High-end dining with a side of history

Looming over downtown Halifax these days is the recently completed multi-use commercial development called the Nova Centre. This one-million-square-foot, glass-sided building rises like a ship out of the Halifax harbour. Its shiny, bright, modern look has transformed the landscape of the city, making it feel more contemporary. Just across Argyle Street is the oldest building in Halifax: St. Paul’s Anglican Church, founded in 1749. The cross street at this corner of Argyle is Prince, and tucked away behind the historic Carleton Hotel building with its entrance facing Prince Street (and the church), is The Press Gang Restaurant and Oyster Bar.

The Press Gang is the perfect place to find refuge from the modernization of downtown Halifax, which has quite pleasantly become a fantastic destination for exploring the juxtaposition of old and new, often right next to each other. Walking through the doors of the Press Gang feels like you’ve entered another era. The main wall that flanks the right side of the restaurant is an original exterior of The Carleton Hotel, a private residence built in 1760 as the home of Richard Bulkeley, making it the third oldest building in Halifax.

Chef Bryan Corkery

Many of the stone walls and thick wooden beams inside The Press Gang are original, and the general manager Saundra Heaslip, or any of the staff, are happy to give tours, pointing out rooms they believe were servants’ quarters, and other fascinating tidbits to stoke the flames of imagination. The name of the restaurant itself is the basis of many a story between customer and server — a “press gang” forcibly (and controversially) recruited men to the British Royal Navy. This practice spread to British North America between the years of 1775 and 1815, with a lot of action happening in Halifax, St. John’s, and Quebec City. Some of the stories revolving around tactics used by the press gang make for intriguing dinner conversation, to say the least.

“The service is not white glove service. It’s fine dining,” says Heaslip, quickly squashing rumours early in our interview, that The Press Gang is fussy, or pretentious. Sitting and talking with her, I feel her sense of ownership and pride in the business — having started sixteen years ago as a server. She walks me through the restaurant, touching on history points and facts about the building.

While the setting is historic, impressive, and higher end, the warm smile at the door from the hostess and light-hearted, easy and upbeat service I receive while dining there a week later definitely backs Heaslip’s claims. The vibe is hushed and chill, the lighting is dim and romantic; candlelight is easily absorbed by the wooden beams in the ceiling and stone walls. Our server describes the oysters on offer that night: Eel Lake, Pristine Bay, Lucky Lime, and Beausoleil. I go for a dozen, three of each — and order some bubbly. Might as well do it right.

“It’s a big part of the experience,” says chef Bryan Corkery, of the role oysters have always played at The Press Gang. “As soon as you walk in, the big bin of ice is completely full of oysters and the bartenders are shucking right in front of you.” It’s true that all the oysters are on ice at the bar — another part of the dramatic visual appeal of the main dining room. My table’s oysters arrive with classic accoutrements: lemon wedges, cocktail sauce, fresh horseradish, mignonette, and fish roe. It’s interesting to try each back-to-back, noticing the differences in size, brininess, and sweetness. It’s a tie between Lucky Limes from Prince Edward Island and Beausoleil from New Brunswick for a favourite — but, for me, you can’t go wrong with any Maritime oysters.

There is definitely a focus on seafood at The Press Gang, at least during the summer months when the majority of clientele are tourists. I happily play along, ordering the scallop appetizer: Three Digby scallops seared with garlic and sherry, served on top of caramelized onions, apple-balsamic drizzle, dabs of squash puree, and topped with matchstick apples. The scallops are cooked flawlessly, maintaining that melt-in-your-mouth middle flesh that comes from a quick sear on each side. Rich, buttery caramelized onions are balanced by the crunchy raw apple, but most importantly these elements allow the scallops to shine.

Keeping with the seafood all-star lineup, I order the Atlantic halibut for my main. I’ve always loved halibut for its dense, meaty texture, and versatility. Chef Corkery has had some fun with it, serving it on a bed of dirty chorizo rice with bok choy, roasted carrots, beets, and green beans – and topped with a mushroom butter sauce. The halibut is pan-seared and the crust is incredible. The variety of textures from the vegetables — tender, sweet beets, crunchy sautéed bok choy and green beans — make each bite interesting. The dirty rice is savoury and satisfying, a little bit of addictive comfort food, and the portion is generous.

“We do have a couple things on the menu that have a significant wow factor,” says Corkery when I ask him about what he would recommend. “One is called the Henry’s Feast. I put that on the menu in honour of one of our past owners, Dave Henry.” Although I went for the traditional three-course dinner the couple at the table next to mine (French tourists) went for the feast, designed for two. Glancing over, it definitely looked like something to behold: Cracked lobster, oysters, scallops, halibut, shrimp, plus sides… a “seafood extravaganza” as Corkery put it. I’m definitely getting it on my next visit. “The other really interesting thing we have on the menu, is meant for foodies,” says Corkery. He describes “The Drill” a four-course tasting menu made with whatever is on hand that day. “Typically it’s made on the spot and you might never see that dish again.”

Per Corkery’s tip, I order the peanut butter pie for dessert, but also the lemon tart because I love a pucker-worthy lemon dessert from time to time. The sour lemon curd, served in a sweet dough crust, topped with strawberries, blueberries, and torched meringue is exactly what I was expecting, and definitely hits the spot. But I admit the peanut butter pie is worthy of the chef’s recommendation. Whipped peanut butter and chocolate ganache on an Oreo crust — it tastes like a giant Reese’s peanut butter cup. And with my glass of 10-year-old port, it’s heavenly.

“When you’re done, it’s a satisfying, full meal,” says Corkery. “There’s a great value for dollars spent, and I believe we really do a good job at that.” If it weren’t true, The Press Gang wouldn’t be creeping up on their twentieth anniversary just next year. There will always be a place for restaurants like The Press Gang in a growing downtown — a charming space to take a breath and enjoy a nice meal, with a bit of history.