A newfound gem and The Scottish Play in Africa

As I noted in my last post, we were fortunate enough, thanks to Andrew’s charming sis, to get a fabulously good deal on additional Stratford tickets, and so off we went to Ye Olde Shakespeare Towne once again for an evening of dining and thea-TAH.

Thanks to Chowhound reviews, this time we selected Bijou for dinner, and it was, absolutely, a gem.

The building it’s in appears to be separated front and back, and another establishment has the Wellington Street-facing half. So you enter the parking lot from Erie Street, and the Bijou’s entrance is what looks like a back entrance. It’s small and simple, yet stylish, and I loved the kids’ art framed on the walls. (Outside of the washrooms: “Lizards are animals but we do not eat them.” Fair enough.)

There were two prix fixe menus — two- and three-course — and all was chalked up on a board outside the kitchen. Quite an interesting and tasty-looking mix of options (interestingly, I don’t recall chicken or beef being present), and plenty of variation to order and share. (Jan — the aforementioned sis of Andrew — and Rob dined with us, so we were four.) I had a goat cheese and Japanese eggplant salad to start. Andrew had duck breast carpaccio, as I recall. Jan had an asparagus salad, and Rob, I think, had a lamb salad, both of the last two coming topped with a very tasty-looking shaving of cheese. All were delicious and thoroughly recommended. (I tried a fresh berry cosmopolitan to start, since it sounded good and I’d never had a cosmo. It was quite nice, but a bit too strongly alcoholic for my taste.)

For our main course, I had the pork loin, Andrew had the pickerel, Jan had the lamb, and Rob had the elk. Again, no disappointments there. There was much sharing and exclamations of delight. The elk was surprisingly tender and flavourful without being gamey. I appreciated, too, that the food was fairly simply done, but the flavours were excellent. (Like many these days, the Bijou focuses on local and seasonal ingredients for their menus.) My pork loin, for example, came with fingerling potatoes and peas and a light broth, which I made full use of with the lovely sourdough that came as a starter.

We ordered a Lailey Pinot Noir for the table, which our server noted had been used in a wine class he’d taken as an excellent example of a wine that starts very tannic, but opens up beautifully. After tasting it right after opening, and then after letting the glass breathe a while, I’m quite inclined to agree. (As a side note, Lailey was our first stop on our Niagara wine tour last fall, and both their tour and wines were excellent.)

Our server, we suspect, was fairly new, but was very friendly, attentive, and helpful in answering questions and finding things out. Jan was curious where her lamb was from — turns out it’s from Mount Forest. (They do business with farms in both Ontario and Quebec.) We were also wondering how they managed to sear such a lovely crust on Andrew’s fish, yet keep the flesh so moist — turns out they have an old gas stove from the 1950s, which doesn’t have controls to manage the heat/gas flow, so they can get a roaring heat going and sear like the wind. Delicious.

For dessert the guys each got the cheese plate, though surprisingly they weren’t quite in a scotch or port mood to accompany it. Rob ordered a couple glasses of an unoaked Chardonnay (the name of which escapes me), which I thought an odd choice, but it turned out to be quite nice, though perhaps a bit delicate to balance the strength of a couple of the cheeses. The plate came with a blue cheese, a fairly nippy one, and a more mellow one. All delicious (I believe one was from Quebec, one from Ontario, and one from New Brunswick), though the blue was a bit too blue for my taste. They came with pear sticks, an herb oil of some kind, and some more delicious baguette.

Jan got the pannacotta with rhubarb, which came with a sort of rosemary biscuit. She said all the flavours were lovely, but in combination they were a bit odd. I had the chocolate “flight”, which was fairly playful in a similar way to how Verses often handles desserts. There was a peanut butter cup, a “Snickers” bar, a chocolate/chili ice cream, and what I think was a mousse. Like many good restaurants, the chocolate wasn’t overly sweet, and all the items were lovely. Jan also got the Cave Spring Indian Summer Riesling, which I’d never heard of, and which is a really nice dessert wine — not as cloying or sweet as ice wines or the like, and with considerably less gaggable lychee to it. 🙂

All in all a wonderful meal, a thoroughly recommended restaurant, and I will definitely return.

After dinner we wandered around the corner to Balzac’s for coffee, as Jan and Rob had never been. Andrew and I also both picked up more beans. And then… to the theatre!

We were a bit surprised to see that the theatre wasn’t quite as full for the Macbeth performance, particularly given it was a Friday evening in July. Our seats were similar to where Melissa and I sat for Cyrano, but across the aisle.

They set this staging in Africa, mid-20th century, so military fatigues figured prominently. It did work, though, I thought. Overall I enjoyed Cyrano more, but that was expected, given I’ve never been the world’s biggest Shakespeare fan. I think Mr. Feore’s charisma works better with more “positive” characters. I also had some issue with delivery. It wasn’t just his, but he has the most soliloquies, so it’s most notable with him. There was a lot of just… standing and talking. You might be looking dramatically up and off into the distance, but you’re still just a talking head.

As a counterpoint, I thought Mr. Wyn Davies, as Duncan, made it look much more natural. As he spoke he moved around and had different expressions and interacted more with the other characters. I thought both of the Macbeths suffered the most from the “stand and deliver” decision.

As Lady Macbeth, Yanna McIntosh was strong, though I don’t know if I bought a conniving chemistry between her and Feore’s Macbeth. Again, I suspect more physical and eye contact interaction could have helped this. I also didn’t think the “out damn’d spot” scene was anything over the top spectacular, despite the gushing of one critic whose review I read. I’m pretty sure her resemblance to Michelle Obama was not an unintentional costuming choice.

There were a few neat tricks and interesting staging devices, like the appearances and disappearances of Banquo’s ghost in the banquet scene and the use of video monitors with flickering and grainy footage in the latter couple of acts. The “Weird Sisters” were presented as quite human, which was an interesting choice, but makes cultural sense, given the time and place where they set the play. (Even though it was set in Africa, they retained the Scottish place names, which seemed odd to some folks.)

All in all, a decent performance, but I’m glad Cyrano was the one I paid full price for. Overall, a fine evening out, and certainly more Stratford festivities this year than I’ve managed to pull off most other years.

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