Friday, October 4, 2013

Stratford: The Keystone Alley Café & Mary Stuart

A favourite time of the year for many is the Stratford Festival season, which attracts more than a half a million tourists to this vibrant culinary and theatre destination, which puts this city of 32,000 in an enviable and unique position, drawing loyal theatregoers and culinary enthusiasts back to the region year round for its unique arts culture, character and cuisine. For three decades The Keystone, as locals fondly refer to it, has been one of Stratford’s more popular restaurants. A café by day and fine dining experience by night, The Keystone is casual yet sophisticated, offering cuisine from around the world with dishes prepared with only the freshest seasonal produce and top quality ingredients.

Chef Sheldon Russell (L) in the kitchen with Arif (C) and one of the next generation 
of young chefs, apprentice Elijah (R)

Under the watchful eye of Executive Chef and Co-Owner Sheldon Russell, the 30-year old restaurant has become a favourite with visitors and locals alike, since it opened its doors in 1983. Classically trained in England, first at cooking school, then as an apprentice in London, Russell took the opportunity to move to Canada 1975 to work in the kitchens of The Church Restaurant in Stratford. He then moved to Orangeville in 1982 to become Head Chef of the then new, Greystones Restaurant, before returning to 'The Church' in 1988 as co-owner and Chef-de-Cuisine. The Keystone began as the Nut Club, a popular eating establishment owned by Kay Waterman, and was purchased by Russell and a partner in 1983. The Keystone Alley Café was named after the well-known Keystone Bakery located on the premises in an earlier time. Over the next 25 years, Sheldon and his wife, Patty Hawkins-Russell evolved the coffee shop into the popular casual fine dining restaurant that we enjoy today. 

Keystone Alley lunch menu

Located a short distance from the Tom Patterson Theatre where the cast of 'Mary Stuart' has been performing over the summer, The Keystone was our lunch destination before heading off enjoy a midweek matinée of the season's big hit. Warm and inviting with an open-concept kitchen, the restaurant features an à la carte menu with familiar classics and signature dishes such as English Style Haddock and Chips with tartar sauce, Shepherd’s Pie and Thai Red Curry Prawns with sweet red peppers, bok choy and jasmine rice. We started with around of Bloody Mary's, which we thought was very appropriate given that we were going to see 'Mary Stuart' — who was beheaded! 

A Bloody Mary, and very appropriate since we were in Stratford for the day 
to see 'Mary Stuart', who was beheaded!

The extraordinary cast of Mary Stuart playing at Stratford this season: 
from left Geraint Wyn Davies, Lucy Peacock, Brian Dennehy, Seana McKenna and Ben Carlson

We followed with the featured soup of the day, a delicious Curried Butternut Squash Soup, a silky smooth Duck Liver Parfait with peach chutney and bagel toasts and classic Caesar Salad with bacon lardons, Parmesan cheese and toasted croutons. For entrées, the Salmon, Broccoli and Dill Quiche with mixed greens sounded too good to pass up. The rich baked custard was perfectly cooked encased in a crisp and delicate shortcrust pastry. Quite possibly the best quiche I've ever had, aside from Jean White's famous quiche! The Asian Salad with Cabbage, Noodles and Grilled Chicken was also very good, with a subtle asian inspired dressing. The desserts, which are all homemade, sounded tempting with classic pud such as Sticky Toffee Pudding with caramel sauce and brown sugar ice cream, Flourless Chocolate & Raspberry Mousse Cake with burnt orange ice cream and Pavlova with fresh fruit salad, almonds and crème Chantilly finished with a mango and raspberry coulis.

Duck liver parfait with peach chutney and bagel toasts

Curried Butternut Squash Soup

Salmon, Broccoli and Dill Quiche with Mixed Greens in a Balsamic Vinaigrette

Asian Salad with Cabbage, Noodles and Grilled Chicken

English style haddock and chips with tartar sauce and lemon wedge

Caesar Salad with bacon lardons, Parmesan cheese and toasted croutons

Known around town as a culinary gem run, Chef Russell attributes the success of The Keystone to his humble upbringing, hard work, understanding of fine cuisine and the tradition of passing on that knowledge to the next generation of young chefs. Stratford has an unusually high number of culinary assets, aside from The Keystone, and among them the esteemed Stratford Chefs School, where students work with visiting culinary luminaries and chefs from across Canada and around the world. Culinary pros and alumni have stayed on in Stratford, adding innovation and prestige to the local culinary scene, making the town one of the most delicious weekend getaways.

Niagara Flavours celebrates the cuisine and the countryside of Niagara and southwestern Ontario, 
and features the following recipe by Keystone's Chef Russell

Apple Raisin Cake with Homemade Maple Walnut Ice Cream
Serves 10-12
Recipe courtesy Chef Sheldon Russell, Keystone Alley Café, Stratford

1 cup pecan halves
3/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup bourbon
1 cup sifted cake/pastry flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/8 tsp mace
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs
6 large unpeeled Granny Smith apples, cored and cut into 1/4-inch cubes

Toast pecans and chop coarsely. In a bowl, combine pecans, raisins and bourbon; cover and marinate for at least 2 hours. Sift together the cake/pastry flour, all-purpose flour and baking soda. Stir in the salt, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and mace. In a separate bowl, beat sugar with the oil until well blended. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then fold in the dry ingredients. Add the pecan mixture and mix until combined. Stir in the diced apples and pour into a greased 10-inch round cake pan. Bake at 325°F for 1 1/2 hours or until a tester inserted into the centre comes out clean and dry. Let cool and serve with maple walnut ice cream.

Maple Walnut Ice Cream
Serves 10-12
Recipe courtesy Chef Sheldon Russell, Keystone Alley Café, Stratford

7 medium egg yolks
1 cup dark maple syrup
2 cups 35% cream, lightly whipped
1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Beat egg yolks lightly. In a saucepan, bring the maple syrup to a boil. While continuing to beat the syrup, pour over the egg yolks. Beat for 15-20 minutes or until cooled. Fold in the cream. Freeze in an ice cream machine according to manufacturers directions, adding the walnuts when nearly set. Transfer to the freezer until frozen.