Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Eating Stratford

I spent last weekend in Stratford, Ontario with my best friend P. We try to do this trip once a year – it doesn’t always work out that way; we skipped last year – and when we go, it’s for three reasons: Shakespeare, shopping, and really good food.

Most people know Stratford for the Shakespeare festival that shares its name, and for good reason: the calibre of theatre produced there is world-class. We usually see two plays, because that’s all we have time and money for. This year those plays were Romeo and Juliet (matinee) and Hamlet (evening). Both were excellent, but Ben Carlson as Hamlet totally blew our minds. Not only is he a wonderful actor, but he’s not hard to look at. We also went on the backstage and costume warehouse tours; both were informative, fun and insightful.

In between plays and tours, we ate. The owner of the bed and breakfast we stay at is a fantastic cook, evidenced by her beyond-buttery, flaky scones (that sadly we had to eat in the cab, on the way to the tours, this year) and enormous, yet light-as-air cinnamon rolls. She also does a fruit dish before the baked goods; both days involved homemade vanilla yogurt, once with supreme orange segments and once with mixed fresh berries. It’s a fantastic way to fortify for a long day of walking and watching theatre.

Lunch on Saturday was a quick affair, pre-matinee, at a new place to us: Tango Coffee Bistro. It’s the restaurant of the Mercer Hall Inn, and is a diner-type place with lots of red and yellow: bright and cheerful, but not overly formal, with burgers and dogs, fish and chips on the menu. P did in fact have a burger, which she enjoyed, while I went with the Texas Garden salad: grilled flatiron steak strips, grilled onions and mushrooms, and crumbled stilton over mixed greens. I chose balsamic vinaigrette to top it and was pleased with the choice. The steak was cool, but still pink in the middle and tender; the cheese was perhaps a tiny bit too strong for this application (Cashel or Danish blue might have worked better) but the overall result was quite tasty and filling. It kept us going until supper, which was the important thing.

Dinner was also pre-theatre, though we dawdled a bit too long and ended up having to power-walk to the theatre in sandals (can you say blisters?). Bentley’s on Ontario Street (the main drag) is one of our standbys. We both had something different from the menu this year: P ordered a steak, since the prime rib special was not on that day, while I swapped my usual grilled shrimp and chicken salad for the hoisin-glazed Atlantic salmon over jasmine rice. Both came with frozen steamed veggies, which did not impress either of us, but the rest of the food was lovely. Because Bentley’s doesn’t specialize in fish, I predicted my salmon would be overcooked, but it was done to perfection, still moist and melting inside under a not-too-heavy glaze of sweet-salty hoisin. The portion size was perfect – generous without being huge – and the rice beneath was fluffy, firm, and not at all sticky, with a buttery finish.

P encouraged me to have dessert – she can’t, as she’s allergic to nuts – and I decided to try the sticky toffee pudding, a dish I’ve heard about for years and never sampled. It wasn’t at all what I expected – two thin, triangular slices of spicy, molasses-dark steamed pudding, drizzled with butterscotch sauce and accompanied by a scoop of (lackluster) vanilla ice cream. The cake had a smoky, burnt-sugar flavor that was fantastic, and the texture was spongy and light. I was too full to finish, but it was delish. The ice cream is unacceptable though, in a day and age when even Breyer’s from the grocery store has bits of real vanilla bean in it. Small touches – like the frozen veggies, ugh - are important. Still, it was a yummy and satisfying supper that speeded us on the road to Hamlet *sigh*.

Sunday was a slower day, once the tours were done with. We tried out a new place called Foster’s Inn – the third restaurant in a row to be attached to a small hotel – and were delighted with it. High ceilings, comfortable chairs, red velvet banquettes with throw pillows, Moroccan-style cathedral mirrors and friendly black-clad waitresses make it a welcoming and homey, yet sophisticated room. The menu speaks of upscale comfort food – smoked salmon eggs Benedict; crab cakes with arugula salad – without veering into pretention. P had what she described, repeatedly, as the best steak sandwich ever – given that “Great steaks” is painted on the front windows, it’s a good thing, too. The slices of tender beef and mushrooms came on a fresh, chewy ciabatta bun, with superior fries on the side.

For my part, I couldn’t resist the daily soup, a puree of sweet potato and parsnip, even though it’s definitely a winter soup and it was hotter and muggier than hell outside. The soup was gorgeous to look upon and perfectly balanced between sweet and savoury. Thick, not too creamy, not at all grainy – very tasty, though the “grilled bread” was a bit too charred for my liking. I followed the soup with a Cobb salad of reasonable, not gargantuan proportions, to my relief. A restrained tangle of greens, very lightly dressed, was topped with crumbled blue cheese (yes, again), diced avocado, grape tomatoes, grilled sliced chicken breast, and two slices of the best bacon I’ve ever eaten. All of the ingredients were fresh and the combination was a winner. It was enough food to leave me satisfied but not stuffed, something I appreciate at a fine-dining establishment. We left very, very happy and spent the remainder of our afternoon browsing Stratford’s many stores.

We saved the best for last, of course, returning to the very first place we ever had dinner in Stratford. Pazzo has the distinction of being two restaurants in one. The main floor’s Ristorante (at which we have never eaten) does the traditional primi, secondi, pasta, dessert thing. The lower-level Pizzeria specializes in thin-crust, wood-fired pizzas, and it is there that we keep returning every time we visit Stratford. We had a lovely booth and a friendly and offbeat waiter who promptly delivered our litre of house red wine (a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo which was excellent with pizza but a bit thin and acidic on its own) and a tiny plate of olive oil and balsamic with excellent bread for dipping.

We both ordered the spinach, tomato and asiago salad with a warm pancetta dressing, as usual, and it was very, very good, also as usual: the freshness of the baby spinach leaves cannot be overstated here, and the thin slivers of pancetta were flavourful without being flabby or too crisp. We followed up with build-your-own pizzas, the creation of which takes us a fair amount of time, negotiation and self-denial. (“No, I will not add another ingredient.” “No, I cannot have two kinds of meat.” And so forth.)

I think Paulette went with chicken, feta, grilled red onion and hot peppers – it disappeared fairly quickly. Mine was a thing of beauty, and I ate it as slowly as I could manage: whole-wheat crust topped with roasted chicken, strips of sun-dried tomato, kalamata olives and fontina cheese. I based it on a pizza I order at Wooden Heads in Kingston, and it lived up to all my expectations (though I do think adding the grilled onions would have taken it from amazing to sublime, but there’s always next year).

Dessert, as always, was out of the question. A shame, too, because the waited walked past me carrying what looked like an exceedingly tasty slice of chocolate cake – but the pizza and salad were so good, I didn’t care that much. I did have a very, very yummy decaf latte, though.

Thus ended our culinary adventures in Stratford. The way home via Toronto was paved with fast food and snacks on the train, but the memory of a weekend’s worth of great meals carried us through.

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