Subtle simplicity brings sublime seafood to the north end

Tonnato Melt. The first time I saw these words written on the menu at Bar Kismet, the dish leapt off the page and into my heart. It was love at first sight, and shortly after, love at first bite. Tonnato on sourdough bread with chilli oil and a sprinkling of fresh chives. It’s essentially a tuna melt or a Welsh rarebit on steroids, hitting all the notes – salty, creamy, fishy, and acidic. Tonnato is a classic Italian condiment comprised of tuna, anchovies, capers, lemon, cayenne pepper, olive oil, and mayonnaise. I’ve taken great care to introduce this umami-goodness to everyone I visit the restaurant with, waiting with delight for the table to order so I can throw it in as my party trick with a wink to the server.

Bar Kismet is housed in the former Greek Village restaurant space on Agricola Street and looks nothing like its former self. When Jenner Cormier and Annie Brace-Lavoie moved to Halifax, it took them a year and a half to find the perfect location to renovate. In that span of time, they looked at 40+ spaces channelling a house-hunting superpower – to be able to see a room, erase it, and not get too attached in the process.

The best advice they were given once in the space was to just to be in it, poke a hole in everything, find the gems, and keep the bones of what is fundamentally a 130-year-old house.  Wide-planked, wooden floorboards laid diagonally and hidden under years of old flooring, several feet of ceiling height behind low set tiles, brick chimneys, and wood wainscoting. They wanted to create a restaurant they would feel at home in themselves, that you would want to bring loved ones to, or would feel comfortable dining solo.

Cormier, born in Edmonton, spent his formative years outside of Toronto and moved to Lawrencetown, NS, in his tweens remaining close to the beach into his early twenties. In fact, his first love was surfing. He made a name for himself as a semi-pro surfer while getting a degree in kinesiology and literally stumbled into mixology, subbing in for a shift one night at the Henry House. He remained at the forefront of Halifax’s cocktail scene helping to open both The Drawing Room and Noble before hitting the road to compete in international bartending competitions, eventually landing as a brand ambassador for Diageo.

Brace-Lavoie grew up in Montréal, studied makeup artistry and was on a fast career track working for Mac until she had a change of heart. Her travels took her abroad to the UK and back again – she enrolled in the culinary program the Institut de Tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec while working her way through notable restaurants in Montréal and Toronto mentored by some of Canada’s top chefs – Emma Cardarelli (Nora Gray), Rob Gentile (Buca) and Grant van Gameren (Bar Raval).

It was at Toronto’s Bar Raval where a love story came into play. Cormier and Brace-Lavoie’s first shifts were not actually behind the bar or in the kitchen respectively, but as manual labourers when renovations were delayed. It was two weeks building an elaborate mosaic tile mural in the restaurant’s bathroom that sealed the deal for the two. Raval opened ironically on Valentine’s Day and with a warning to date at their own risk. Since Raval has gone on to grace ‘best of lists’ and garner award accolades, the gentle irony is that it may not have worked out in the long run for the TO scene, but it certainly has for Halifax.

Annie Brace-Lavoie and Jenner Cormier

The ocean was the pull… on a trip to Nova Scotia one summer, Brace-Lavoie charged Cormier to show her all the seafood. After exhausting the traditional offerings from deep-fried clams to lobster rolls, they found themselves travelling further outside of the city core in pursuit of fresh seafood. And thus, the idea of an approachable seafood-driven restaurant and cocktail bar in the downtown core was born, one where seafood was the real star of the show, with vegetables and handmade pasta on its heels.

The best possible approach here is to eat the menu, and by that, I don’t mean in its entirety. It is more about sharing many dishes – from small plates to mains – with a group of willing accomplices and paired with wine (or cocktails).

Dishes are delicate, balanced, unfettered, and downright playful…I’m recalling the joy a group of us felt as we devoured a plate of blistered Shishito peppers with Bonito (dried, fermented, and smoked paper-thin shavings of tuna). The steam coming from the cooked peppers make the bonito flakes dance and wave, and with every third pepper a hot one, it’s like you’re engaged in a delicious game of roulette. Brace-Lavoie says she has to restrain her level of playfulness at times. Plates range from rich – roasted bone marrow with garlic butter snails and charred bread to the ever-so-delicate and fresh raw scallop with persimmon, pink peppercorn, and sumac. You can expect anything from fresh oysters to roasted whole fish to more classic French treatments like Coquille St. Jacques. And she makes exceptional pasta in intoxicating combos such as the al dente Tomato Leaf Spaghetti alla Chitarra, Duck Yolk & Bottarga to the pillow-like Ricotta Gnocchi, Gorgonzola Dolce & Burnt Walnut.

“The menu can change at a moment’s notice,” Brace-Lavoie says with a laugh. In all seriousness, it changes once a week in the subtlest of ways with the ebb and flow of seasonal ingredients. The idea is to never flip the menu completely – a few dishes remain due to the community uproar they’d incite if they were muscled out, like the sublime Ahi Tuna Tartar and Allumettes Fries.

They’ve created something unique and special, with a menu that piques your curiosity and a staff that revels in its explanation. “We’ve hit the jackpot with our team,” says Cormier. “They’re the reason the room runs the way it does.” Everyone who works here does a four-day work week, then takes three days away for work-life balance. And it shows. At Bar Kismet hospitality and customer experience come first.

Surprisingly, sourcing sustainable seafood is a challenge in Nova Scotia. In her fever to find unique products, and outside of her relationship with Afishionado Fishmongers, Brace-Lavoie often finds herself negotiating with fishermen dockside trying to get them to sell her 20lbs of something before 200,000lbs ships somewhere like Boston.

One of their classic dishes is an excellent example of making vegetables the star of the plate. Carrots are cooked al dente and topped with fresh crab and a rich béarnaise sauce. The idea of taking a seasonal ingredient at its brightest point and not overly manipulating it is essential. Brace-Lavoie says she will often build a dish around one ingredient, realize twelve other things have joined the party, then determine what she needs to take away.

Also true on the drink side of things, ingredients are simple with a seasonal touch. At any given time, there are 8-10 featured cocktails. Cormier shows me his running list of cocktail names on his phone – lyrics, puns, things customers have said, literary and pop culture references – Hairline Privilege, No. Sleep. ‘Til Dartmouth, A Fool’s Errand, The Acrobat and the Flea, Elevator Eyes.

Inspired to leave a small carbon footprint, Cormier and his barmen, Cooper Tardivel and Will Irvine, have taken to experimenting with kitchen waste, using leftover rendered bone marrow fat to wash mezcal producing a rich, meaty flavour for their Mo Marrow, Mo Problems cocktail. What to do with leftover shucked pea shells? Juice them and infuse a spirit to pop a bright note into an upcoming cocktail. Rest assured every member of this team can produce any cocktail you fancy and the shelves are lined with liquid gold. There’s a small but mighty global selection of wines and craft beers, including three taps featuring local brews.

When you sit here, this could be Seattle, Brooklyn, or Berlin… it’s a warm, welcoming neighbourhood restaurant. Every detail has been thoughtfully considered with a family touch. Cormier’s 90-year-old grandmother’s handwriting was captured as the menu font, the rainbow-trout-meets-cocktail-botanicals logo was penned by Brace-Lavoie and hand painted by her mother. Cormier’s brother, an architect, helped them design the space, his father refinished the chairs they salvaged, and Brace-Lavoie collected mismatched plates for years. Grant Van Gameren (chosen family) found their well-worn barstools – and the list trails on. It’s indeed a family affair. All of these elements contribute to the feel of this classic, timeless space.

When asked what defines this place Brace-Lavoie ponders. “How about eyes wide open?” They are nearing a year in business and both claim months pass like days. It’s been an almost terrifying dream to realize, but they’re grateful for the warm reception in Halifax and the culinary scene at large. On my most recent visit, pouring over the desserts selection, a friend asked the table if we could share a tonnato melt for dessert just as we had started, and we did – with glee.