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.
The farm-to-table inspired blackboard pre-theatre dinner menu is prix fixe, offering three courses for $58.00. Chef Max Holbrook 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 an excellent “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 rooms are chic with comfortable square-backed upholstered chairs and settees and the propriety of white-linen dining. Chef Arron Carley served as sous chef to Jason Bangerter at Luma. (Bangerter is now the executive chef at Langdon Hall.) Carley interned with Chef René Redzepi at Denmark’s Noma, a Michelin two-star restaurant that has been named best restaurant in the world on four occasions. 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 last year.
His aim is to add his voice to the culinary narrative of New Canadian cuisine by integrating only indigenous ingredients into his culinary repertoire. Think wild Haida Gwaii ivory salmon with Wabigoon wild rice, morels, nettle purée, fennel kelp oil and wild ginger broth, or opt for Quebec Cerf du Boileau venison striploin with charred and brined carrots, golden beets, reindeer moss, Saskatoon berries, green alder jus and beet purée. The Bruce has dispensed with the prix fixe menu offered for the last two seasons. At the time of this writing there is a four-course tasting menu for $95.00 and six-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. The top-flight wine list offers many wonderful choices. There is a stunning terrace for al fresco dining. 89 Parkview Drive, 519-508-7100, www.thebruce.ca
A refurbished Keystone Alley has opened under the ownership of home-towner Kim Hurley, and Anthony Jordaan. Native to South Africa, Jordaan is a trained chef with experience in South Africa, Zambia, Vancouver and Nunavut. The menus of executive chef Cortney Zettler and sous chef Tina Logassi (Stratford Chefs School graduates) are driven by local sourcing with an offering of daily blackboard features. There is a dish at dinner called Three Little Pigs that showcases the delicious heritage pork from Church Hill Farms. There is herbed crumbed schnitzel with wilted kale, pork and truffle pasta with sage crema, and sausage braised cabbage. A vegetarian taco at lunch is served open-faced on grilled flatbread 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 locally reared meats procured from McIntosh Farms and Church Hill Farms. We like the grilled “Buffalo” cauliflower with roasted radish, lentils, kale chips, pistachio purée and hot sauce. (That’s Buffalo meaning the sauce, not the city.) There is a small wine offering and a smart patio. 34 Brunswick Street,519-271-5645, 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 beer brands, including award-winners and hard to find one-offs that rotate quickly. Half the bottles are Ontario brews. The refurbished interior projects a casual, more accessible ambience. Food and beverage manager Alex Kastner has added some communal tables to foster the sense of community. In a conscious decision to eliminate any trappings of fine dining the service staff 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 in Japan.
O’Donnell’s well-thought-out all-day menu is divided into categories: fresh salads, small plates, medium plates, substantials, fried chicken & wings, sides, burgers & bowls, and desserts. The 40-plus item menu, with interesting sides and condiments, gives you many reasons to return. The menu has Asian influences. 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. There are pig tails with chili potato salad, in homage to Huron-Perth’s 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 part of the high-functioning 18-member kitchen team. Comfortable guest rooms that have had a recent face-lift are located above the restaurant.
104-108 Ontario Street, 519-271-9202 , www.mercerhall.ca
The Mill Stone Restaurant & Bar
This is a new arrival in Stratford, with seasonally-inspired lunch, dinner and late night menus using many locally procured ingredients. The menu at this high-energy bistro evokes the gastropub sensibility with rustic from-scratch items like ham hock terrine house pickle, apple chutney, cheese savoury and house made bread, crispy pork jowl with arugula salad, and hot smoked salmon with horseradish mousse, peppered watercress and toasted pumpernickel. When is the last time you ate charbroiled Blanbrook Bison Farms bison sliders with house-cured vanilla bacon, onion marmalade, brioche and triple cooked fries? Chef Chris Powell prepares a superior Caesar salad. Chef received his culinary training in England and honed his craft and personal culinary style in the U.K. and Spain. His cooking repertoire includes pastry work and Modern European cuisine. A couple of back tables overlook the Avon River, and there is a small charming street-side patio. 30 Ontario Street,
Monforte on Wellington
Ruth Klahsen’s down-to-earth osteria features a seasonally–inspired menu that includes 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 fêted 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 for us some of the recently released moonshine from Junction 56 Distillery. 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 St.,
Pazzo Taverna and Pizzeria
This street-level ristorante proffers rustic Italian-inspired cuisine, in a contemporary setting overlooking the Avon River. Stratford Chefs School alumna Chef Yva Santini is celebrating her ninth season at Pazzo Taverna. Chef has a reputation for crafting authentically appealing cuisine that gratifies and stimulates, while adding her own interpretation to the Italian culinary canon with an eye to seasonality and the Perth County terroir. Santini uses quality ingredients combined with fresh, simple seasonal ideas that are executed with finesse, classic Italian methods and culinary traditions. Hand stretched burrata and pastas and gnocchi make up the heart of the menu. Pastas are made in-house by hand using Italian “00” flour, and are impeccable in execution. Who can forget Santini’s Red Fife cavatelli? Chef showcases the simple, natural flavours of locally-sourced meats and produce in the Italian tradition. A diverse list of Canadian and imported wines are available 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, 519-273-6666, www.pazzo.ca
Since 1977 The Prune has been a Stratford favourite. Chef Bryan Steele has been both chef de cuisine at The Prune and an educator at the Stratford Chefs School since 1989. Chef acquired a degree in chemistry from Queen’s University before turning his prodigious talents to gastronomy. He spent four years working in restaurants in Italy, Germany and New York before arriving in Stratford.
Steele’s cuisine mirrors an idiosyncratic cooking sensibility that is global and erudite and inspired in part by the bounty of regional artisan producers and growers. The menu is prix fixe, offering two courses for $55.00, three courses for $69.00, or four courses for $79.00. This arrangement is meant to expedite the challenges of pre-theatre dining where theatre-goers arrive and depart simultaneously. The menu is designed for a prix fixe experience but is also available à 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 charming outdoor patio. 151 Albert St, 519-271-5052, 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 pm and is also available from 5 to 7 pm, 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 Church Hill Farm’s braised lamb. 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. It’s a secret recipe of thirteen herbs and spices, maple syrup and carrot hot sauce, and served with house-cut fries, and has become a cultish Stratford staple. 64 Wellington Street, 519-305-6464,
Revival House and The Chapel
Stratford’s newest home for quality live music, dining, and events continues to play host to many touring and local Canadian artists throughout the summer season. Chef Byron Hallett has assembled a kitchen team 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. 9 Cobourg Street, 519-271-6442 www.rundlesrestaurant.com
Bryan Lavery is eatdrink’s Food Editor and Writer at Large.