Story by Sarah Deveau
HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — “This one, this one is going to be my favourite,” my 9-year-old daughter, Kate, proclaimed. We were driving across Nova Scotia, following the province’s official Chowder Trail. With plans to sample a dozen chowders in three days, she was peaking pretty early in the game, announcing the second chowder we sampled, at the charming Union Street Café in tiny Berwick, her favourite.
Each year, visitors to Nova Scotia and locals alike partake in sampling the more 60 seafood chowders on the trail. For every chowder diners slurp up, they receive a passport stamp. Once you’ve collected at least three stamps, you can mail the passport in for a chance to win great prizes.
We’ve picked our eight favourite stops – one for each region on the official Chowder Trail, plus two restaurants not on the trail that are a must-do detour.
In the Prince George Hotel at the foot of Citadel Hill, Gio offers an outstanding fine dining experience and a chowder to match. Their chowder is finished with light notes of chive and dill, and is styled as beautifully as the original art and chic décor.
Chef/owner Martin Ruiz Salvador and wife, Sylvie, transformed the food scene in Lunenburg when they opened Fleur de Sel, and their Salt Shaker Deli offers the same exceptional attention to flavour in a casual setting on the waterfront. Seared scallops and smoked haddock take centre stage in their chowder.
The Red Shoe Pub, run by the Rankin sisters offers a dining experience steeped in Gaelic culture. Evenings at this Cape Breton mainstay come alive with fiddle playing, spoon playing and bagpipes, and their classic lobster roll makes the perfect accompaniment to their thick and delicious chowder.
Yarmouth and Acadian Shore
Overlooking Lobster Bay, the Argyler Lodge specializes in a chef-created, ever-changing locally inspired menus. Their chowder ingredients are sourced from their garden, nearby farms and local fishing boats, making it a locavore’s dream.
Bay of Fundy and Annapolis Valley
The Port Pub serves a truly spectacular chowder, with a rich and flavourful broth bursting with lobster claws, mussels in the shell and huge Digby sea scallops. If you’re lucky enough to score a seat on the patio, you’ll enjoy a serene view of the Cornwallis River with your chowder and craft beer.
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Under a puffed pastry dome, the chowder at Gabrieau’s Bistro in Antigonish is thick and comforting, and topped with edible flowers. Chef Mark Gabrieau has been an acclaimed chef for more than a decade, including being the recipient of the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for six consecutive years.
Off-the-Beaten Track for More Chowder
Both of these cafes are a half-hour drive from the nearest decent-sized town, but they’re very much worth the trek. Lavena’s Catch Café in Freeport was featured on the Food Network‘s “Pitchin’ In” with celebrity chef Lynn Crawford and is a favourite with the locals and those of us willing to make the drive for Lavena Crocker’s bacon-wrapped scallops, fresh fish and, of course, the chowder.
“Our chowders are ‘built’ not made,” says Crocker. “We build ours in small quantities and they are always changing. On a regular summer day it is not unusual to start out with a halibut chowder then by midday a haddock and scallop chowder to a smoked pollock chowder or a lobster chowder, a mussel or clam or scallop chowder. All our chowders are loaded in fresh seafood, seasoned well and carefully ‘not’ stirred so the end result is every bowl served is a good full chowder in a rich cream broth.”
Boyd’s Seafood Gallery in Cribbon’s Point has no website, is only open June to September, and is an uneventful drive from Antigonish. In short, it’s hard to believe the restaurant can succeed — that is, until you take a bite of perfectly battered and fried calamari, or a spoonful of the most delicious chowder you’ll ever taste. Sit wharfside and enjoy comfort classics from Linda and Blaise Boyd, who have returned to the east coast after more than a decade of operating the popular Boyd’s Seafood restaurants in Alberta.