Story by Janine MacLean
Vacay.ca Food Columnist
HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — Trying to define fine dining on Canada’s east coast can be tricky. Of course, there is no lack of beautiful, fresh food and if you’re looking for seafood, this is the place to be. That being said, most Maritimers just don’t “do” fine dining. It’s not that they can’t. It’s just that a BBQ on your back deck (assuming the black flies aren’t too bad) is much more preferable to sitting in a stuffy dining room. Let’s face it: the Maritimeswill never be like other places in Canada as far as culinary aspirations are concerned. Life is too laid back, the people too content to really need anything other than a big back yard, maybe a nice garden and a good haul from the farmers’ market.
And maybe, being a Maritimer myself, I’m a little biased, but when you live in such a gorgeous place, why should you desire more?
Enter Chives Bistro: the shining jewel in Halifax’s ever-growing food scene. No restaurant seems to capture the essence of what fine dining can be in the Maritimes like this place. I was enticed by the online menu, which champions Nova Scotian ingredients, and by chefs Craig Flinn and Darren Lewis’ credentials (between the two they seem to have worked everywhere and have won every possible award). I was more than ready to plow into a delicious, homey meal.
You can find Chives on Halifax’s bustling Barrington Street, which runs adjacent from the famous harbour. Looking entirely unassuming on the outside, once you step in you are transported to an artsy and colourful space, composed of both urban and rural décor elements, which seem to sum up nicely what the restaurant is attempting to represent — the Nova Scotian way of life.
The space features works from local artists, large pieces of driftwood stolen from nearby beaches and on the right side of the room a large vault — a reminder that we are still sitting in an historic building that was at one time a bank. The vault has since been transformed into a private dining area — perfect for romantic evenings or intimate celebrations. From first impressions it’s obvious this restaurant intends for its diners to sit back and relax.
As we are seated I discovered that our server for the evening is the son of my former university professor. With that realization it hits me: I’m back home.
We start the evening with a local beer, Hell Bay English Ale ($8.50), made in Cherry Hill, Nova Scotia. It’s crisp and tastes of caramel.
Chives also starts us off with their biscuits and molasses. Having been told that the biscuits were a “must try,” I am impressed that they include them with every meal. Arriving in a nondescript paper bag accompanied by butter and molasses, they are warm and comforting — and taste (almost) as good as my mom’s.
“You can actually taste the buttermilk in them!” my father, Ian MacLean, exclaims.
For starters we stick with seafood (what else?). We order the seared scallops with pickled beet, goat cheese, spiced pecans, and buttermilk dressing ($12), the lobster chowder with winter leek and hickory sticks ($12) and the mussels “Normandy” ($10), made with apple cider, shallot rosemary cream, focaccia croutons and chunks of honeycrisp apple. At the last minute I also order the evening’s special app — a deep fried oyster with sweet potato puree, chilis and seaweed slaw. With our apps, we sip a glass of Thirty Bench Riesling from Ontario’s Niagara Region.
The chowder is unlike any traditional chowder I’ve ever tried. More of a bisque base with delicate cubes of Yukon gold potato and perfectly cooked lobster. Although I’d be hard pressed to ever call it a chowder, it is flavourful and much less filling than its traditional, chunky counterpart. A lovely start to our meal.
The scallops, nicely seared, rest on a bed of beets, pecans and micro greens — a beautiful presentation and it is, indeed, delicious. We also enjoy the oysters — prepared in a very un-Maritime way and indicative of Lewis’ time in the southern United States. The oysters are nicely breaded and fried very briefly to retain their oceanic flavour.
FINE DINING EMERGES IN THE MARITIMES
The mussels are the favourite, though. The apples are an amazing complement to the juicy, gorgeously steamed mollusks. The rosemary cream and the toasted cubes of herbed focaccia soak up the acid and create a perfect balance of flavours. Not only is it delicious, but it screams “Nova Scotia” right down to its essence.
As we wait for our entrees, we chat with our server, Steve.
“The food scene in Halifax is growing by the week and I think a lot of Nova Scotians want more options when it comes to eating out,” he says as he brings us our second glass of wine — a Semillon from the Grande Pre Winery in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.
Our entrees arrive and we marvel at the amount of food on each plate. Another uniquely Maritime aspect of this restaurant is that you will leave feeling extremely full. When eating out in the Maritimes, you like to feel like you’ve gotten your money’s worth and this ideal is not lost on Flinn and Lewis.
In front of me, they place an elaborate plate of Braised Cardamom Curried Lamb, complete with chana masala, lentil-rice pilaf, raita, chutney, spiced cashews, and pickled beets ($29). Whew.
Aside from the lamb, we have also ordered a prosciutto-wrapped haddock with lemon risotto and tomato coulis ($25), and a pan-roasted trout, the “catch of the day” ($25), set atop a “mac n’ cheese” made with orzo.
Although the staff have gotten me excited for the lamb, I cannot stop eating the haddock. It could be because the fish tastes so fresh or because it is so perfectly cooked, and pairs so well with the risotto (which was also very well made).
For some reason, the lamb just isn’t doing it for me, even though it’s very tender and flavourful. It just seems a bit heavy. I end up asking to get the rest to take home so I can save room for dessert.
The dessert menu is small but appealing. With just three options, they all sound delicious. It’s difficult to choose — Buckingham cake ($10), honey vanilla crème brûlée ($7), or “Apple Pie” (a deep-fried beignet served with cinnamon ice cream, $9). In the end we ordered the Buckingham cake and the beignet, but Lewis brought out the crème brûlée for us to try as well.
“Both Craig and I have worked pretty much all over the world, which I guess has given us an edge in the Maritime dining scene. That being said, there are so many great places popping up around Halifax and the rest of the province. It’s an exciting time to be a chef in the Maritimes,” Lewis says.
Lewis explained that the biscuit recipe comes direct from Flinn’s grandmother. His desserts sit on the table looking absolutely gorgeous, and I can’t wait to dig in. We’re brought a cup of Chives Blend fair trade coffee from a local roaster, Just Us! Coffee, and go for it.
We attack the crème brûlée first. Our reasoning for not ordering this dessert was the fact that the entire table had had crème brulee before, and we thought there was not much that could be done to make it better than the classic.
That being said, a classic crème brulee is a beauty to behold and Chives’ version is no exception. A slight hint of honey with every bite, we crack through the perfectly caramelized sugar topping to the creamy custard lying beneath. The custard is the perfect temperature, which may sound strange for me to write, but I am often annoyed if I order a crème brulee only to find the custard too warm or cold. This custard is perfect.
We move onto the “Apple Pie” and are delighted to cut through the tender dough to find entire slices of sweet, juicy, warm Jona Gold apple still intact. With the sweet/salty dough, the sweet (still slightly crunchy) apple and the smooth cinnamon ice cream, this is also a winner for the table. That is- until we try the Buckingham Cake.
Between layers of crunchy digestive cookies, a creamy chocolate mousse is encompassed by a sheer coat of chocolate ganache, which has set to mold the beautifully formed cake. Served in a bowl with raspberry coulis and a scoop of delicious lady grey ice cream, this is one of the best desserts I’ve had in a very long time.
As a final treat, we enjoy a glass of Benjamin Bridge Borealas ice wine from Wolfville. A perfect end to the array of desserts we just devoured.
Stuffed to the brim, we set out into Halifax — my favourite city in all of Canada — to wander the streets.
For me, this evening is a perfect homecoming as well as an education in Nova Scotian fine dining. As it turns out, not only are Maritimers extremely capable when it comes to the concept, but we are also eager for restaurants like Chives that serve our kind of fine dining: unpretentious, casual, unhurried, and absolutely uncompromising on flavour and the use of local ingredients.
MORE ABOUT CHIVES
Location: 1537 Barrington Street Halifax, NS
Contact: Telephone, 902-420-9626; online reservations via opentable.com.
Menu prices: Entrees range from $23.99-$28.99