Martin Ruíz Salvador brings his symphony of flavours back to Lunenburg

Anyone who lives in Nova Scotia will tell you the South Shore has an undeniable allure. With its rugged coastline and deep-rooted seafaring history — fishing, shipbuilding and rum-running — there’s a definitive culture that has shaped the people and the landscape, especially in Lunenburg.

I’ve been lucky to find myself spending a little more time here for work, and frankly, I’ve developed an affection for the place. Lunenburg is the kind of town you show off to visiting relatives and then sneak back to for a romantic getaway.

When you walk these hilly streets with their punchy-coloured houses, every side street offers an ocean view. In season, the harbour teems with fishing boats and schooners, and the shops, galleries and micro-distilleries are abuzz with people. But yet, there are still little cafés you can dip into that are close yet far from the madding crowds. I remember when I first found out that the Lunenburg “bump” was, in fact, not a dance move, but a local architectural feature. Lunenburg was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site to protect this unique architecture.

Lunenburg offers some of the best dining experiences in Nova Scotia for a town of its size, with a year-round population of only 2,200 that swells in summer like a supermoon tide. If you’re craving fish and chips, a fresh lobster roll, or just a burger (try the iconic Lunenburger at The Grand Banker Bar & Grill!), you’ll find whatever you fancy food-wise here. On the flip side, there are a number of chef proprietors who have chosen to make this their home. Paolo Colbertaldo (Lincoln Street Food), Jeffrey MacNeil (Rime Restaurant) and, of course, Martin Ruíz Salvador of Fleur de Sel are three of them.

It came as a bit of a surprise when Martin and his wife, Sylvie, announced they were closing down their award-winning, signature restaurant in 2015 after 12 years of business for a sabbatical year. As the year progressed, first came the birth of their son, and by summer they had launched another venture, The Half Shell Oysters and Seafood, thus adding to their already illustrious restaurant empire that includes Salt Shaker Deli and The South Shore Fish Shack.

Fleur de Sel opened in 2004 and immediately racked up accolades, including reaching number eight on enRoute magazine’s best new restaurants in Canada list, earning four diamonds from CAA, and placing number 22 within the pages of Canada’s Best 100 Restaurants magazine. For Nova Scotians, this quickly became a destination restaurant, as it was Lunenburg’s only fine-dining option at the time. Their focus at the start was on an elevated seven-course tasting menu, and in the span of time they were open, they noticed a marked change in people’s palates.

In mid-May of this year, Martin and Sylvie launched season 13. It’s had an incredible makeover courtesy of Sylvie’s design sense, and the menu has been finessed to reflect the subtle changes in people’s eating patterns over the years. You now have the choice of booking either a table d’hôte or a tasting menu, with the option of adding wine pairings. Martin explains that with smaller portions they have the opportunity to present more courses and styles; there’s even a focus on vegetables. “However, there’s more caviar, foie gras and sweetbreads,” Martin says with a smirk. “We are still a French restaurant, after all.”

Table d’hôte is a classic prix fixe menu; a set menu with a bit of selection around the main course at a fixed price. Theirs is a six-course menu for $75 that includes a series of four small amuses, followed by a choice of one of four seasonal mains plus dessert or cheese. There’s a vegetarian version of this menu, too.

The Fleur de Sel tasting menu, at $110, is the pièce de résistance. It includes a series of nine small chef-inspired dishes starting with four amuses, followed by more bold seafood and meat dishes, and finishing with a selection of cheeses and desserts. The “Ocean Tasting Menu” is the same format, but it riffs on all local seafood.

Martin’s style of cooking has been rooted in classic French cuisine for a long time. After culinary school in the States, he broke his teeth on Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe. There’s a bit of international flair, too, that was inspired by a family history of travel that he continues to this day with his own family; you’ll see Spanish and Mexican influences, but always through a French lens. And having grown up in Nova Scotia, he’s got a repertoire of South Shore classics that he now makes with fresh seafood that’s literally hauled onto the wharves daily at the end of the street.

The 1840s house that Fleur de Sel occupies has a warm and welcoming exterior with a nicely appointed Lunenburg bump. Sylvie has done a stellar job setting the new tone for the place, and much of the character of the old building remains: archways, crown moldings, an exposed brick chimney, light wooden floors. The dining room is a softer, almost robin’s egg blue, and natural light streams into the room, hitting these blue hues. All of the artwork, which includes paintings of dories, fishermen and the ocean, plays off the seafaring theme. There are 30 seats, which is actually less than the number in the original dining room, but this was done to give diners more room and staff the ability to really focus on their service.

Tucked above the restaurant is a private guest suite complete with a claw-foot soaker tub with views of the harbour. They offer a number of dine-and-stay packages starting at $300 that bundle the room with a dinner for two and breakfast.

I had one heck of a meal here. Pointedly, I don’t want any of this to come off as a pretentious dining experience. Is it an everyday, affordable meal for everyone? No, but we all need to treat ourselves once in a while, and if you’re going big, this would be the place. The meal, much like Martin himself, was authentic with no apologies.

You have to prepare yourself for an evening out like this, much like you would for the theatre or symphony. I liken it more to a physical performance, as there are so many elements that go into just one dish. And this isn’t mentioning the theatrics of a kitchen. From the moment a product comes through the kitchen door, it takes a whole lot of orchestration.

Settle in for the show. Martin has carefully curated each bite. Every oil, jus, reduction, dab, dash, new shoot, emulsion and essence has a specific role to play here, however subtle. To set the scene, a well-balanced plate should hit your taste buds with five distinctive notes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. Umami comes in many forms, most often in savoury, meaty broth reductions, but also in mushrooms, smoked or fermented fish, and shellfish. If you glance at the menu above, these items will jump out at you.

Then comes the choreography. Service and pacing is paramount in this delicate dance of a meal. Most of the staff here are returning ones, and the new ones, including a mix of culinary students, are all very excited to be here. It’s a luxury to have a server rattle off every ingredient on a plate not only with interest but because they actually know what every ingredient is.

It’s not only about taste, it’s about presentation. The amuses come out rapid-fire. It feels funny delving into dishes on a tasting menu that might never show up in the same way again, but I’m sure many of the elements make their return from time to time. One of my favourite dishes was actually one of the amuses — an ever-so-delicately poached piece of cod with corned pork, the zing of pickled beets and mustard greens, and the crunch of mustard seed and pumpernickel crouton set atop a cloud of parsnip purée that I could have eaten a whole bowl of. Another favourite was the salt water-poached lobster dish, where
I could taste the umami slipping in with the shellfish fume and the potato pavé, which here was presented as layers of potatoes in between layers of compressed smoked whelks. In terms of a plate for overall taste and presentation, the rabbit roulade was the winner. It was richness personified: veal sweetbreads, house-smoked bacon and crispy marrow balanced with capers, a Dijon jus, spinach, plum sauce and wasabi oil.

Sylvie and Martin Ruiz Salvador

Having watched the success and relative scale of fellow chefs like Bryan Picard (The Bite House) and Andrew Aitken and Sarah Griebel (Wild Caraway), Martin has wanted to cook this way for well over a decade. The successes of his other businesses are now giving him the luxury of a bit of room; you’ll often find him cooking on the line. The reception has been positive so far, as locals and summer residents have been enthusiastically embracing the new menus. I left pleasantly satiated. In fact, there was just enough room left for a nightcap and a little Lunenburg bump.