After a delicious lunch at Mercer Hall, we made a mid-afternoon reservation for dinner at The Restaurant at The Bruce Hotel. Owner Jennifer Birmingham handles the reservation personally, which allows us the opportunity to inquire about the chandeliers in the dining room that I have been thinking about since my last visit. They dramatically recall Finnish designer Tapio Wirkkala’s art glass crystal sculptures which are reminiscent of melting ice. Birmingham tells me they were purchased at auction from the Four Season’s Hotel in Toronto. She offers that each glass panel, of which there are many, weigh 1 ½ pounds. In fact, she acquired numerous decorative objects and furnishings from the Four Seasons specifically for 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.
The hotel is directed by General Manager Paul Gregory. During his tenure with The Four Seasons Hotel Toronto, it became the first hotel in Canada to win both Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star and AAA Five Diamond rating.
Word has it that Birmingham wooed Stratford culinary luminaries and owners of Bijou, Aaron and Bronwyn Linley, to join her at The Bruce. Aaron is the Executive Chef and Bronwyn is Food and Beverage Manager.
Aaron’s resume comprises sous chef positions at Rundles in Stratford, Scaramouche in Toronto, Maple Bistro in Halifax with Chef Michael Smith, and chef at Le Nouveau Parigo in Toronto. Bronwyn’s pastry chef and sommelier experience includes Stratford’s Pazzo and Down the Street, Pan Chancho bakery in Kingston and pastry chef at Maple Bistro and Biff’s in Toronto.
Returning to Stratford in 2001, the Linley’s opened Bijou. What has made Chef Linley’s cooking unforgettable is the brilliance of his regionally-sourced ingredients paired with multi-cultural elements. For many years, his culinary opus at Bijou was the standard for inspired, locally-procured food in Stratford. Now he has positioned The Restaurant at The Bruce to be a contender in the uppermost tier of Stratford fine dining, along with the venerable veterans Neil Baxter at Rundles and Bryan Steele at The Prune, (which, sadly, is closed for lunch this season). Another popular Stratford stalwart, Mercer Hall, was recently included in the 2014 Vacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada (determined by an esteemed roster of chefs, food industry professionals, connoisseurs, and travel and food writers).
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. This is contemporary elegance and indeed Linley’s menus are loaded with ingredients that term evokes. Chef has dispensed with the main-course concept and offers a small-plates menu at dinner. Lunch is à la carte. There is an expectation of a particular level of care in a restaurant befitting a well-run luxury hotel. Among the hotel’s amenities are a gym and an indoor pool. (Rooms are $500.00 and “petit” suites are $650.00 per night and include a sumptuous prix fixe breakfast. Some have private courtyards.)
Chef Linley describes his cuisine as “nouveau Ontario,” using French technique and ethnic influences “applied to the good things of this province.” The menu is prix fixe, offering two Beginnings and Dessert for $58.00, one Beginning and Middle for $58.00, or a Beginning, Middle and Dessert for $68.00. This arrangement is meant to expedite the challenges of pre-theatre dining where theatre-goers arrive and depart simultaneously and later, there is a respite. There is also a 5 course tasting menu available after 7:30 pm for $80.00 per person, and only available to an entire table. The Lounge offers a separate menu.
On my first visit, the restaurant was full and the service under the direction of the consummate professional Dorey Jackson was nothing short of impeccable. This despite the fact that it was our server Dallas’s first night on the floor (weeks later we were fortunate to have her serve us again at lunch). The busboy was well-versed on the menu and attentive, adding to the professionalism and pleasantness of the experience.
On that visit an amuse that began the prix fixe menu one night was a miniature bahn mi (Vietnamese sub) with duck prosciutto, pickled jicama, jalapeno and carrot, cilantro and ancho-chili aioli. On another occasion the amuse was two thin slices of duck prosciutto with tart local feta, slivers of criss-crossed asparagus and dots of kaffir and Szechuan-peppercorn oils.
The menu starts with Hot and Cold Beginnings and Fish and Shellfish. On two occasions we ordered the chestnut velouté and made do with the most delicious velvety garlic velouté imaginable, garnished with scooped apple balls that looked like parisienne potatoes and a mini bouquet of straw mushrooms. Another time, Tariditos of rainbow trout, the Peruvian cousin of seviche, were a mosaic of flattened, thinly- sliced strips of orange-red flesh with a whisper of yuzu (Japanese citrus), Szechuan peppercorn oil and garnished with crispy rice puffs. Perfectly cooked, deep-flavoured rutabaga ravioli with piping hot mushroom-scented turkey broth consommé may seem unseasonable in May, but was a big hit with my dining companions.
On another evening, my nephew raved about the potato trifecta: potato, potato, potato. The delicious confit of duck-fat roasted fingerling potatoes with bonito flakes he anointed the star of the trio. Vegan-friendly dishes such as “On the Streets of Jerusalem” are a trio of deep-fried balls of seasoned chick peas, smoky eggplant purée and with splashes of harrisa aioli, and a dab of hummus hidden under long thin slices of folded slightly-pickled cucumber with pomegranate seeds and sumac. Originally, listed under the Lacto-Ovo-Vego section of the former dinner menu, it remains in the Hot and Cold Beginnings section of the menu, and also debuts on the lunch menu. A composed salad of lightly cooked asparagus “Caesar” style with crispy-sweet, fatty guanicale, savoury crostini and shaved Toscano is a sure-fire hit of creamy garlic goodness at lunch.
For carnivores, the menu offers a Birds and Beasts selection with a variety of fish, poultry and game options. A pan-fried wild salmon is supremely satisfying when Chef combines it with a saffron pistou broth. Skate is cooked deftly. Another evening’s standouts included skirt steak with cubes of potato millefeuille and rich Perth County pork cheeks braised to perfection with strips of crispy melt-in-your-mouth polenta and braised fennel.
Try the Canadian shellfish: freshly shucked oysters, mussels, escabeche and wild side-striped shrimp with classic condiments are top notch, or the selection of oysters on the half shell, seviche and cold poached shrimp are offered on the more casual menu in The Lounge.
Warm and caramelized chévre cheesecake tart with blood orange sorbet is pleasing as are warm, sugary apple fritters with Moss berry jam and ginger ice cream. Birmingham’s sense of whimsy is evidenced in the dining room when a superior selection of artisanal cheese and accompaniments are wheeled out on a cart designed as an Acme-style mousetrap.
The Restaurant at The Bruce
89 Parkview Dr., Stratford,
Lunch: 11:30 am–1:30 pm
Dinner: 5:00 pm–close
Lunch is served Sunday and Monday in The Lounge. The Lounge is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as late night.
BRYAN LAVERY is eatdrink’s Food Writer at Large.