By Jill Ellis-Worthington
Photos by Ralph Lembcke and Derek Barnes
Without doubt, getting into the restaurant business in a town well-stocked with eateries and during a time of shaky economy takes guts, but it also takes smarts.
That’s the approach Tim and Jessie Larsen are taking as new partners in Mercer Hall. Many Stratford residents and visitors to the village have enjoyed gourmet sandwiches and coffee at Tango over the past ten years, but Dave and Ann Martin knew it was time to change things up.
Partnering with the Larsens, the Martins have tapped into a wealth of youthful energy, managerial expertise, and culinary talent. Wanting to step back from the hospitality industry over the next few years, the Martins will be handing the reins over more and more to the Larsens. “We bring vibrancy and experience to this type of casual fine dining,” says Jessie, “and it was time for a change.”
Dave Martin explains it this way: “It’s a hybrid of a local format and high-end dining that reflects what’s going on behind the scenes. We (he and Anne) are old school and they (the Larsens) are new school.” With 25 years in the hospitality industry, Martin looks forward to having an advisory role as managing partner.
First step was the physical renovation of the space, over a four-month period. Walls came down, a new layout was established, and the décor was completely changed from funky cafe to sophisticated bistro. Gone are the crazy colours, replaced by a muted palette of taupe and cream, balanced by polished woodwork and crystal chandeliers. “We wanted a classic, timeless, European-style ambiance,” explains Jessie.
Tim Larsen earned his chef’s chops by apprenticing to chefs and working his way up the chain at fine dining establishments like The Church. Much of his training was gained at the Charcoal Group restaurants in Kitchener-Waterloo. He has upended the casual fare of Tango and replaced it with classic dishes made with flair and a total focus on local ingredients. For example, the pastrami sandwich is made from locally-grown brisket marinated and smoked in-house. It is incomparable to the normal luncheon fare that shares its name because of its superior flavour and moistness.
Same with the burger. It seems a shame to refer to something so superlative by such a pedestrian title. The field-gate purchased organic beef is hand-ground. The patties are prepared sous-vide for extra tenderness, and finished on the grill. To accompany this delectable patty, they make their own ketchup. Nope, no detail is too small.
An appetizer that my dining partner and I especially enjoyed was the risotto balls. These were new to us and we were instantly in love. A mix of risotto and smoked mozzarella is rolled in panko bread crumbs and fried. Crispy morsels of goodness – every bite a delight.
The charcuterie board receives the same one-step-up treatment, with house-made goodies that boggle the taste buds: fennel pollen salami, duck prosciutto, freshly pickled veggies, and foie gras pâté – all made in-house – were highlights of this scrumptious feast. The selection may vary depending on the availability of fresh ingredients.
Besides offering full lunch and dinner menus, later in the evening they feature a selection of tapas. They call this the Nosh menu and it’s available after 7:30 most nights and all evening on Mondays.
Local, local, local – that word was oft repeated during my conversation with Chef Tim. “Sometimes local farmers will come in with produce that they’ve picked that day, something really special, and we’ll buy it and have daily features with that ingredient. We like being flexible.”
With veggies from Soiled Reputation, pork from the de Martines (of Perth Pork Products) and Churchill Farms, and cheese from Monforte – to name a few among the many local suppliers – the new Mercer Hall turns 100-mile diet into 10-mile diet.
Jessie mentions that the cocktail menu gets the same treatment. The infusions for such specialties as the strawberry rhubarb mojito (deliciously fresh) are made in-house, as are off-beat offerings like bacon rye and cherry bourbon. The cocktail menu will change and diversify as the culinary features do. Jessie has wide experience behind the bar and has undertaken sommelier training as well. She adds that the couple’s travel adventures have widened her array of libations.
The beer and wine lists feature many Ontario offerings, as well as those from other Canadian regions and foreign lands. Jessie plans to maintain a strong local focus on drinks to keep them cohesive with the kitchen.
Open seven days a week, year-round, this eatery has a strong focus on attracting and pleasing local diners. Still, with so much competition for the dining dollar, the Larsens know they have a long road ahead. “It’s not easy, but if you do things with integrity, people will respond well,” says Jessie.
The duo has a full plate running the restaurant, but they are also slowly learning the innkeeping part of the business and plan to take that over eventually, as well. This winter they’ll be offering couples’ getaway packages, so stay tuned to the website.
Mercer Hall Inn
108 Ontario Street Stratford, ON N5A 3H2
Sunday – Tuesday: 11:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Wednesday – Saturday: 11:30a.m. to midnight
JILL ELLIS-WORTHINGTON is a freelance writer and chief communicator for Write.On Communication Services International (www.writedoton.com).