Story by Babbie DeDerian
Lobster image Nova Scotia Tourism
Other images Destination Halifax
Halifax, Nova Scotia: One Bite at a Time
A visit to Nova Scotia, and its capital Halifax, is a step back in time; it is meeting people and families who for generations have relied on the earth and the sea... farmers, fisherman and artisans who have many poignant, sad and fascinating stories to tell about their bountiful and beloved Province. Some have moved away, only to return more committed to Nova Scotia’s future; others have remained in small fishing villages and on homesteads settled by ancestors who arrived as immigrants and were processed at the Halifax Immigration Center, an entry point similar to New York‘s Ellis Island.
On a recent visit to Halifax, I followed the organic farm-and-sea- to-table food trail to a few of the city’s most popular restaurants to chat with chefs who are spear heading the city’s far reaching culinary revolution, using only seasonal ingredients to create exceptional award winning dishes. Everyone has a favorite recipe for rappe and sugar pie, seafood chowder and lobster rolls. The abundance of heirloom vegetables, fresh off the vine, fish reeled in from the sea and sweet lobsters, is what brings chefs and repeat visitors to the smallest but most agriculturally rich province in Canada.
Chives Canadian Bistro is warm and inviting with an unpretentious décor that embraces the Canadian landscape: The “Vault”, once used by prior tenant The Bank of Nova Scotia, is now used to store wine and for intimate private dinners. The chalk board menu features seasonal specials; the marinated lamb is tempting, but I am here for the catch of the day. We begin with a basket of their signature biscuits. After tasting three Canadian wines, I select a more familiar California Zinfandel to pair with the North Atlantic salmon... simply seasoned with salt, pepper and cumin, and then grilled to perfection... crispy on the outside; moist and meaty on the inside. Chef de cuisine Scott Tannahill brings us a dish of pumpkin squash risotto as a special treat... a memorable highlight of my first Halifax dining experience.
Executive Chef Trevor Simms presides over the Marriott’s Harbourstone Sea Grill and Pour House Restaurant. In the mornings I begin my day with selections from the buffet or a la carte menu. Friendly service is the order of the day, and Lee, my waiter, greets me with fresh squeezed orange juice and a pot of coffee. The menu lists food in nautical categories: “Hook Line and Sinker Salads”, “Sea Signals” and “Over-the-Side Sharables”. Chef Simms delivers a few “taste wows”. His signature seafood chowder is thick, rich and creamy with lobster, shrimp and scallops; the lobster salad, a mix of sweet lobster meat, celery, tarragon and sour cream, and the lobster Benedict has chucks of sweet lobster meat piled on a toasted English muffin, topped with a poached egg, a light hollandaise and a few pieces of lobster claw meat. Donavan who has worked in the hotel restaurant for seven years tells me: “living here is beautiful; we have everything; it’s a big city with a small town pace and culture”.
The Bicycle Thief is one of the city’s most popular restaurants. Locals who live in the neighborhood call it “the cafeteria”. I find a seat at the bar. Jeff, the personable bartender, is busy shaking up his signature cocktails for the thirsty crowd. The restaurant’s wide selections of dishes are listed under “1st Gear “, “2nd Gear” and “High Gear”. Chef Chris Bolt at 27 has been working for owners Maurizio and Stephanie Bertossi for four years. He takes food and his responsibilities to customers quite seriously: “my plate is my canvas; the ingredients my paints”. When Chef learned I was coming for dinner, he prepared a special welcome amis bouche. The black point oysters, dug up 6 hours ago, were served with a spicy cocktail sauce made from horseradish, jalapeño, onions and ketchup .The fresh caught yellowtail tuna tartar merits accolades; tuna cut into pieces was mixed with chunks of avocado, and then tossed with soy sauce, sesame oil and pickled ginger wasabi cream. The complex ingredients added a unique fusion of sweet, tart and tangy flavors. Shifting into “High Gear”, the handmade ravioIoni stuffed with fresh local lobster and mascarpone tempts me with its decadence, but I select the fall-off-the-bone roasted Beef Short Ribs … served with creamy polenta and wild mushrooms in a wine reduction. This mouth watering dish lived up to its reputation as did Chef Chris Bolt.
Stories Restaurant, in the historic Haliburton Inn, is an intimate and elegant 21 seat restaurant with old world charm and ambiance. Chef Scott Vail, a master of relaxed fine dining, presents his plates in balance with life, serving innovative seafood and game dishes with a diversity of local ingredients. Anna, contractor by day, manager by night adds her personality to the joy of being here. Scott’s relationship with Nova Scotia farmers, fisheries and food producers is the core of his culinary integrity. He was genuinely appreciative of my dining here, and takes time to come out of the kitchen to share his focus and philosophy, based on purity of intent and “honest cooking’. Scott, open to change; maintains balance between family, a comfort level with the kitchen and attention to detail. He grows edible flowers in a garden behind the Inn to garnish seasonably colorful dishes and tells me: “serving local was a given; with world class products, we can do what isn’t out there; what isn’t offered elsewhere in town. Challenges are bottomless to learn more about food. Having an abundance of fresh from the farm ingredients, herbs, produce, fish and game often caught or picked in the morning, makes food taste different”. The one page menu simply reads “This Evening’s Menu”: “Starters” and “Principal Dishes”. I begin with peppery sautéed queen crab cakes, served with spicy avocado, smoked jalapeno and lime cream. My “principal game” is a medley of grilled deer loin, boar tenderloin (in a reduced port wine) and quail over mashed potatoes with a side dish of braised elk forest mushroom” Shepard’s Pie”, The rich density and diverse flavors of the meats and fowl are balanced with crunchy vegetables. Chef Vail pays homage to fall foliage, garnishing the plate with crimson beets, pumpkin colored carrots, golden squash, baby green asparagus, red peppers and an edible yellow nostrum picked from the restaurant garden. I cannot resist the semi frozen chocolate terrine; the texture transforms as the mouse softens, balancing the flavors of the mango raspberry coulee and the minted fresh strawberries. For Scott, “the greatest compliment is when visitors to the city come here two nights in a row”.
Chianti Restaurant’s Chef Terry Vassalto (chef for Canada House at the Sochi Olympics) left Halifax for Vancouver to pursue his interest in butchering; and hone his techniques. He returned in 1999 to open a small Bistro in Lunenburg, and was the chef at Sweet Basil before joining Chianti. His culinary journey is inspiring. “When heritage and heirloom varietals came into fashion, The Four Seasons Organic Farms came to me with a seed catalog. It was a revolutionary time; they were able to limit exposure to financial failure by getting thumbs up on what chefs could count on. Everyone comes here fascinated with shell fish; this is one of the only places on earth where you can still get fresh seafood, but what about arrugala picked in the morning. I will never forget the taste of fruit and vegetables that ripen on the trees or swordfish harpooned in the morning... brought into Chianti in the afternoon; that’s what pushes me. We all share a yearning for that first bite of gluttony when oysters are harvested; we travel and consume with the seasons to have it right off the vine. In winter locals come back, and until the end of November a food celebration is going on. One of my favorites is the garlic festival in the valley. Chianti is an Italian Restaurant; we are still very connected to the global market for our olive oils, cheeses and prosciutto”.
My thanks to Chefs: Scott Tannahill, Chris Bolt, Scott Vail, Terry Vassalto and. Trevor Simms , who invited me into their world, shared their passions and elevated my appreciation of food from the earth and the sea that is simply prepared with integrity and a fusion of compatible organic ingredients.
For more info: www.destinationhalifax.com
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