Chef Michael Dolente shifts the focus from music to food
It’s the middle of a weekday afternoon, and The Carleton is closed. The stage is empty, the tables are set and ready for dinner service, and the space is eerily quiet. I’m meeting chef Michael Dolente, general manager Jon Whitton and sous chef Mathias Probst for an interview to talk about the changes at The Carleton over the last year. Aside from the interior renovation that started last December and ended in early February 2018, the famous music bar has seen a change in ownership and a shift toward a more refined food experience. If it’s up to Dolente, Whitton, and Probst, people will soon be coming through the doors as much for the food and wine as the music.
Dolente is a local, who started cooking while still in high school, grinding it out at The Cellar in Bedford before moving around the city, cooking in restaurant and hotel settings and eventually moving to Toronto in search of greener pastures, as many chefs do. Dolente was running the banquet kitchen at the Shangri-La Hotel in Toronto for four years when he decided to move back to Halifax at the beginning of spring 2017. He joined The Carleton that May and has been making gradual movements with the food program since then.
“I just kind of jumped in, looked at the fridges and did what I could for a couple of days,” says Dolente. He then started recruiting staff and looking to build relationships. “I had to get reconnected and learn about all the suppliers and everything that’s been happening in the city since I was totally out of the loop,” says Dolente. “That was a total from scratch project when I came back. It was a very large menu, very typical Nova Scotian pub food.” Dolente has slowly been introducing new iterations of the menu over the last year, crossing off a couple items at a time, and adding plates more his style, to get to where it is now. These days — it’s described as more of a “small plates” menu, and customers are encouraged to order two or three items per person, share, and have a more involved experience. There are still some traditional items like wings, a burger, and of course, The Carleton’s famous frites. There’s also a tasting menu option — inform your server of any dietary concerns and leave it all in Dolente’s hands.
When I return to The Carleton with a friend that evening, the tasting menu is precisely what Dolente has in mind for us. Dolente admits I will be the first to have the tasting menu, and I’m excited. Glancing over the dinner menu I can tell Dolente’s style of food — globally influenced, but predominantly locally-sourced — will be fun to taste over several small plates. When I walk in it’s an hour before folk-rock band Lion Bear Fox is to start their set. The restaurant is about half full, it’s dimly lit, and there’s a mellow vibe; I’m seated in a prime spot with an unobstructed view of the stage. Getting right to it, an amuse bouche style course arrives, with two items: a sous-vide egg yolk with house-cured bacon on a rye crisp, and a two-year aged asiago cheese croquette with aioli. These two bites are exactly what an amuse should be — and leave my hopes high for what’s to come.
The second course is a tiny version of a regular menu item — sweet potato agnolotti on celeriac puree, with brown butter and pecorino. The sweetness of the sweet potato and earthy celeriac gives this dish an autumnal, pumpkin pie vibe. It’s a cozy little bite. The third course was on my wishlist – a small taste of the tuna tartare. The tuna is wild caught British Columbia albacore, delicate and delicious, on top of a very umami sesame-miso emulsion, and topped with thinly sliced raw radish and a salty, black squid ink cracker. I could deal with a lot more than just three bites of this dish.
Unexpectedly, the fourth course shows up and is cheese. Baluchon from Quebec, a tangy organic, semi-soft washed rind cheese, complemented by apricot jam and pickled daikon, served with toasted caraway sourdough bread from Birdie’s Bread Co. in Dartmouth. I’m surprised to have a cheese course at this stage, but I’m into it. I’m always into cheese.
“The feedback [about the tasting menu] has been that many people are asking about it. Want to know what it entails, how it works. They’re intrigued by it, just not ready to cross the line yet,” says Whitton. “So that’s great that it’s a point of conversation between the customer and the staff.” One service at a time, the team at The Carleton are getting customers excited about the small plates style of eating, and, hopefully, soon more people will dive into the tasting menu.
Four courses in and I’m loving it. The fifth course is another miniature version of an item on the dinner menu — pork belly with grilled radicchio and chimichurri. The bright, intense garlic and acidity of the chimichurri is the perfect match for fatty pork belly. Our sixth course is crispy skinned char (which I later find out is sustainably pond-raised near Truro), accompanied by sweet, grilled delicata squash and salty cured Atlantic salmon roe. As we’re discussing how amazing the char is, Lion Bear Fox take the stage.
Earlier that day during the interview, Whitton described an upcoming shift to offer more evenings without ticketed music shows. The goal is to have just two to three nights per week where the music is the draw. “We really want to get people through the door where the food and drink are the focus and the music is the afterthought.” Says Whitton.
A darling portion of Atlantic beef ribeye arrives as the seventh course. It is cooked perfectly medium rare, done sous vide, and melts in your mouth. On top of the beef I spy fat flakes of fine sea salt, and it’s served on creamy, dreamy smoked parsnip puree with a red wine butter sauce, crispy onions, and confit potato. A fantastic way to end the savoury courses.
What turns out to be a nine-course menu finishes with two desserts. First, an apple ice cream on top of a graham cracker crumble. Like a lighter version of apple crisp, the ice cream is sweet and juicy, with crispy bits of fresh apple. Cold and refreshing. When the final course arrives, I signal our server and immediately request a glass of aged port. The chocolate pannacotta (available on the dinner menu) is smooth, creamy, milky chocolate goodness on top of a crunchy espresso cookie, drizzled with dulce de leche and topped with bittersweet candied cocoa nibs. A wonderful ending to nine courses that kept me guessing (and happy) the entire time. I settle in to watch Lion Bear Fox play a few last foot-stomping tunes — they’re great — but for me, it was all about the food.