Dartmouth-proud resto finds a new home on Portland Street

I grew up in Dartmouth and as a youth, I was obsessed with everything across the harbour. From a remarkably early age, I was allowed to take the ferry on my own. Any chance I had, I was either on my way to or already in Halifax.

Flash forward to today. There’s a whole crew of Dartmouth-proud people rallying around a place they have claimed as their own. When you look at the evolution of big cities, I liken this to a Brooklyn versus Manhattan kind of scenario. People choose quality of life and affordability and seize opportunities in real estate and business, and thus a neighbourhood is born. They then stand vehemently by it to make it work, holding themselves to an “if-you-build-it-they-will-come” doctrine. Sometimes they even make toques, t-shirts and throw pillows. Given my history of escape, I have to admit that I have found it hard to wrap my head around this renewed outlook on Dartmouth. As I settle in to interview Chef Renée Lavallée of The Canteen on Portland, along with her husband and co-owner Doug Townsend, they comment that they have yet to meet someone from Dartmouth who is not Dartmouth-proud. And yet here I sit; I may be the only one.

There’s simply no denying it these days. There’s a legion of businesses, people and some real rock stars (no really, like Joel Plaskett), who have taken great strides to shape this reality. Don’t get me wrong, Dartmouth has always had potential, and especially Portland Street. Enter Chef Renée Lavallée, aka “The Feisty Chef.”

Renée was born Shawville, Québec, to French-speaking parents, in a predominantly English-speaking town in an overwhelmingly French province, which may account for some fledgeling feistiness. In her teens, she enrolled in the culinary program at George Brown College, specializing in Italian food, and eventually landed a high-pressure apprenticeship in Italy, where she cooked three meals a day in a tent outside for Formula One drivers and mechanics at the Italian Superturismo. 

She continued to rack up over twenty years’ experience in the business: at the venerated and slightly scandalous political institution Café Henry Burger in Gatineau, Québec; as the first female executive chef at Toronto’s Oliver & Bonacini group of restaurants; as a private chef for the owners of the Peter Island Resort in the British Virgin Islands; a couple of seasons at the Inn at Bay Fortune on Prince Edward Island; and in Halifax at The Five Fishermen and years with the Bertossi Restaurant Group. 

Chef Renée Lavallée

Doug has now spent a third of his life in Dartmouth, claiming he too was staunchly Halifax. But his allegiance shifted when he and Renée first moved here together, taking over his sister’s home for six months. At the end of their stay, they found themselves ensconced in the community, walking everywhere and loving the proximity to the ferry and many lakes. Once Renée hooked up with the Two If By Sea Café (TIBS) crew, they had a real network to build on. This relationship progressed into their popular TIBS communal dinners and cooking classes.

When Renée reflects on all of the restaurant kitchens she’s worked in, the people who made a lasting impact were Charlie and Jennifer, co-owners of Restaurant Les Fougères in Chelsea, Québec. They instilled ideals Renée is striving to achieve today: a strong work ethic, a family-run restaurant surrounded by a community, a deep commitment to local foods. And they served as mentors and parental figures, raising their kids in and around the restaurant alongside the staff. Renée would often show up hours early because she just wanted to be around them. Ten years ago Doug and Renée returned there to get married.

Eventually, a food blog was born, timed around maternity leaves when Renée was looking for something to creatively focus on. Sharing recipes, daily life with the kids and little culinary discoveries led to a regular column in The Chronicle Herald for a couple of years. Media coverage, countless awards, spokesperson gigs — a strong personality and brand was emerging.

Doug Townsend is no stranger to the culinary scene here himself, having served as the director of marketing at Taste of Nova Scotia for 10 years before jumping off to officially join the restaurant full-time along with Renée recently. At Taste he was an ambassador for the industry; his signature annual videos highlighting the region’s chefs, restaurants and producers often bring a tear to the eye. He’s the man behind the brands The Feisty Chef and The Canteen.

The original Canteen opened in March of 2014 above TIBS. With just 25 seats and a focus on grab-and-go sandwiches and sides, everything was prepared from scratch daily — from the breads to the condiments. The reality is they’ve been building a customer base for years, and it’s truly set the tone for this latest venture.

In late 2015, they were approached by Elliot MacNeil of Bruno Builders Inc., who owns and develops properties in downtown Dartmouth. An ongoing discussion ensued, as they were all invested in building up and being in the neighbourhood for the long haul. When The Canteen’s lease came up, the discussions became serious and they agreed to take over one of Elliot’s spaces, where he would be their builder and landlord.

Regardless of years of experience, pedigree or money saved, banks don’t look favourably on new restaurants. Doug and Renée launched a crowdfunding campaign with a goal of raising $30,000 in a month. It also served as a bit of a litmus test to see if the community really wanted them there. Within four days, they reached their goal, and the campaign topped out at $65,664. They had over 450 backers. Quite simply, this level of support jettisoned their dream into a reality.

The new 60-seat restaurant is light, bright and spacious. Honest to god, it really feels like you’re somewhere else. Once home to the family-run Sun Sun Café for over 40 years, it feels as if a torch has been passed from one family to the other, or would that be a pilot light switched back on? Collaborating with the design team from By + Large Studios (who also played a part in designing Primal and Lot Six), they struck out to create a relaxed, inviting atmosphere for their future diners.

And although this turned into a total gut job of their predecessor’s space, Elliot reincorporated the best of the old bones. Salvaged floor joists make up bar shelving behind a whitewashed original stone foundation. They paid homage to the round signature windows of the old space as a design feature in the new. Electric yellow chairs and light blue accents punctuate the room, along with the warm wooden tabletops from the old Canteen. Light streams in on long white banquettes with Dartmouth-proud pillows and there are fresh flowers on every table.

The food here is approachable, affordable and fresh. At lunchtime, it’s the sandwiches, soups and salads that you’ve come to appreciate from the first location. It’s amped-up comfort food where you don’t have to google what’s on your plate. In the evening, Renée gets to flex and pull inspiration from her history and travels — from classic French to Italian to modern riffs on traditional Nova Scotia cuisine. It’s chef-inspired, seasonal fare, and she’s working hard to thoughtfully showcase local ingredients and suppliers. The elements on her plates are simple and flavourful combinations, not masked in a million different techniques.

The full team from the original Canteen made the seamless transition to the new location. They also secured 30-year industry veteran Steve Arsenault from the Bertossi Restaurant Group as manager, and he’s been instrumental in building an expanded front-of-house team. On the first day, they opened with no dry run. Renée chides that you can get away with a lot if the service is good, and having a seasoned maître d’ makes her life in the kitchen much easier.

In the evening, they’ve been capturing the ebb and flow of community life — from families to an older clientele to young people around the bar sipping cocktails from a program designed by Dartmouth’s own award-winning mixologist Jeffrey Van Horne. The menu heroes out of the gate appear to be the robust burger and a classic steak frites. And don’t forget about brunch. The day I touch down, it’s packed, with a lineup out the door, BUT I have a reservation and we’re ushered in quickly. The food hits the table in virtually no time flat. We chow down on a breakfast hot noodle bowl and breakfast pizza while watching the room vibrate. On this particular day, they deftly handle over 150 reservations and about another 100 walk-ins.

Driven to make all of the pieces connect and work in their lives, from raising a young family through to this new restaurant, it makes sense that their eight-year-old daughter, Zoe, can often be spotted taking coats and seating people, while their six-year-old son, Philippe, is sometimes in the kitchen. The staff understand the reality of kids being around, and they work hard to make them feel like they’re at home too. We’ll call it “full-circle-Fougères.” Can they turn Dartmouth one sandwich a time? And now with this full-service restaurant and team, one plate at a time? Just ask team I [heart] Dartmouth.