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Jul 22, 2013 06:45 PM

Stratford Restaurant Commentary (Long)

As a frequent visitor to Stratford, I thought it high time to share my perspective on the restaurants in town. You may go there for the theatre, but there is no reason not to eat very, very well before or after the show.

The Town of Stratford may have one of the highest ratios of quality food to residents anywhere on the planet. Slow food rock stars like Antony John of Soiled Reputations and Ruth Klassen of Monforte, as well as up and comers Max and Vicki Lass of Churchill farms, lead a host of farmers who care about their crops and creatures, right down to caring about which chef’s plates they end up on. In addition, the presence of the Stratford Chef’s School ensures a never ending supply of exceptionally well trained hands to handle those ingredients the way they should be treated. All this means you can eat very, very well – on any budget. Of course, as in any tourist town, there is also a lot of crap. Differentiating between the two is not hard. Here is my take on the best of the best:

High End: The two top options in town are The Prune (151 Albert Street) and Rundles (9 Cobourg Street). Both Chefs, Brian Steele of the Prune and Neil Baxter of Rundles have been long time faculty at the Chef School enabling them to hand pick the most talented students to work in their kitchens. If you are looking for two high end meals in town, do try both. But if time and/or budget, is going to limit you to just one expensive meal, there is no choice other than Rundles. Chef Baxter’s cuisine is that rare kind of gastronomic experience that is actually worth travelling for, in and of itself. Force me into a choice of a front row centre stage seat at the Festival Theatre or a table at Rundles, and the restaurant will win out every time.

Chef Baxter has an absolutely uncanny ability to achieve a clarity and balance of flavours, textures and appearances that is the hallmark of truly great chefs. B.C. Side-stripe shrimp, smoked butter, marinated Provençal vegetables, and escabeche vinaigrette as well charcoal grilled veal cutlet, roasted turnip purée, smashed Jerusalem artichokes, and wilted spinach were but two standouts on a recent visit. Transport this restaurant and culinary team to Europe, and then free them from the constraints of getting the entire room fed in time to get to theatre seats on time, and you would have a Michelin 2 star restaurant that people would travel to eat at. ( Dinner $93.50 plus wine, Lunch $47.50)

Mid-Tier: I hate to double list a restaurant so early in a set of recommendations, but arguably the single best culinary value in Stratford is the Sophisto-Bistro at Rundles. What began as a necessary concession to the evaporation of American tourist dollars over the past decade has become a show case to make Chef Baxter’s cuisine accessible to those on a more limited budget. If you are not going to spring for the full Rundles experience, you’d be making a sad mistake if you don’t book into the Bistro. (Three course diner $62.50 plus wine from a carefully chosen list of reasonably priced Ontario wines)

Two relatively new entrants on the scene, Mercer Hall and Pazzo's Taverna have eclipsed the former leading mid-tier options of Down the Street and Bijoux (now closed). At Pazzo’s Taverna (70 Ontario Street), Chef School alumnus Yva Santini serves up authentic Italian fare that would be right at home in the old country, complete with crostini and a mozza bar. If it is an after theatre bite you are after, this is your place. (Dinner: Apps $9-$15, Mains $16-$34)

Just up Ontario Street at Mercer Hall (108 Ontario Street), another Chef School grad, Tim Larsen serves up a carnivore’s delight of locally sourced protein with a wonderful combination of tradition and modern technique. Ground and impeccably seasoned beef short rib patties are sous vided at 58 degrees, then frozen and deep fried to serve up one of the better burgers this planet earth has known. An assortment of cured meats, house smoked bacon and fantastic homemade pickles (including potatoes!) are but a few of the other hyper local ingredients that appear on the plates here. And if you jump straight into a meal without first sampling one of their cocktails made from a variety of home infused spirits, you are simply making a big mistake.

Cheap and Cheerful: Ruth Klassen, Ontario’s cheese maker extraordinaire, could not work harder to keep her new Osteria “off grid” for tourists, so that locals always have an affordable place to get a table for locally sourced and foraged ingredients. This restaurant is hidden away at 80 Wellington Street, under an artfully whitewashed Monforte sign that prevents all but the most penetrating gaze from divining the actual name. It is a delightful space furnished with entirely reclaimed materials, and includes the best secret patio in the town. Chef Phil Phillips prepares an ever changing, limited menu where the hits seriously outnumber the misses. Complemented by very reasonably priced wines, micro brews and ciders, this is a meal that will be as satisfying to your palate as your pocket book. And under no circumstances should you leave without buying some Toscano or Black Sheep from the cheese display at the door. (Apps $6-$10, Mains $12-$16)

For lunch one day, you owe it to yourself to stop by Rob Bob’s hotdog cart, conveniently located in the heart of the town, just outside Pazzo’s (66 Ontario Street – or what would be 66 Ontario Street if there was a building there instead of a fountain and parkette). There are two different guys manning this cart, but if you happen by on a day that Derek Barnes is there, you are in for a treat. What Dogmaster Barnes lacks in formal culinary education (he is one of the very few non Chef School grads on this list) he more than makes up for in enthusiasm, research and hard work. Let Derek dress your dog for you and your sausage will be graced by a variety of classic and unique homemade condiments, applied in the perfect order, with a running commentary on hot dog tradition. Have your dog “dragged through the garden” in traditional Chicago style, or have Derek add some of his fantastic homemade kimchi. The choice is yours, or Derek’s, if you want. The dogs and sausages are made to order for Rob Bob, and served on the freshest buns you may ever eat, sourced daily from the Butcher and Baker a mere hundred yards or so away from the cart. They may not serve hotdogs in heaven, but if they did, these would be the ones.

Revel Café (37 Market Place) – Here, you can begin your day complementing a decadent pastry and with a fantastic sustainably grown and ethically sourced coffee, while rubbing elbows with actors gearing up for the day’s performance at one of the theatres. The tourists may get drawn in to the more visibly located Balzacs on Ontario Street, but the locals know that Anne Campion serves the best coffees, lattes and treats that can be found in town in a wonderful space on . The pastries are made on the premises and are well worth the calories. On a hot sunny day, make sure to have one of their refreshing iced coffees, made in one of the most interesting pieces of coffee apparatus you will come across and served with a surprising and fitting ice cube.

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  1. Nice detailed review of many of the better options in Stratford, WillinTO.

    Here are some other recent threads about dining in Stratford:

    Stratford Festival 2013

    Please help with our Stratford visit

    Stratford report, July 11, 2013

    I agree that Neil Baxter is a very talented chef. I recommend his spring cooking classes which take place in Stratford each year on weekends in March and April.

    Two places in Stratford I haven't tried as of yet are Rene's Bistro and Monforte on Wellington (I realize you mentioned Monforte on Wellington above). They're next on my list.

    2 Replies
    1. re: prima

      I must disagree as to the relative merits of the coffee at Revel v. Balzacs, at least re: the espresso. I find the espresso at Balzacs consistently superior to the more bitter version provided by Revel.

      1. re: alvino

        I like the coffee at Balzac's.

        I haven't ordered coffee at Revel. I like the lemonade at Revel.

    2. We went to Rundles a few years ago. At the time the menu was $75 a head. My memory was that the food was just ok. What I do remember clearly was that it was a huge rip off. The $75 a head, much like the current price, covered three courses. There was an amuse bouche which came in a plastic shot glass. My app was three slices of tuna, each the size of a loonie, with bean sprouts and nothing else. My main was a beef tenderloin which I remember being fine, but none of the ingredients justified the price paid.
      Maybe it has evolved greatly over the years but at least on my experience this restaurant wouldn't even get one star, let alone two. I guess my question is what justifies those prices for three courses. It wasn't like they used truffles, caviar, or even baby carrots. It was all run of the mill ingredients, with one amuse, which I think was a chilled soup, and no mignardise.
      I couldn't help but feel that since they run a short season as a restaurant, they felt the need to charge more. I would have thought the cooking school gig would somehow help make ends meet.

      2 Replies
      1. re: dubchild

        On my visits to Rundles Restaurant (the formal dining room), in 2011 and 2012, I've always had at least an amuse bouche, 3 courses and mignardises, and I've sometimes have had an extra course compliments of the Chef. I found the portions at the Sophisto Bistro were larger in 2011 and 2012 than they had been in 2010. As of yet, I haven't dined at Rundles or the Sophisto Bistro this season.

        I find my dollar doesn't go as far in tourist towns like Stratford or NOTL, which I just accept as part and parcel of dining in a town with a summer theatre festival and seasonal restaurants.

        In terms of best value in Stratford this season, Pazzo Taverna gets my vote.

        1. re: prima

          Shared the charcuterie plate, cheese plate and grilled cheese with a friend at Monforte on Wellington today. Will definitely return in the near future. Neat space, friendly service.

      2. When you say "Bijoux (now closed)" you mean Bijou Restaurant, right? When did they close? I have a reservation for the end of August.

        3 Replies
        1. re: caviartothegeneral

          Yes, I meant Bijou - I think I misspell that restaurant's name over 50% of the time. And clearly I was wrong about it being now closed. Sorry for any panic I introduced. I guess what I should have said was "now under new management" . Aaron and Bronwyn Linley, the couple behind Bijou since it opened, moved over to a new Boutique Hotel opening next Spring, to be known as The Bruce. While the hotel is a long way from opening, the restaurant is currently recruiting staff and should open soon. I had heard that the Linleys had put Bijou up for sale and would not be operating it this year as they prepared to get things going at The Bruce. I'd simply assumed the restaurant was closed. Your reservation suggests the opposite, and if Aaron and Bronwyn are doing double duty at Bijou and The Bruce, it is likely still worth a trip to Bijou, which was always a great choice in the mid tier, although still a second choice in my book to the Sophistro-Bistro. I'll check with some friends in Stratford and see if Aaron is still behind the stove at Bijou. If so, it is a good choice. If not, it would be anyone's guess as to what the food would be like. I'll report back once I hear.

          1. re: WillinTO

            A bit more info on Bijou. While Aaron and Bronwyn are gone, Aaron's sous chef, Steve Doyle, is managing the kitchen, so the food is likely still fairly similar to what it used to be.

            1. re: WillinTO

              We had dinner at Bijou two weeks ago and found their dining fare to be up to their usual standards. Still one of my faves in Stratford.

              I endorse your recommendation of the Prune as a high end restaurant but most vociferously disagree with Rundles. I find the food here mediocre and not at all worth the exhorbitant prices they charge. Wait staff were unfriendly and not attentive. This is one place I will not visit again.

              Big thumbs up to Pazzo and Mercer Hall.

          2. Has anyone dined at Raja recently? Which dishes would you recommend?

            1 Reply
            1. re: prima

              Tried Raja tonight, which was pretty good. Popular place post-matinee. We ordered the mulligatawny (I didn't try it), appetizer platter for 2 (sheekh kabob, chicken tikka, bhaji, pakora, samosa), bharta, Bengali duck, fish (salmon) masala, mutter paneer (but received paneer makhni), rice and naan. I didn't figure out it was the wrong paneer dish until midway through eating the paneer (although I had noticed the lack of peas in the dish when we received the dish, which makes sense in retrospect), and I didn't bother mentioning the mix-up since we had eaten most of the dish, and it wasn't much of an issue for us. I found the Bengali duck (a dish with which I'm not familiar with) and paneer makhni (same sauce as butter chicken, so I'd guess Raja's butter chicken is likely a sweet, very red, very tomatoey version, as well) too sweet for me, and found the masala fish ho-hum.

              I would reorder the appetizer platter, bharta and naan on another visit. Prices are higher than similar Indian food would cost in TO (roughly Babur level, but about 25 percent higher prices- most meat mains at Raja were $15-$20, veg mains $9), but it's still a good value for touristy Stratford, and the same price similar Indian food costs in London, ON.

              I noticed they had a kids' menu, too. They also do take-out.

            2. Bijou is still going strong; we had a lovely dinner there on July 12.

              Last year we discovered Mercer Hall and had dinner at the bar -- loved it so much we went back for lunch the next day (and repeated the order of scallops). Very unfortunately, standards have fallen dramatically. We had lunch there on July 13 2013, and it was very disappointing. They have down-scaled the menu (without down-scaling the prices), apparently aiming for a young and unsophisticated crowd. I had the "Merc-muffin", their take on McDonald's. Came with a large pile of nice hot fries that were completely limp and gushed grease under mild pressure from the fork. The egg was fried and not very gently; poached would have been a great deal nicer. The waiter expressed no curiosity as to why the entire pile of fries was untouched when he cleared the plates. We were planning to take my sister & bro'-in-law there next week, but after that lunch, we cancelled and will try the Parlour.

              Montforte is a great new addition, and the patio is indeed a gem. We ate snacks there a couple of times in July and enjoyed both experiences. We've been "investors" in Ruth's cheese operation for a couple of years (pay up front to raise the capital she needed, get a bunch of coupons to redeem on cheese at the markets in Toronto), so we know the cheeses well. Salads were fresh and lightly dressed, charcuterie + cheese platter at $18 is good value. A nice touch is the wine pricing -- you pay only for what you drink. (You start with a full bottle, drink what you want, and they measure the remainder against a pre-marked empty bottle at the cash register.) Wait staff was very friendly, attentive, and helpful.

              Revel is doing well in their new location, much bigger and more comfortable than the previous space. Try to get there early and snag a seat on the very comfortable deck out back.

              You didn't mention Foster's, (111 Downie St ) but it is also a good cheap/cheerful spot for dependable pub grub, with limited but coveted sidewalk seating.

              10 Replies
              1. re: StuartR

                Agree, Mercer changed their approach and menu this year. I liked the food a little more last year, but I do like their current Wedge salad.

                I've usually preferred the pub grub/comfort food at Down The Street over the food at Foster's and The Parlour. I like Down The Street's burger. I've only been to Foster's once, so maybe I could've ordered better. Which dishes do you recommend most at Foster's? Hope you enjoy your meal at The Parlour.

                1. re: prima


                  I was just in Stratford on Sunday (picnic with sandwiches from the York St. kitchen on Erie - yum) but I have a friend who ate at Foster's last weekend. He had a Salmon entree in a coconut broth and thought it was great! That being said, I checked the menu online and mains seemed to be in the $20-$25 range, not particularily expensive, but not exactly "cheap and cheerful"...

                  Or is a $25.00 entree considered cheap these days in Stratford?

                  1. re: kwfoodiewannabe

                    I haven't eaten at Foster's this year, but in the past have probably ordered from their "lounge" or lunch menus, which have choices much less $$ than their dinner menu. (e.g., pizza, pasta, mussels, all under $15). I may be a bit price-desensitized, as I'm used to Toronto restos' pricing.

                    Down the Street is pleasant, though we've only tried it once for a meal, I think (after-theatre drinks otherwise). We were going to go there for the planned lunch next week, but they don't do lunch on most weekdays :-(

                    1. re: kwfoodiewannabe

                      Reasonable might be a better word than cheap. I guess for cheaper food in Stratford, there are some faster food options and chains, if you're willing to travel further along Ontario or Erie Streets, there's the take-out/picnic options, and there are a couple Chinese and Thai restaurants. There's also Features and a diner on Erie St. I usually follow up a matinee with a nice, relatively upscale dinner, so I've usually gone to restaurants with the $25+ mains. I haven't tried any of the diners,chains, Chinese or Thai restaurants in Stratford.

                      I would consider $20-$30 dinner mains reasonable in Stratford. To put it into context, an upscale casual dinner at Pazzo Taverna, Bijou or Sophisto Bistro runs around $60 for 2 or 3 courses, and an upscale formal dinner at Rundles, The Church or The Prune will cost $100+. Fosters, The Parlour, Resto at Mercer Hall, Pazzo Pizzeria, Monforte on Wellington and Down The Street are at the more economical end of the independently-owned full service restos in Stratford.

                      Raja worked out to $40 each, including tax, before tip. My last dinner at Pazzo Taverna was $50, including tax, before tip.

                      1. re: prima

                        Agreed, Prima re: reasonable, especially for a "tourist town" like Stratford. My trips tend to be very spur of the moment and not necessarily for the theatre. I just like the vibe and it's a really short drive for me - 20-25 min (I think it took me that long to get from Thornhill to Avenue and 401 in T.O. this weekend) Enjoy just sitting by the water and browsing the shops... looking forward to trying the pizza at Pazzo next visit.

                        Curious, if you (or anyone else) has tried the Mozza Bar at Pazzo Taverna?

                        1. re: kwfoodiewannabe

                          It's more of a section on the menu, than an actual bar. I tried the bufala mozzarella with fig, and my friend tried the burrata. I found the one I ordered to be ok. I didn't try the burrata.

                          If you're in the mood for cheese, I'd recommend Monforte on Wellington over the Taverna.

                          I like the salads, garganelli, ribeye and lemon Vesuvio dessert at Pazzo Taverna, bur found their chicken cacciatore and lobster cannelloni mediocre.

                          1. re: prima

                            cool, thanks. Is the pizza at Pazzo worthwhile?

                            1. re: kwfoodiewannabe

                              Haven't tried the pizzeria on the lower level of Pazzo yet, so I haven't tried it. The foccaccia in the Taverna is great, so I'd think that's a good sign.. The pizzeria and the Prune are the next on my list. :)

                        2. re: prima

                          I notice that yours is the only reference to The Church in this thread, and I'm wondering if it has changed over the years?

                          Our only experience was many years ago, and we were impressed only by the sheer gall to charge a 600% markup on a wine that we routinely bought at the LCBO for about $9. Service was prententious and food unmemorable.

                          We've never gone back, but might give it another try on someone else's recommendation if it has improved.

                          1. re: StuartR

                            I haven't dined at The Church in a very long time. I have no idea what the food has been like this season.