AO Pasta38 Erie StreetStratford, ON N5A 2M4(519) 305-3838Winter lunch: Tuesday…
Okazu 85 Downie
85 Downie Street
Stratford, Ontario N5A 7V8
Cost: $85 for two with glasses of wine
Open: 5 p.m. Wednesday – Sunday
Tucked in unpretentiously stage right to Stratford’s Avon Theatre on Downie Street is Okazu 85 Downie. The directions, which you could almost imagine seeing in a play by Albee or Pinter or Ionesco, are “Snack. Drink. Eat.”
It’s the brainchild of restaurateur Jess Votary and, for the most part, the team behind the popular and inventive Red Rabbit on Wellington. Why do I say “the team”? Well, the distinction for both restaurants is that they are worker-owned. That’s somewhat novel and has a certain ethical appeal, too, in an age where work conditions at restaurants have come under some scrutiny.
The difference between the two restaurants, a few hundred metres apart from each other is noticeable, however. While the Rabbit has the same casual and relaxed bistro feel, there is an elevated aspect of the eclectic to the 35-seat Okazu – and that makes sense, perhaps, given that it’s next door to the theatre. It might strike you that some of the décor comes in fact from the set design of the theatre world. There’s what Votary calls a “sexy” and “gilded” quality. There’s drapery and chandeliers and some puffy, upholstered ottoman-like seats.
“It’s designed to be sumptuous and make you feel a bit special,” Votary says. “But you certainly don’t have to be dressed up,” she adds.
Serving only dinner, Okazu is also open late. The casual atmosphere is perfect for the cocktails they revel in. Overseen by Brittany Holmes, cocktails help form the essence of the place. There is wine and some beer, of course, but freshly made and inventive drinks are the primary focus. “They are not booze-heavy and use a lot of fresh cold-pressed juices and house-made syrups,” she says.
Okazu opened about a year ago with an approach to the menu that can be described as “global” tapas but with a decided Asian direction, according to Votary. The restaurant’s name refers to “side dish,” she says, that riffs on the shareable small plates that make the venue popular. “It’s also a double entendre,” Votary says. “It refers to a phrase meaning ‘just in case’ in French Canadian. Last minute stop and people popping in for cocktails before or after the show. That kind of thing.”
While Okazu does take reservations for pre-theatre dinner, the restaurant focusses on serving a pop-in or drop-by crowd. “There are a lot of local customers and actors, company and crew too,” she says. The food is much like The Red Rabbit’s fare – “it’s what we feel like eating,” she says.
There are plenty of different flavours and textures on the menu that can be combined; that can be several smaller appetizers or a couple of more substantial plates. The menu adjusts to the seasons and is executed by Ben O’Brien in the kitchen.
Pork and ginger dumplings are fresh and wonderfully spiced. A delicious pork terrine draws on the exquisite quality of Perth Pork Products – as does the pork belly. A creamy, slightly tangy dollop of delicious mozzarella with a bit of yogurt is refreshing with its counterpoint of crispy toasted baguette. The falafel sidles up nicely to some crisp Ontario asparagus and soft avocado. The pickled cabbage adds some acidity.
Check out the restaurant, but don’t count on checking out this particular menu because much it will likely be changed.
Exeunt severally … until next act.