AN UNFORGETTABLE DINING EXPERIENCE IN ANNAPOLIS ROYAL
Annapolis Royal is nestled deep in the Annapolis Valley. When arriving from Halifax, it feels like you’re driving nearly to the end of the earth or at least the province. And yet, the historic town, surrounded by water and lined with heritage buildings, surprises with all it has to offer. A lively Saturday morning farmers’ market, craft brewery, unique shops, charming inns, vibrant arts community, excellent coffee roaster, and national historic site provide visitors with much to do. And then there’s the reason I visited—Founders House Dining and Drinks, an unexpected fine-dining destination (and eye of the local food scene). The two-hour journey from Halifax doesn’t feel too long, and with so much going on, it’s easy to fill a weekend, with dinner at Founders as the main event.
“Supporting local farmers, fishers, producers, distillers, winemakers, brewers, and artists is the only way forward, that’s our new future,” says owner-operator Laura Robinson. “We live in such an amazing location full of bounty, why not take advantage of it?” Robinson grew up in Annapolis Royal, and after moving away for a career in hotel management, she returned a few years ago to open Founders. Situated at Fort View Golf Course, the restaurant—which is a separate entity from the course itself—has brought an “elevated rural dining” concept, heavily based on farm-to-table practices, to the area, opening its doors on July 29, 2018.
“Chris [Pyne] was working in Ontario when I first met him over a zoom call,” says Robinson of the restaurant’s chef. She was working with a recruiter to find someone who wanted to relocate to rural Nova Scotia, had fine dining experience and was approachable. The recruiter himself was a chef from Berwick, so he understood the area. This familiarity helped him match Robinson with Pyne, who has worked in Alberta and Ontario. Pyne’s classical culinary training and background in fine-dining (he worked at a Michelin-starred restaurant in the U.K., too) has led him to execute an elegant, hyper-local dinner menu at Founders. One that changes weekly. Available in either three or six courses, the food that Pyne creates is thoughtful and innovative yet recognizable. “Together, we are connecting people to food again. We live in a society where too often we are disconnected from our food. We are really working to change that,” says Robinson of their approach. The fine-dining menu is available inside only, Wednesday through Sunday evenings. A permanent, more casual summer menu is offered on their patio on the same days, starting at 11:30 a.m.
Founders House found its place in a restored New England Colonial style home rife with history (check out their website to learn more). Built in 1874 and painted a regal midnight blue with bright white trim, it looks like a large family home—except for its large, adjacent patio, and its location on the golf course. The interior dining room has bright white walls and a white ceiling with dark wooden beams that create a cottage-like aesthetic with a clean, modern feel. Purposely chosen antiques, colourful East Coast-themed art by local artists, and tartan curtains give the dining room a distinctly Nova Scotian vibe.
After being dropped off by the owner of the Queen Anne Inn, our incredibly ornate and historic accommodation for the night (shout-out to Laszlo and small towns!), we get settled in at a corner table near a window. It’s still light out, and we can see the last golfers finishing their rounds. The six-course option means we get to taste the entire menu, which I’ve been studying online for days. We start with gin and tonics featuring Steinhart Distillery gin (from Arisaig, Nova Scotia). Robinson is working the floor tonight, and she drops off an adorable plate with three amuse bouche sized items: mushroom duxelle and smoked scamorza croquette with lovage and lemon verbena mayo (herbs from the garden outside), mussel gratin on toast with chile oil and chives, and a crispy fried potato roll stuffed with pulled pork, aged Cheddar, drizzled with roasted garlic ranch sauce and chopped heirloom tomato. All are delicious, the mussel toast being my favourite. These little bites have set the tone for what’s to come, and I’m excited.
Next is an extra off-menu treat. A Digby scallop cooked on a licorice root and made into a lollipop with the root stick, served on top of creamy potato foam, topped with crunchy toasted buckwheat, pink grapefruit chutney, and chives. Plated on a scallop shell, and placed atop a round plate with a smattering of sea salt. The scallop is seared crispy, and the rich, translucent centre has a perfect consistency—I could eat a dozen more. Freshly baked buttermilk biscuits arrive with lobster-dulce butter and dill oil. The salty seaweed and lobster essence shine through, each bite reminding me of the ocean.
Our first proper course of the tasting menu arrives, a dish based around stracchino, a locally made Italian style cheese with a mild flavour and soft, creamy consistency. Long, thinly sliced green and yellow zucchini ribbons dressed in elderflower vinaigrette are placed delicately alongside sweet grilled peach, crunchy pistachios, and salty guanciale, and finished with tangy, earthy balsamic vinegar. The range and depth of flavours are incredible, the balsamic waking up my taste buds for our next courses.
The next dish requires partial table-side execution—butter-poached lobster topped with a corn and lobster bisque. A beautiful beach-stone earthenware bowl holds the poached lobster meat, carrot ribbons and tops, broccolini and shaved broccoli stalks, toasted sunflower and pumpkin seeds. Robinson then pours the silky smooth bisque over top. I thoroughly enjoy the deep earthiness of the carrot balanced by the sweetness of the lobster and corn, with crunchy toasted seeds finding their way into each bite.
“Our service is pretty relaxed, I mean we have white tablecloths, but service is comfortable, unpretentious, casual,” says Robinson. “We want your experience to be educational, enlightening, so we spend a lot of time explaining dishes, and their components, and where they came from.” Rainbow trout from nearby Hamilton’s Fish Farm is the star of the next course. A splash of uncooked tomato sauce under a bed of crunchy, juicy smoked corn carries the trout, along with creamy goat ricotta gnudi. The trout is perfectly cooked, flaking easily with each forkful. Tangy greens and the zing of a Padron pepper round out the sweet and creamy flavours in this dish.
I’m starting to hit the wall, but I know beef is coming out next, so I put on a brave face. The Bavette (also called flank steak) has been seared, roasted, rested, sliced to reveal a vibrantly rare interior, and plated with braised oxtail. The oxtail’s consistency is that of finely shredded meat that melts in your mouth imparting a beautiful, fatty, complex flavour. The beef, too, is insanely tender and rests on a creamy, buttery, silky kohlrabi purée with seared oyster mushrooms, chard, slightly crunchy runner beans, nutty farro, and finished with black currant jus. A dish decadent enough to send us into a little hiatus before the dessert courses. Yes—that’s right. Courses.
The desserts are classics with imaginative use of local ingredients. First up is a burnt feta cheesecake, using feta marinated in balsamic, honey and lemon thyme and served with a blueberry compote and lemon-verbena-olive oil sorbet. It’s both sweet, lemony and brightly herby in flavour. The second dessert and final course is a gluten-free clafoutis made with spiced Nova Scotia plums. Plated with tart plum gelée and creamy sabayon made with Benjamin Bridge’s Nova 7 and a pile of almond crumble topped with yogurt sorbet, there are many flavours at work, and a delicate balance of tart plum with mild yogurt. But, for me, it’s the crumble’s texture and nuttiness that brings it all together.
A few hours later, when we emerge, it’s dark. The golfers have all gone home. A couple of minutes later, our host is back to pick us up. Full and tired, we are happy to have a comfortable place to lay our heads for the night, before exploring the town in the morning. The next day is a stunner, and after checking out of the inn, we head downtown, grab coffees from Sissiboo Coffee Roaster, and wander the Annapolis Royal Farmers & Traders Market. We grab local plums, cherries, and the most beautiful tomatoes, some sourdough, and some beer from Lazy Bear Brewing and Lunn’s Mill. On Robinson’s recommendation, we check out the Red Onion Market too, a small bulk food store and mercantile along the way, then follow the waterfront boardwalk into Fort Anne National Historic Site. We leave Annapolis Royal shortly after, contented—and already planning our next stay.