An Off-Season Look at Stratford
BY BRYAN LAVERY
It may be the end of another Stratford Festival season which brought diners in droves to the city for prix fixe menus, but the city’s restaurant community continues to be open for business and not just for the locals. Stratford has been known for decades for setting the benchmark when it comes to dining, but until just a few years ago it wasn’t feasible for many of the restaurants to operate year-round. But that has changed.
A full calendar of exhibitions and special culinary events, music programming, and lots of restaurants, cafés, food specialty shops, bakeries, farmers’ markets, epicurean treks, galleries, antique shops and a wide-ranging system of parks and recreation along the Avon River means that there is plenty to do in Stratford during the off-season.
Savour Stratford has had successes in steadily increasing the awareness of the many and diverse offerings of Stratford when the theatre-goers are gone. Programs featured under an expanded Savour Stratford brand include Stratford Chefs School dinners, tutored tastings and a series of self-guided culinary trails.
Paying homage to the rise of craft beer and the boom in bacon as a culinary trend, The Bacon and Ale Trail continues to be a great success. After all, Perth County pork is legendary. This is the home of the Ontario Pork Congress. The Stratford Chocolate trail showcases skilled chocolatiers and bakers that work in a city with a storied history in candy making. Boutique chocolate-makers include Chocolate Barr’s, Rheo Thompson and The Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. Another well-liked tour is The Maple Trail, with maple-inspired stops with offerings that range from maple balsamic vinegar, to a maple-smoked bacon BLT, and, at Mercer Hall, a maple Manhattan.
Stratford boasts many independent niche retailers and specialty services situated in its downtown late-Victorian streetscapes, and in the well-preserved commercial districts on Downie, Ontario and Wellington streets. There are a number of great bakeries including the Downie Street Bake House, which bakes artisanal premium breads — high quality, hand-crafted and free of artificial additives and preservatives — and bills itself as, “Really Good Bread from the Wrong Side of the Tracks.”
The quaint tree-lined streets just north of the river are great for walking and sightseeing. Several of the stately heritage homes and princely Victorian, Italianate and Second Empire edifices in Stratford are B&B’s.
Visiting Bradshaws, a premier culinary retailer known for its holiday grandeur, is an annual Stratford shopping tradition. Operated by Jeremy and Carrie Wreford, the downtown retailer recently celebrated its 120th anniversary and remains one of the country's truly inimitable stores.
This year the maturing restaurant community had a gastronomic rebirth and several restaurants were relaunched with plenty of fanfare — continuing to reinforce Stratford's already impressive status as one of Ontario's premier culinary getaways.
One of the standout features of Stratford's culinary scene is its laid back approach that unites restaurants and farms through food. There are so many exceptional restaurants in Stratford that it is impossible to recommend one or two. A short list includes Bijou, Rene’s Bistro, Restaurant at The Bruce, Mercer Hall, Sirkel Foods, Pazzo Taverna & Pizzera, Madelyn’s Diner, Keystone Alley, Down The Street Bar & Restaurant, Foster’s Inn and The Parlour Gastropub. These establishments remain open year-round.
Chef Robert Rose’s Canadian Grub is one of few restaurants in the country serving exclusively Canadian grown and refined products. We also can’t resist Monforte Dairy’s 30 types of artisanal cheese, and visiting Monforte on Wellington, the seasonally-inspired osteria on Market Square, is always a highlight. The restaurant features an ever-changing selection of cheeses, charcuterie, salads, soups, preserves, pickles and other specialties, prepared by Monforte’s culinary team.
Mark and Linda Simone bought Bijou in March, added a new entrance off Wellington Street, a new bar in the front area and extended hours with plans to operate the bistro for 10 months of the year. Chef Max Holbrook added to the daily-inspired chalkboard features a globally-inspired tapas menu of shareable plates featuring Perth County ingredients. The menus of small plates are paired with craft wines and some old world classics.
Among Stratford’s most eagerly awaited openings this year was The Red Rabbit. Jessie Larsen and Chefs Sean Collins and Tim Larsen created the community-shared and worker-owned venture in a former bridal shop on Wellington Street. The instantly successful, down-to-earth, farm-oriented dining experience is built on years of deep symbiotic relationships that remain at the heart of The Red Rabbit experience. There is a dedicated focus on Perth County ingredients from area farmers like Church Hill Farm, Perth County Pork Products, McIntosh Farms, and Soiled Reputation. Regional ingredients abound on The Red Rabbit menus and include addictive house-made salumi (beef heart pastrami) and delicious rillettes of rabbit. Be sure to try the Colonel Collins fried chicken and waffles, which has become a Stratford staple. In search of a watering spot that serves great craft and house-infused cocktails? The Red Rabbit is the ticket. Keep in mind that The Red Rabbit is closed on Tuesday and Wednesday, from now through the winter.
The once celebrated Church Restaurant, where the Stratford Chefs School started in the kitchens back in 1983, was purchased and painstakingly refurbished by Rob and Candice Wigan. The former Baptist church turned dining and music venue is now the stunning Revival House and gastro-lounge Chapel. Chefs Kyle Rose and Byron Hallett met seven years ago in London, Ontario, and have been working together on and off since. “Our friendship started over a love of salty pork products, knives, hard work and the beverages that follow. We’re passionate about using local and sustainable ingredients, showcasing nose-to-tail cuisine and the best of what Ontario and Perth County have to offer,” declares Rose.
On a visit to the Chapel, we began the evening with the Ontario Gouda Tasting. The sampling consisted of four half-ounce portions of Mountainoak and Thunder Oak Gouda (favourites were wild nettle and fenugreek), which the kitchen sources from the charming Milky Whey Fine Cheese Shop on Ontario Street. Chef’s pairing takes cheese tasting to a whole other level. It was comprised of lightly pickled apple balls, a mound of torched maple meringue, a glass of fermented celery water, florets of crunchy charred dehydrated broccoli and a gorgeous chunk of pure comb honey from the "Revival House Hives" (produced in partnership with Huismann Apiaries).
The charcuterie board was underpinned by technique and skill and the salumi had lots of flavour. The offering included speck (smoked pork leg), lonza (cured pork loin), coppa (salt-cured from the neck) and rillettes which in this case were a rich spread of savoury, seasoned, slow-cooked pork. It should be noted that there were a heady 22 VQA’s to choose from on the impressive wine list.
Chef/restaurateurs Aaron and Bronwyn Linley, former owners of Bijou, introduced Linleys Food Shop, located at 51 York Street, in late-July. The chef-driven shop features catering, restaurant-style food to take away and a selection of gourmet fare. Both experience and proclivity led the Linleys —known for their visionary cuisine that espouses global inspiration, modern French technique and the very essence of Ontario — to become formidable culinary retailers.
Bill and Shelley Windsor, who own The Prune, purchased Mercer Hall Inn this summer and placed Chef Ryan O’Donnell at the helm. The restaurant at Mercer Hall continues to offer chef-inspired food and drink featuring heritage pork, line-caught west coast seafood and Ontario-focused wines.
After several delays, Down the Street Bar and Restaurant re-opened to rave reviews in July with Chef Lee Avigdor in the kitchen.
Following on the heels of last fall’s opening of Black Swan Brewing, comes Stratford’s own micro-distillery, Junction 56 Distillery. Owner Michael Heisz began his first batch in April, and is starting with vodkas, vapour-infused gins and moonshine on the shelves at Junction 56. The facility and retail outlet opened to public in mid-September. Tours and tastings at the distillery run every Saturday.
There are plenty of great cafés in Stratford. Anne Campion’s Revel Caffé, behind the red brick City Hall (with its gables, turrets, gargoyles, and finials), is a great place to grab and go or sit and watch the sights through the large glass windows facing onto Market Square.
BRYAN LAVERY is eatdrink’s Food Editor and Food Writer at Large.