On a recent Sunday, I indulged in a day full of classical music, hand-crafted spirits, natural wines, and phenomenal food. All without leaving my neighbourhood—the historic and charming North End of Halifax.
It all started at Saint George’s Round Church, a venue for Cecilia Concerts series. Found at the corner of Brunswick and Cornwallis Streets, construction of the round church started in 1800. Before the concert, I’d never been inside, but I’d noticed it for years, with its unique roundness and cupola. For a matinée on a beautiful, bright fall day, the church was awash with light; it’s high ceilings and many windows making the atmosphere airy and fresh, not the least bit stuffy.
Cecilia Concerts is a non-profit charity that produces classical performances. The series just entered its 31st season, so if you’ve never been to a performance (or even heard of the events), you might feel as silly as I did. The show was my first classical music performance, probably ever, and I was surprised to learn internationally acclaimed artists visit and perform in Halifax on the regular. The ticket prices are accessible, too. And there are discounts for students and seniors.
The concert series runs a Musician-in-Residence program, and this season Stéphane Tétreault, a young cellist from Montreal, fills the role. Tétreault has long been considered a prodigy (he became the first-ever Soloist-in-Residence for Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain in 2014, at just 21 years old).
Once settled into our seats, Jules Chamberlain of Red Door Realty, the season’s presenting sponsor, did a brief intro. Tétreault followed, speaking eloquently and confidently about the performance and instrumentalist Mireille Legacé, who was accompanying him on the harpsichord on several pieces. I much preferred the solo cello piece, which I found soothing and powerful. The vibe throughout the concert was hushed, but you could feel quiet energy in the room.
I chatted briefly with Chamberlain during intermission—he was excited about the famed cello that Tétreault has on seemingly permanent loan, the 1707 Countess of Stainlein, Ex-Paganini Stradivarius. In 2012, the cello was sold at auction to an anonymous patron in Montreal, for $6 million. This unnamed patron loaned the cello to Tétreault, then only 18 years old and studying at the University of Montreal (cello and conducting). The story added an air of romantic mystery to the performance. It was a peaceful and lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
Post-concert cocktails were in order, so I headed to Compass Distillers on Agricola Street to see what was on offer. Compass often gets noticed for its cylindrical tower at the corner of Agricola and Charles Streets, but head inside and you’ll see the slew of awards (on display behind the bar) they’ve racked up for their small-batch spirits since opening in 2017. Compass produces vodka, rum, rhumb (like rum but not aged as long), aquavit, and bitters, but their specialty is gin. They have several to choose from, and Taste of Nova Scotia awarded their Spring GiNS 2018 Product of the Year.
If you are a gin lover, I recommend trying a flight and enjoying a proper bartender-led tasting. Gin is my spirit of choice, and this wasn’t my first time at their bar; that day, I wanted something refreshing. The late afternoon sun was blazing through the windows while I sat and chatted with Mallory, my bartender, who answered all my questions and happily offered up her favourites, recommendations, and even a complimentary nip of chocolate vodka. After careful consideration, I opted for the Butterfly Gin & Tonic, which uses Gin Royal, a royal blue coloured spirit distilled with local wheat. Subtly sweetened using local honey and royal jelly—the blue colour of Gin Royal comes from a butterfly pea blossom infusion. When topped with Fever-Tree elderflower tonic, the cocktail takes on new tones. The drink is served on ice and garnished with dehydrated orange slices and fresh rosemary, with the tonic on the side, so you have the pleasure of pouring and watching the colour change from azure to violet, then lilac.
Heading further north to the Hydrostone, I finish the evening with dinner at The Ostrich Club (TOC). Tucked between a floral boutique and a local crafts shop on Young Street, where bistro Epicurious Morsels operated for over 20 years, TOC opened in July 2018, much to their neighbour’s delight. With just 44 seats, plus nine at the bar overlooking the open kitchen, the restaurant is intimate and snug, and you can see what’s happening behind the scenes from every vantage.
Chef Lachlan Culjak has been leading TOC’s culinary program since last March. “At its core, its refined farm-to-table, with international influence,” says Culjak, who draws inspiration from techniques he learned living and cooking in Hong Kong and other major cities. After working internationally and more recently in Toronto, he came home to Halifax, landing at TOC. The restaurant is known for its wine program featuring unfamiliar, natural wines, as well as vermouths and sherries. “My food tends to be fairly light, bright and acidic. It lends itself to these natural wines which have a little more acidity and life,” Culjak says.
I decide the best way to experience the menu is the five-course tasting with wine pairings. The first course is charred baby eggplant atop fresh cheese, in a pool of tomato essence, topped with Dalia petals. The eggplant texture is just right—still a bit firm—and I love the bright, herbaceous, salty tomato essence. The smokiness from grilling the eggplant over coals injects one more layer of flavour, bringing everything together.
Next is bison crudo, a customer favourite. “We cure it with koji, then quickly sear it on the grill, serve it almost raw,” says Culjak. It’s sliced thinly and served on top of porcini mushroom crème fraîche and topped with sea buckthorn, crispy shallots, nasturtium flowers and leaves. The gaminess of the bison and earthy, umami flavours from the porcini are cut nicely with the tart, juicy smashes of sea buckthorn (little orange-yellow berries). It’s a beautifully balanced, creative dish.
The dish that follows needs some explanation. Half the plate is a puddle of shiny black sauce, the other a cream-coloured foam, melting into whatever is below. The sauce, it turns out, is black truffle barbecue. The foam is a form of Asiago cheese, and its melting into poached leek tubes stuffed with sweet snow crab meat—like cannelloni. The leek is cooked al dente, maintaining bright acidity. It is an incredible dish, and I would drink that truffle barbecue sauce by the gallon.
The next plate is house-made sacchetti, a lesser-known pasta that is essentially a little purse, filled and pinched at the top, like a dumpling. Full of goat cheese and preserved lemon, the sacchetti is served with seared scallops and lemon butter and topped with basil leaves. The sweet and tart flavours of the scallops and lemon, respectively, were perfectly matched with the creamy goat cheese.
Surprisingly, a fifth course arrives, a “bonus” dish Culjak wanted to send out. Dessert would have to wait. Up next: Ricotta and arugula gnudi (think gnocchi but made with flour instead of potato) with lobster mushrooms, summer peas, smoked yolk, and crispy guanciale (cured pork cheek). The gnudi are perfectly round, and, when cut, reveal bright green cross-sections (thanks to the arugula)—the texture, surprisingly light, is excellent with the rich smoked yolk, mushroom reduction, and fatty guanciale.
Still not done, we are now in for seven courses. We couldn’t leave without trying the BBQ duck, which Culjak described as “kind of a throwback to my time in Hong Kong where we would roast goose right over coals and then lacquer it with a sticky barbecue sauce.” This was local duck, dry-aged for 10 to 14 days. “We then slow roast it over coals to crisp the skin, and glaze it in a burnt honey barbecue sauce,” says Culjak. It’s sliced and served rare, along with sunchoke three ways (puréed, braised, and pickled), a crunchy, nutty chia crisp, and cold roll dressed with elderflower vinegar that acts like palate cleanser with its acidic, crunchy zing.
After six courses (including the very substantial duck), I wasn’t feeling overly confident about having space for dessert. But when a smooth, creamy chocolate tart topped with sea salt showed up, I found room. Its shell, made of chocolate sweet dough, was layered with pine nut praline and accompanied by cultured cream sorbet. I went with a bitter Amaro digestivo to help me along the way.
The service we received from our server (and sommelier) Stefan Nielsen that night was phenomenal and deserves special mention. It was my second time there as his guest, and the wines he introduced were unique and refreshing. His pairings they were spot on, elevating each course. I would go back for the education alone. When all was said and done, I attempted to walk it off—the full ten minutes—back home.