Another renaissance of sorts is now afoot just off the town square, in the premises formerly occupied by the Evergreen Terrace on Wellington Street in Stratford. Monforte on Wellington is a casual seasonally-inspired osteria featuring an ever-changing selection of artisanal cheeses, charcuterie, pastas, salads, soups, preserves, pickles and other signature specialties, prepared by chef Phil Philips and Monforte’s culinary team.
Chef Philips worked in the kitchen at Bijou and has trained under Jamie Kennedy. The kitchen pushes the farm-to-fork boundaries further than anything we have experienced in Stratford, developing a synergy between the local terroir and the diner, inspired no doubt by the resolute 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.
Osteria is the Italian term for the most casual and down-to-earth of restaurant classifications. Traditionally an osteria provided lodging and served simple and inexpensive food and wine. In Italy, I first became enamored with this style of restaurant travelling through the regions of Emilia Romagna, Molise, Umbria and Abruzzi. The osterias I gravitated towards in Italy were mainly located in the countryside and were informal gathering places, often with certain common traits: short menus, local and seasonal house-made specialties, and sometimes but not always, meals served at communal tables.
Crafted by architectural students from the University of Toronto, the furniture at Monforte on Wellington is made from reclaimed wood and donated pallets, contributing to a hand-crafted décor of mostly recycled and repurposed materials. The brightly coloured upholstered benches add a touch of pizazz and accentuate the whitewashed walls. The ceilings are high with interesting spider-like fixtures with bare bulbs and a large picture window faces the street. The kitchen is open to the dining room and there is a passageway beside the kitchen leading to a 35-seat courtyard with umbrellaed tables for al fresco dining.
The 35-seat main dining room has a sophisticated straightforward charm with a “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden” vibe. There are two or three main chalkboard features each day, prepared from what is seasonal, local, foraged and fermented. Many of the products are made in-house or sourced from community farms and artisans. On one visit we sat on the terrace and the kitchen staff delivered a pair of cheese and charcuterie boards. They provided us with a friendly in-depth tutorial about the provenance of each ingredient.
The rich and flavourful charcuterie included a mound of perfect fatty cubed pancetta, a succulent slab of savoury headcheese (which brought back memories of my grandmother’s kitchen), and farmer David E. M. Martin’s pancetta served with house-made crackers and tiny pots of honey, mustard and red pepper jelly. A selection of luscious, earthy and creamy cheese on offer included Piacere – Monforte’s own take on the classic French cheese Fleur du Maquis and a creamy Black Sheep rolled in vegetable ash. True Blue, made with Sunnivue Farm’s water buffalo milk, was firm, salty and herbaceous. Klahsen’s philosophy is to “use only seasonal milk from humanely treated animals” for her cheese. The cheese selection varies depending on availability.
I ordered a grilled cheese sandwich with both fresh cheese curd and Paridiso. A variation on the classic Italian Taleggio, this semi-soft, washed rind cheese has a piquant bite. Wild leeks, sometimes called ramps, made a delicious and pungent pesto that was the perfect accompaniment to the sandwich. Dandelion greens with rhubarb vinaigrette, Soiled Reputation organic greens with wild leek vinaigrette and a silky asparagus soup have also vied for my attention.
We loved the rich, buttery water buffalo ice cream that can be ordered with either a demi-tasse of chocolate sauce or espresso and is served in artfully mismatched bowls with melt-in-your-mouth chocolate chip cookies.
The restaurant is BYOW with a corkage fee of $15.00. If you order a glass of VQA wine they might bring you a full bottle and charge you for what you drink. The wine selection is limited and there is a good selection of craft beers. They retain a strong local focus on drinks to keep them consistent with the kitchen’s offerings. We loved the “Fizzy Water” which was 50 cents a glass.
There is an area at the front entrance that retails Monforte cheeses, Bauman honey, preserves and other interesting jarred goods-to-go. “This kind of brings things full circle for us,” says Klahsen referring to the restaurant. “For example, when we make cheese we have leftover whey, which we feed to pigs, which can become charcuterie. And the same farmer who raises the pigs grows wheat, which we can make into crackers.”
The osteria opened in Stratford at the beginning of April. Early in June, Monforte opened its first stand-alone store in Toronto, in Liberty Village. If you like ethical farm-to-table dining that won’t break the bank, Monforte on Wellington, although in its fledgling days, is well positioned to be a hands-down frontrunner in Stratford’s culinary scene.
Monforte on Wellington
80 Wellington Street, Stratford
HOURS OF OPERATION
Kitchen is open for Lunch and Dinner seven days a week 9:00 A.M. To 9:00 P.M.
Stop by for drinks, a cheese plate and live music until 11:00 P.M. on Friday and Saturday nights.
BRYAN LAVERY is eatdrink’s Food Writer at Large.