
There is a small and interesting table d’hôte featuring six appetizers, six main courses, and desserts. Appetizers might include smoked trout and pickled asparagus with coddled quail’s eggs, and dill cream; or rabbit and foie gras rillettes garnished with pickled cherries, pistachio yogurt, and violet mustard. Main dishes might include pan fried halibut cheeks, roast curried celery root, fingerling potatoes, capicola, and dashi (Japanese-style, clear sauce); or barbecued pork belly pickled cockles, steamed bok choy and sea asparagus. The table d’hôte menu features a selection from the appetizer section, a main dish, dessert, and coffee or tea for $114.50 per person. Wine, taxes and service are extra. An extensive wine list features vintages that range from small, local, boutique winery selections to those of the exceptional Grand Crus of Bordeaux. The Garden Room, with floor-to-ceiling windows, offers a relaxing ambience and the perfect lounge to enjoy cocktails before or after dinner. Open for the season to September 24, 2016. 9 Cobourg Street, 519-271-6442 www.rundlesrestaurant.com