Chef Bryan Steele has trained and mentored hundreds of professional chefs. In his capacity as senior cookery instructor at the Stratford Chefs School, the originality and diversity of culinary undertakings that span his three-decade oeuvre have helped lay the underpinning for the culinary revolution that we see both locally and nationally.
In what began in 1977 as a “self-directed sabbatical from work,” Eleanor Kane and Marion Isherwood opened The Old Prune (then a tea room) in Stratford, which led to successful careers as restaurateurs. With James Morris of Rundles Restaurant, which opened the same year, Kane later co-founded the Stratford Chefs School.
The Old Prune, under the direction of Isherwood and Kane, cemented its reputation with Sue Anderson in the kitchen. In 1988, The New York Times stated, “The Old Prune serves lunch, dinner and after-theater suppers in three Edwardian dining rooms and on a patio. The creamy pastas and deft salad plates are recommended here, as well as the loin of lamb with twice-cooked pepper and sauté of spinach with sage cream sauce. Desserts include prune and Armagnac ice cream and a very rich chocolate terrine. The fixed price for a three-course dinner is $25.
Chef Steele took The Old Prune to another level. I first became aware of Steele when he was sous-chef at Stadtländer’s in Toronto in the mid-’80s. Steele has been chef de cuisine at The Prune and an educator at the Stratford Chefs School since 1989. He had acquired a degree in chemistry from Queen’s University before turning to gastronomy. The Old Prune became The Prune after it changed hands in 2011 when Bill and Shelley Windsor, who owned and operated The Parlour Inn, took possession.
Steele and sous chef Michael Fry continue to elevate the dining experience at The Prune with a sophisticated and approachable menu that is handsomely prepared and well executed. Ryan O’Donnell’s role as executive chef of the Windsor Hospitality Company (which operates The Prune, Mercer Kitchen/Hotel, and Levetto Baden) is to support his colleagues and assist in integrating Bar One Fifty One, the new adjoining bar to The Prune’s kitchen, says O’Donnell. “This integration is a team effort using the many talents of our chefs both at The Prune and Mercer Kitchen. From a culinary perspective we are excited about the synergies we can create between the three restaurants and how they will help us create better and better food across the board.”
Designer Emily Wunder, an integral part of Mercer Kitchen’s rebrand last year, collaborated with the Windsor’s on Bar One Fifty One to curate an atmosphere that feels exclusive without pretention. The goal is to echo the natural elements found in The Prune’s gardens and trees. This is achieved with the extensive use of wooden surfaces and naturalistic patterns, accented with energizing golden tones and lighting. The bar’s relaxed and elegant vibe is the perfect backdrop to the signature cocktails, varied wine list, and tailored bar menu.
The Bar One Fifty One menu concept is based on the best qualities exemplified by the many small cafés and bars Chef O’Donnell frequented during a half year in France. Customers can feel welcome for any type of experience be it lunch, dinner or late night snacks and cocktails. A short curated menu offers classic dishes chosen for their comfort factor. The goal is to execute simple and satisfying plates with the care and quality The Prune is known for, at an accessible price point.
The menu in the dining room at The Prune is an ever-changing seasonal prix fixe, offering two courses for $59.00, three courses for $75.00, or four courses for $85.00. This arrangement helps expedite the challenges of pre-theatre dining. The restaurant is formal but only in the sense of being professional. The menu designed for a prix fixe experience is available à la carte upon request. Appetizer dishes might include Chicken Liver Mousse, seabuckthorn and rhubarb chutney, brioche; Hot smoked Boone Run trout, radish and cucumber salad; or Seared squid, seaweed, kale with turmeric-ginger. Mid courses are currently Risotto with cherry tomato, basil, thyme and house-made ricotta, and Tortelli with onion, bacon, fresh peas and herbs. Traditional main dishes could include “Smoked” Muscovy duck breast, white bean, frisée and caramelized cabbage, or Seared Cornish hen, spinach and mushroom salad with herb dumplings. There is a grilled 28 ounce bone-in rib steak for two, with white asparagus and sauce Choron ($10 supplement per person). For an additional charge, sides are offered, as are specialties like the house-made sourdough bread baked fresh daily and served with house made pickles, butter and labneh (a yogurt-style cheese).
Manager Shelley Buss has crafted an excellent cocktail list. For details and the recipe for signature cocktails like the Parasol and the Smoking’ Prune, see this issue’s Spirits column, “What’s Hot! Small Batch Distillers and Craft Cocktails with Cred,” on page 47 or online at eatdrink.ca.
Steele and Buss have paired each dish with a wine. Buss takes pride in offering new and exciting wines for guests to try, that they may have not heard of before. The Prune likes to primarily offer Canadian wines by the glass, with a few additional options from around the world. The bottle list is Buss’s pride and joy. It is extensive and has many selections that can’t be found anywhere else or are rare vintages.
Steele’s cuisine reflects a gastronomic sensibility that is global and finds inspiration in regional producers and seasonal growers. The challenge during the busy theatre season is for service to be unswerving. The restaurant generally operates at a very high skill level and the service is intelligent and responsive. There is also a charming outdoor patio.
With the announcement that Jim Morris is retiring and Rundles will close at the end of this season, The Prune will be among the last of the fine dining stalwarts left in Stratford. The Prune and Bar One Fifty One are always worth a trip for an optimal and vital dining experience, even if you’re not attending the Stratford Festival.
151 Albert Street, Stratford
Dinner: Tuesday to Saturday: 4:30 pm–10 pm
Bar One Fifty One
Lunch: Tuesday to Saturday: 11:30 am–2 pm
Dinner: Tuesday to Wednesday: 4:30 pm–10 pm
Thursday to Saturday: 4:30 pm–12 am