By Lynn Ogryzlo

 One of the greatest memories I cherish to this day was sitting in the grand Pantages Theatre for the production of Phantom of the Opera. It was intoxicating, dramatic and exhilarating all at the same time. Earlier than that was the spell binding performance of Cats. I have a very long and fond history with the Pantages Theatre.

The Pantages is now called the Ed Mirvish Theatre but the name lives on in the Pantages Hotel and Spa right across from the back-stage door. Inside the theatre inspired, all-suites, boutique hotel is my favourite restaurant, Stages.

I often come here to reminisce over some of my greatest memories of the Pantages. This hotel is where many of the actors, comedians, musicians and theatre production executives would stay, dine and sip back a post performance martini, and it’s where I came too.

As I sit in the softly lit lounge surrounded by sites of Toronto’s greatest theatre history, I wonder if I’m sitting in the same place as famous Canadian actors did following a production. I wonder which of the drinks were  favourites, and how many deals have been made at this bar.

The 60-seat restaurant is flooded with light that spills down the long, cozy layout from the large, towering floor to ceiling windows. It’s the ingenious design that draws you inside and right toward the cozy fireplace corner. The two-way fireplace exposes the private, intimate dining room called The Library.  This private recluse is often reserved for theatre-going groups and when it’s not, it’s used to alleviate the demand for dinner tables during the evening hours where line-ups are most likely.

The food has always kept up with the times. The menu is an eclectic blend of international and local flavours. The Thai Coconut Curry Soup conjures up the exotic and the accompanying Naan bread is worth the wait, Southern comfort is served in the form of a bold BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwich on the tangiest, toasted sourdough bread and the sophisticated flavours of the Traditional Butter Chicken with Basmati Rice takes you to a warm, far-away place. For the locavore in all of us, the Cookstown Beet Salad with Heirloom Tomatoes reflects what’s in our own backyard and the Kale and Radicchio Salad with Julienne Granny Smith Apple feeds our healthy cravings.

The menu design and the development of Stages creative dishes falls to veteran Toronto food and beverage hotshot, Ellis Perrin. “I would call it (the cuisine) modern,” says Perrin of his new menus to be released this June. “Modern cuisine because of the types of ingredients we use. We always use fresh and the best quality we can find.” One glance at the menu and its obvious Perrin is inspired by all parts of the world, but loyal to Canada. He’s also a master at reinventing classic dishes, both casual and formal.

Take for example, my lust for classic comfort dishes. Perrin took an ordinary grilled cheese sandwich and put his personal twist on it. It’s now an Artisan Grilled Cheese Sandwich served on Garlic Buttered Toasted Baguette. The warm cheese oozes out with every bite and fills your stomach with a soft, feel-good sense of pure, buttery comfort. This is Perrin’s culinary prowess, the upscaling of an ordinary dish. He overstuffs the house made baguette with a variety of artisan cheeses and adds everyone’s favourite – a hint of subtle garlic.

On the dinner menu are two appetizers that reflect Perrin’s travels to Eastern Canada where he was inspired by the vibrant taste of fresh fish and seafood. The Atlantic Lobster Sliders are a generous mound of sweet, succulent lobster salad on just-baked, butter buns and served with dill slaw and avocado puree. The vinegarish dill slaw pulls a flavour of salty seawater freshness out of the rich lobster while the creamed avocado elevates each mouthful on the decadent scale. Sweet, salty, earthy, buttery, rich and creamy – what’s not to love?

Of course, Perrin couldn’t conceive of any menu without mussels so he spent an obsessive amount of time testing and tasting Atlantic mussels until he found the perfect combination to wow any leisurely mussel aficionado. They’re steamed in Pilsner, garlic and parsley and served with seasoned, soft focaccia bread, the perfect kind for dipping. Perrin recommends his guests eat his mussels the same way they do out East. Use an empty mussel shell to clamp onto another mussel, pull it away from its shell and eat – yum!

For heartier appetites, Perrin doesn’t disappoint. He bastes all of the steaks in fresh Ontario butter that caramelizes as it sizzles on the grill and seals in the Angus beef’s natural juices. “Yeah, the extra caramelization gives it a bold flavour but we start with the highest quality steak we can buy and that’s what makes the difference,” he explains of the 8–ounce Angus Striploin that he serves with herb roasted, sweet fingerling potatoes and forest mushroom ragout. “We dress the Ontario Pork Loin with maple bourbon pecan butter,” says Perrin who serves it with Chorizo infused sweet potato hash. All rich, robust flavours that have become signature dishes of a restaurant that is known for its before and after theatre noshing.

Stages offers chic touches such as pre-theatre drinks, light appetizers and an attentive staff that will attend to every pre-theatre need such as getting you to the theatre on time. Between the hours of 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., Stages offers a selection of $5 cocktails, wine and draft pints.  From 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. you can enjoy easygoing live piano music.

The bar in Stages is a well-known cocktail bar in the theatre district. They make cocktails so mean Ernest Hemmingway could’ve been a regular. But who knows, perhaps the Phantom of the Opera was seen sipping on one of Stages signature cocktails like the Kentucky Shotgun Martini made with Bulleit Bourbon, Sweet Vermouth, Dry Vermouth and a splash of cherry syrup. One sip of the eye-popping drink and the up-front, warm caramel bourbon flavours turn succulently supple with the vermouth and cherry syrup. It’s full, bold and a great pre-theatre sipper with the Baked Quebec Brie. The buttery richness of the melted brie with sweet caramelized onions and fruity cranberry and jalapeno jam play off the drink so well, it’s become one of the more popular food and drink combinations at Stages.

The cocktail menu changes with the seasons. Now that spring has arrived, so will the long summer cocktails like Sangria, wine spritzers and hard lemonade. Like their food menus, the cocktails only use fresh, high quality ingredients. The sour mixes are made in house and the garnishes are prepared fresh and generous.

Stages house wine is from Vineland Estates Winery in Niagara and their small but stellar wine menu consists of hard to find bottles from California, France and Italy because “they’re producing some pretty fine wines at reasonable prices,” says Perrin. Also available are three craft brews on tap.

Where once you would be certain to find Pantages patrons mingling over drinks and noshing on food, it’s now common to see patrons of the surrounding theatres like the Ed Mirvish Theatre, Bluma Appel Theatre, the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts and others coming together for what is sure to be your most memorable trinity of food, drinks and theatre.

 

Lynn Ogryzlo is a food, wine and travel writer and international award-winning author. She can be reached for questions or comments at lynnogryzlo.com.