Rene’s Bistro – Stratford. Gimme the Mussels – Rush!

We got trapped – hungry for dinner before the theatre, on a Saturday night – with no reservations in Stratford, Ontario. And I won’t do Chains, or Pizza. So finding a place that I’d enjoy was not going to be easy. We were turned away from 2 other restaurants – sorry – we’re full. Good for them, bad for us. But Rene’s was welcoming – and while our tiny table for 2 wasn’t the best located – right by the server’s stand and against the wall separating the restaurant from the bar – the welcome was genuine. We explained that we were going to the theatre, they basically said – What’s new, and got on with their jobs.

We were handed menus, our order taken, and the kitchen alerted within minutes of our arrival. And the place, like most restaurants in Stratford on a Saturday before the theatre, was packed. But not noisy – a very pleasant surprise.

We ordered mussels in 2 different preparations – one in a cream sauce, one in a white wine sauce, both of which were served very promptly. The bread – a requirement if you are going to mop up the sauces – was wonderful, warm and fresh. Unlike Montreal Mussel restaurants – fries didn’t come standard. So we did without. But the nice sized portion – and the rapid bread basket refill – did the job nicely.

So – table cloths, good food, and no reservations required – Rene’s Bistro was a winner. Next time I’m going to explore the menu more efficiently – they had some other dishes that sounded great. But noticing the number of mussel servings that walked past – I’m thinking that mussels are their go for dish.

A B. Nice service, good food, worth the price asked. And fast – we made the Theatre with time to spare.

Rene's Bistro on Urbanspoon

Rene's Bistro on Foodio54

It’s the Chowder – It’s all about the Chowder….

Perkins Cove in Ogunquit – finding a reasonable and enjoyable bite to eat without standing in line or fighting crowds is almost a super-human task. The main restaurants, conveniently located right on the parking lot (delightful), are lobster dinner emporiums – huge, busy, expensive, and way too much food.

All of which makes ‘Chowders’ a complete delight. Located at the far end of the cove – past the way too adorable drawbridge, fishing boats, and ‘Mainely Maine’ shops Chowders is right on the cove side. The view from the deck – hidden from view by other buildings, and no even really visible from inside the deli – is stunning. Part is underneath a deck, so it’s protected from the sun and the occasional rain. And part is open to the air, the sea, and the view.

The ordering system couldn’t be simpler. There’s a menu – you order and pay at the cash, and when your food is ready, the server finds you. The fare is what one would expect in such a location, fried fish, sandwiches, and of course Chowder. My husband rated the Clam Chowder the equal of the one at the Wells Lobster Pound – a high compliment. His sandwich by American Standards was acceptable – by Quebec or European Standards, the bread was a bit – well – white.

But what I liked best about Chowders was the attitude. Unlike to servers at the larger places, Chowders felt comfortable. I felt extremely welcomed – like they were glad to see me. Which given the location is a nice surprise. Ogunquit in general, and Perkins Cove in particular are traditionally mobbed. And with so many guests – staying polite and friendly is hard. The staff at Chowders – on the day we were there – completely delivered.

A B+ for food, an A for location and view.

Chowders Cafe & Deli on Urbanspoon

Chowders Cafe & Deli on Foodio54

Pazzo Restaurant and Bar in Stratford, Ontario

Pazzo Flashback – Too good to ignore

Sometimes it really is location – location. And Pazzo is perfectly located – right on the walk way between the main theatres in Stratford. It’s insanely hard to avoid getting pulled in. Between the location (perfect) and the adorable cafe tables that liter the sidewalk and the 2 floors of eating establishment – housing a bar, a restaurant and a pizza/restaurant combo – there’s clearly something for everyone.

Our meal was perfectly acceptable – not insanely expensive, well prepared, properly served, and fast. We were naturally rushed (in Stratford – that’s the norm, not the expectation) and as we’ve begun to suspect – restaurants know the pattern and are totally prepared. Our meals were served amazing promptly – including our make to order pizza.

Was it outstanding. Nope. Was it do it again-able. Yes

A B.

Pazzo Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Pazzo Ristorante Bar & Pizzeria on Foodio54

I know – it’s a Chain – but Madison’s is still worth rating!

I hate chain restaurants – it smacks of late nights driving with no other options – and in Montreal the options are so plentiful, it makes one wonder why bother.

But Madison’s New York Grill and Bar – at least the one at the Marche de l’Ouest – is so consistently good, so easy to like, so diet friendly while looking so extravagant – it’s hard to resist saying something.

We lucked out and scored a seat on the Terrace. With a delightful breeze, warm night, and comfy cushions on Rattan Chairs, it was a complete pleasure to just sit and chat. Our group of 3 ladies didn’t do the normal lady thing of ordering light – nope – we mostly went for the signature ribs – which at $19 for 10 oz, served with a side of either a huge portion of mashed potatoes, a giant (where do they get that size) baked potato, or steamed veggies was a gourmand delight.

Lick smacking, finger licking good.

I opted for the lighter meal of Ahi Tuna (served Raw) on a huge salad with a scoop of mango salsa. Not the first time I’ve ordered this dish at Madison’s – and it won’t be the last. So good, so filling, and so perfect for my diet. I have to mention that I’ve watched the portion size vary over the years – the salad getting larger and larger, the portion of tuna getting smaller and smaller. But now they are telling you that you’ll get 8 oz of tuna – so I’m hoping that the portion size variation will stop.

But it was yummy. Made more so by a lovely white wine ordered by my friend, pleasant company, and a full moon.

Our waiter must have decided early on that we wouldn’t be good tippers – he mostly ignored us. We had to ask another waiter to fetch him so we could order, and once we’d ordered – we were generally ignored. The good news – your waiter doesn’t serve you – the runners do. So his preoccupation with other tables didn’t keep us from getting and enjoying our dinner. To just get coffee we had to hunt him down – and he forgot totally to offer us the desert options. His loss on that score – we normally succumb to the temptation – but when it’s not offered – we are stronger.

Bottom line – a B for service, an A for food. It’s not fancy, but as long as you stay away from the specials – which can run $35 and up – it’s quite reasonably priced. And while the 2 for $22 isn’t valid at this location during the summer – in the winter – that’s quite the deal.

I’ll be back.

Madison's Grill & Bar on Urbanspoon

Madison's New York Grill and Bar on Foodio54

Homestyle cooking – Yummy Prime Rib – Delicous Mussels – That’s Mon Village in a nutshell

Way out in Hudson – convenient only for those who live in Hudson, attend the Hudson Theatre, or are seriously into horse-back riding is one of my favorite restaurants. It’s not luxurious, it’s not even particularly quaint. It just happens to be right where it needs to be, offering easy to enjoy food at a decent price.

There are really 3 different dining experiences at Mon Village. First there is the outdoor terrace area which lacks a wonderful view but still can be very enjoyable on a late afternoon. Second – and our most frequently visited section – the bar. It’s not just a bar, it’s also a family friendly dining area with heavy oak chairs and tables and a nice light and bright atmosphere. And then there’s the ‘Dining Room’. Part of the original farmhouse – this section oozes history. Dark wood, fire places, table clothes, rickety stairs to private rooms up stairs – it’s a throw back to a different time and place.

Interesting – all 3 serve exactly the same menu. Management will close and open sections depending on the number of people with reservations – on our last visit, a warm Saturday night in late August, the place was packed. We squeezed into the ‘Dining Room’ – sharing with a large party celebrating the 50th wedding anniversary of a very fit couple! We got to enjoy the toasts – in both languages, even though we were seated in the sun room section – apart, but not distant from the celebration. It is a compliment to Mon Village that unlike the modern ‘Bistro’ tendency to noisy eating, we were still able to have a private conversation.

The food is nothing special. Prime Rib, Mussels, Rack of Lamb, Pub food like Fish and Chips – we’re talking hearty country eating. But it’s all properly cooked and easy to enjoy.

The foodie in you won’t be thrilled – but for a meal that satisfies without serious damage to your budget – Mon Village is a good choice. I must like it – I’ve eaten there over a dozen times.

Mon Village on Urbanspoon

Best Car Rental Experience Ever!

I travel a lot. I know that. So I’m frequently renting cars. And my go to rental place is I type in the location I’m interested in renting the car, and I take the least expensive car available and I’m done.

So that’s why I was heading to National/Alamo in Detroit on Friday around noon. Hotwire had randomly assigned them to me. And all I’d planned to do was to pick up a compact and head up to Bloomfield Hills.

The trip from the airport to the car rental place was pretty average – not short, not long. Just long enough to grab a map from the rack and try to figure out where we’d be heading in just a bit.

We get off the bus – and get greeted with a friendly smiling employee – and asked if we’d like to try to automated kiosk – or go traditional. I opt for traditional and join the short waiting line. That’s when I notice the bags of freshly popped popcorn. Yum. And free water bottles! Little mini ones – but hey – they were in a fridge and nice and cold. My kind of quick pick-me-up after a boring flight. In case we didn’t notice – an employee would occasionally walk by offering water and popcorn to everyone. Nice.

We check in as normal – no, we don’t want an upgrade, no, we don’t want the gas, no we don’t want insurance. We get our forms – and are told to take any car sitting in the compact lane. That’s cool. I prefer darker colored cars – so this way I get to choose.

Walking out – there’s another employee – grilling hotdogs. Looks yummy – but right now we’re focused on getting our car. We walk to the compact lane – no cars! We spot another employee and ask – what do we do. Her reply – you get a free up grade. Take any car you want!

Really? No joke? That’s so cool.

So – hey – I press my luck. You got a hybrid around? We’ve been thinking of getting one, and I’m worried about the silent engine. She looks around, says that there is not one in the lanes – but she thinks there might be one getting a car wash. She’ll check – but meanwhile, we should wait by the grill – maybe grab a hot dog.

We do, she does – and we drive away in a Hybrid Sonata! It’s very cool. No leather seats, but nice pick-up on the highway, completely silent when you turn it on – and of course, hard to be sure you’ve turned it off. The first few times – it kept beeping at us because we’d press the button once too often. But we eventually caught on. And at the end of the weekend of driving all around Bloomfield Hills – I’m guessing about 200 miles in total – our ‘fill-up’ cost us under $10.

Hybrids are cool. The Sonata is a very nice car. And the Alamo in Detroit is a great Car Rental Agency. One note – Hotdogs are only served on Thursday and Fridays! Popcorn and water are always available.

Prime29 – Glorious Restaurant, so-so Food

We’re in Detroit – that should be steak country right? I’m thinking if you want a great US steak – you should be able to get it here. Well – forget about that if you go to Prime 29. So beautiful, so disappointing.

Lets talk about the good stuff first. The restaurant is beautiful. They did a brand-new renovation in a space the size of a small Target (Ok – probably not that big – but you get the idea.). The space is divided up into a series of smaller spaces with huge round tables/banquets nestled into the walls, a huge bar, a huge terrace area with a glassed in gas fire pit and heat lamps, plus standard dining rooms as well. It went on forever.

I just loved the look – dark woods, rich carpet, nicely dressed wait-staff (well – except for hostess in too tight skirt and top – and huge high purple heels – but the guys ate that up), and comfy seats. We opted for the terrace – open air, not a great view – but the weather was so nice it was worth it.

The menu was a bit of a shocker – $41 for a 12 oz rib steak is in the pricy area in my book. But the Filet – 8 oz – was just $34, much more reasonable. And as a teaser – there’s Prime Rib for $29 – but only on Sunday. Since I was eating there on Saturday night – that’s a non-starter.

But I’m flexible, so I order 2 appetizers – a cheese and fruit plate and a tuna tataki, neither of which was cheap – but I had hopes they’d be good. The tuna was a winner. Nice slices of cold tuna, served on a seasoned salad of avocado slices. Yummy. The cheese platter really should have been awesome. There are so many delicious cheeses from micro-producers these days that you can really pick and choose. So Cheddar, Pepper Jack, Cheap Brie and amazingly – Boursin were hardly an impressive selection. Not that they aren’t good cheeses – but for $18 I’d expect at least something like a Jasper Hill, or a local Michigan cheese. Not cheese bought from Price Club. Really. This the best you can do?

But ignore my complaints – my husband’s medium rare filet was medium well, the truffle fries were battered frozen fries (come on people – frozen french fries – at an upscale restaurant?) that weren’t very truffled, and the lobster bisque was declared thin and watery by my friends.

So – it’s a beautiful place to go to be seen, but hardly foodie worthy. Oh well. Next time in Detroit, maybe we will make a better choice.

The Awkwardly Shaped Tom Patterson Theatre – and Mary Stuart

Last but not least – there’s the Tom Patterson Theatre. I describe it as awkward because the theatre is in a curling rink – long and thin, with rows of seats extending all the way from the narrow front of the stage to the far back. It’s a huge space – and the actors are challenged to be heard and to be seen when their backs are to at least 1/2 the audience at all times. By definition the staging is minimalist – but this is Stratford – minimalist doesn’t mean boring or empty.

At the Tom Patterson, lighting takes on a leading role. In the case of Mary Stuart – the only play we saw there this year – lighting produces the mazes that the players walk to show their captivity, their helplessness, their forced upon them artificial lives. Lighting makes the play.

And when the theatre suddenly went dark because of a Stratford wide power failure – the audience and the actors were stunned. The actors quite literally froze in their paces – I’m guessing hoping that the computer controlled lights would remember where they had been moments earlier. No such luck. The lights had to grind thru their positions, and the play had to start over several pages back. Kinda neat – as an audience you rarely see how professionals can with such apparent ease virtually repeat every movement again and again.

For those wondering about the play – the story tells of an imaginary meeting between Queen Elizabeth and her rival for the throne of England, Mary Stuart. But the meeting, despite being the ‘heart’ of the play – is fore-shadowed by the preamble to the meeting – the posturing by both Mary and Elizabeth, the fawning of their staff, the desperate need to be right, to be loved, to be respected. It does make for powerful drama.

I’d give this play/production a medium recommend. Not as much fun as Fiddler, not as uncomfortable for the audience as The Merchant of Venice, not as noisy as Tommy, not as fun as Blythe Spirit and not as dramatic a tour de force as Thrill, but still worth the money.

The Avon – Window Wall Proscenium Theatre, at least one play worth seeing

The Avon Theatre – Just because its Proscenium doesn’t mean its boring

The Avon is a converted theatre – dating back over 100 years – and both it’s age and it’s format are reflected in the type of plays choose to be produced in this hall. There is a decidedly conservation bent to most of the productions – captured as they must be within the window wall space. But that hardly translates into dull or boring. In fact, some of my favorite productions in the past have been produced here.

But not this year. We saw 3 different productions at the Avon. Othello, Tommy, and Blythe Spirit. Of the 3 – there were parts to love, and parts to sleep through. The most sleep worthy was unfortunately Othello. There were moments of superb drama – as one would expect at Stratford, and for some of the audience, the story was a complete surprise. Spoiler alert here – Desdemona dies, but apparently the people in the seat next to me didn’t know it. One urgently whispered to the other – right at the heart of the bedroom scene – Oh my goodness – he’s going to kill her! But the designers attempt to break out of the window space using a revolving triangular stage sloped dramatic to one side meant that actors were being flung off in all directions. Several times I saw people stumble trying to regain their balance as the set rotated them out of the ‘center’ space. On the other hand – when the rotating stage worked – it worked well. At one point we see the bed from one view-point, later on from the opposite side. A clever device that makes us feel like we are there with Desdemona. But great set doesn’t quite balance against mumbled lines, something that really shouldn’t happen here. Oh well – it’s still in preview – maybe they will get it together before it opens. One lives in hope.

Tommy is today, and was in the past, a mess. And Stratford’s highly original stage set with airplanes taking off into the audience, parachutes being shot out of the ski, and giant pin ball machines just doesn’t cover up for the fact that most of the music is really pointless. I didn’t really ‘get’ the story when I was 15 – and I’m afraid I still don’t ‘get’ it today. Neat visual effects though.

Of the 3 – Blythe Spirit is the clear winner – if one must pick a winner. The dialogue is snappy and smart, the debate on the meaning of life and death no less intriguing today than it was when the play was first performed, and the surprise ending is always a surprise. My favorite character of course is the medium. Such a wonderful character – so smartly performed by Seana McKenna Most surprisingly, she also takes on the deadly serious role of Elizabeth in Mary Staurt. One of the things I most love about Stratford is just that – the chance to see the same actor – sometimes on the same day – in 2 entirely different roles, both performed superbly. It’s amazing. And while my sister – who is a ‘theatre folk’ and commented that it’s all in a days work – for me, the non-professional – the ability to memorize so many lines, in such different performances, with different directors nothing short of awesome.

So – plays at the Avon – bit hit and miss – but for sure see Blythe Spirit. The other 2 can be missed.

Stratford Studio Theatre – Smaller is definitely better!

Of the 4 theatres at Stratford, the smallest is the intimate Studio space. Only two production were being featured there in August – but both are absolutely brilliant.

Both are new productions, but expertly produced, directed, acted, and told. I highly recommend seeing them both – but for far different reasons. “Thrill” is a tour de force for Lucy Peacock – one of Stratford finest. Her performance of a wheel-chair bound crip is so believable – that I was shocked – absolutely shocked – when she walked out to receive her well-earned standing ovation. She spends the entire play – and she is in almost every single scene, bent and contorted in one of those motorized wheel chairs – which she drives around the stage like a 6-year-old drives a Matchbook Car – in circles, spirals, with startling stops and starts. Amazing.

The story is both heartfelt, heart warming, and devastating. Despite the heroine’s severe handicaps – there’s no issue with her mental acuity – and she wins you to her side through wit and creative story telling. You are cheering madly for her at the end, regardless of the blinders you might have been wearing when you entered the Theatre.

“Taking Shakespeare” is a horse of another color completely. The hero this time is a rag-tag 24 year-old student is not living up to ‘expectations’. He is sent for private Shakespeare lessons with an aging female professor – and the chosen play is Othello. This is particularly appropriate because Othello is actually playing at the Avon – another theatre in the Stratford world. So one can easily apply the lessons the hero is learning to the play itself!

The ending, while not entirely unpredictable, is a story of growing up – at any age. I loved it, my husband loved it, our friends loved it, and by all accounts the audience loved it too. So go – if you can get tickets.

If you can’t – not to worry – I’m sure a production of this play will soon be done near your hometown.