Seasonal, “old-style” cooking a stone’s throw from Peggy’s Cove

When is the most beautiful time to be in the dining room?” I ask Diane and Jim Buckle, owners of Rhubarb. We are chatting over a glass of wine in the empty restaurant, late afternoon on a Monday, the only day of the week they’re closed during the winter season. “All the time,” says Diane. “I don’t take this for granted, ever. I don’t think any of us do,” she says about the restaurant’s beautiful surroundings in Indian Harbour, near Peggy’s Cove. “You really can’t beat this sunset.”

The weekend following our meeting, I arrive at the restaurant around 6 pm on a biting cold Saturday night to have dinner. I’m seated beside a window in the rear of the dining room, just in time to catch the day’s dying light. The view shows winding cobblestone walkways, trees and a scatter of weathered, grey, wood-sided cottages that belong to Oceanstone Resort; behind those, the sea and horizon. That night there’s some cloud over the ocean, so the sunset is quicker than usual, but I manage to see it between ordering a champagne cocktail and the first course. Once the darkness sets in outside, the interior charm of Rhubarb is really ignited — there is an intense warmth and cosiness, especially on a bitterly cold night. The restaurant is half full already and there’s a nice energy. Rhubarb’s dining room doubles as an art gallery; the walls are full of local and Canadian artists, showcasing pieces that express the maritime spirit. The wooden floors, tables and chairs, a stone fireplace, and home-grown art give the space a very house-like feel. Inside Rhubarb, there are 45 seats, and the summer patio adds 35 more.

“If you’re going to make a go in this industry, out here, you might as well try to serve in the winter time,” says Jim. Diane and Jim, both hospitality veterans, took over Rhubarb in 2012 and are the first owners to operate the restaurant year-round. “The summer is nice and busy, but our real focus is the rest of the year. It’s all about locals,” says Diane. The Buckles have lived in Indian Harbour since 1993, and as locals, their commitment to the community is quite obvious. It is easily recognizable by the way they’ve operated Rhubarb and by the gratitude they exude when describing living and owning a restaurant in Indian Harbour. “This is home to us. So to have the opportunity to have this business, here, it’s unbelievable, really,” says Diane.

Prior to buying the business, Diane worked for two of the previous owners at Rhubarb. Her first stint, 14 years ago, was just after watching the restaurant being built just three houses down from where she and Jim live with their two daughters. Years later, in September 2012, Diane returned to work at Rhubarb and knew it was time to make the transition from employee to owner. “I went to [the owners] and said: ‘You know how I wanted the next restaurant I worked at to be my own? I’d kind of like Rhubarb to be mine.’ And they said, ‘Great!’” Diane and Jim opened the doors, as owners, on November 1, 2012, with a fresh outlook and different plan for Rhubarb.

“The way people eat has changed,” says Diane. “People just want good quality, hopefully locally sourced [food], where you can be comfortable.” The Buckles changed up the style noticeably from previous owners — no white table cloths, for instance — and the slogan at Rhubarb became “Simple good food.” Diane describes the menu as “nothing crazy over the top. It’s simple. Familiar, with a little twist. And seasonal.” Jim’s role is to work closely with the culinary team, who has been with them for a long time. The focus in the kitchen is on keeping things simple, with some creativity, and working with seasonal products that are available. “There’s nothing extravagant on [the menu]. We braise a lot of meat, our lamb shanks are braised, our brisket is braised — old-style cooking,” says Jim.

Soon after I order my first course, a basket of warm, fluffy house-made biscuits are dropped off at the table. The biscuits are representative of the down-to-earth style of the food and service at Rhubarb, and a lovely way to start the meal. The beet salad I choose for my first course is comprised of mixed greens generously dressed in a vibrant fuchsia-coloured haskap vinaigrette, deep purple roasted beets, thinly sliced apple, red onion, goat cheese and toasted pumpkin seeds.

I get the crispy haddock for my main course, something Diane tells me has been on the menu since the Buckles took over Rhubarb. It comes with two pieces of fresh, meaty haddock, pan-fried with a thick panko breadcrumb crust, served on a bed of crunchy chickpea salad. It is a heaping portion of a very refreshing — and filling — mixture of chickpeas, cucumber, tomato, onion and cabbage, tossed in a sweet honey-mustard dressing. The crispy components of the salad are satisfying and much lighter than your traditional side of mashed potato.

Rhubarb has an in-house pastry chef, Kate Melvin, and I am excited to try her desserts. I order the chocolate pâté, with a glass of tawny port, and it arrives in a mason jar with two tiny spoons. On the bottom is a layer of luscious salted caramel, topped by rich, dark chocolate ganache. The garnish is a simple dollop of whipped cream and two small pieces of brittle. This dessert is the perfect match to my port, and I savour every bite — it’s just the right amount of sweet to end the meal. As a gift, I am also given three beautiful hand-made chocolate dipped caramels from LURE Caramel Co., a project that Kate has turned into a successful side business at Rhubarb. These I have to save for later.

Over the last five years, Diane and Jim have grown the business into a bustling year-round operation, finding ways to appeal to the community throughout the winter months. “We get great support from the locals, who have sort of stuck through all the transitions,” says Diane. In addition to being open from 11 am to 9 pm Thursday through Saturday, Rhubarb is open from 10 am to 8 pm on Sunday, serving brunch until 1 pm. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Rhubarb is open from 11 am to 4 pm. During winter, the restaurant is closed on Mondays.

“Summer is just so busy, every day,” says Diane. The clientele at Rhubarb and the menu evolve during these months, when the kitchen is mainly slinging fish and chips, chowder, and lobster rolls to hungry tourists on their way to and from Peggy’s Cove. Starting June 1, summer hours take effect and Rhubarb is open daily, from 11 am to 9 pm Monday through Friday, and 10 am to 9 pm Saturday and Sunday, serving a breakfast menu until 11 am. The Buckles seem to have found the right balance for staying open — and busy — year-round in Indian Harbour. The summer is about showcasing what Nova Scotia has to offer, and the off-season months are about enriching the community for those who live there.