An outside the box approach to making tasty food
When I tasted Unchained Kitchen’s Savoury Okra and Blue Cheese Donuts, the memory of my very first bite replayed in my head again and again over the next few days: fluffy, deep-fried dough, warm blue cheese, and the fresh, crisp, tangy kick of homemade remoulade. A few weeks later, I returned and found a new obsession: Buffalo Style Cauliflower Tacos with Tangy Tahini – soft-crispy and spicy with a cooling hit of umami, yet another delicious texture and flavour that I couldn’t get off my mind.
Unchained Kitchen, along with its partner, Chain Yard Cider opened together in May 2017, taking over the FRED building on the corner of North and Agricola. One half of the enormous room is wholly dedicated to making cider, while the other half (where the hairdressing used to happen) has been transformed into a bright, warmly lit taproom with a large u-shaped bar, plenty of casual restaurant seating, and a neon sign that reads encouragingly: Drink More Apples. Outside, at of the busiest intersections in the North End, is a thin but busy patio that on sunny days, fills to capacity with people wearing sunglasses, drinking flights of cider, and of course, eating food, seemingly oblivious to the traffic only a few feet away. Guaranteed, if you time-warped anyone here from 20 years ago, they’d be shocked at the change in this corner of the North End.
Back inside, in a remarkably small open kitchen, is the genius behind the madness of those savoury donuts, Chef Lawry Deneau, who traded his notoriety as an executive chef in the Bertossi group (think Il Mercato, La Frasca and The Bicycle Thief) for this, his own restaurant, which he co-owns with long-time friend and colleague, Ryan Wolfe.
“There’s an incredible allure to the idea of owning your own business and being your own boss,” says Wolfe, who grew up with Chain Yard Cider owners, Mike Lim and Susan Downey Lim, and worked hard to recruit Deneau to the project. While Unchained Kitchen and Chain Yard Cider are technically two separate businesses, there’s a collective feeling of camaraderie and adventure that comes from everyone knowing each other. “Working with your friends in this capacity is really nice,” says Wolfe, “there’s this ‘let’s just do it’ sort of thing.”
Deneau describes a feeling of liberation on leaving the corporate restaurant world, thus the name ‘Unchained’. “When new things came across our table, I wasn’t able to use them in the traditional restaurants,” he explains, “They didn’t fit the mould, they didn’t fit the image. So when Ryan and I got this opportunity, we said, let’s not leave anything off the table…let’s say yes to everything…let’s take it outside the box.”
The food at Unchained is definitely hard to pigeonhole, although the best description might be, “Nova Scotia food with a Southern accent,” referring to an influential period in Deneau’s early career where he worked in a French Quarter of New Orleans and travelled through Louisiana.
In its first incarnation, the Unchained Kitchen menu was weighted with semi-sophisticated bar snacks like olives, Sour Cream and Shallot Popcorn, or simple Old Bay Frites, and at first glance, one could have been forgiven for assuming that kitchen was secondary to the cider operation. But on closer inspection, the menu has always been exciting, from Scotch Eggs to Fried Oyster Po’boy sandwiches, and much in between.
Since the food at Unchained Kitchen is perfect for sharing, I invite one of my own childhood friends for a night of cider and culinary treats, the first being Unchained Kitchen’s much-celebrated classic, Coconut Curry Spice Krispies.
If a butter tart and a flapjack visited an ashram, this fun snack would be their offspring, with sweetness and a cheeky punch of curry that goes well with our flight of cider. We are further delighted when our server introduces the idea that we can make this at home. The recipe is no secret, she says. She makes batches of the Krispies for camping trips and eats them with peanut butter. Wild!
One of the delightful things about Unchained Kitchen and Chain Yard Cider is the friendly, ever so slightly quirky staff. If you’re sitting at the bar, these kind folks will chat to you as if you’re an old friend; if you’re ordering a meal, they’re super-knowledgeable, and always eager to recommend wine or cider pairings. In fact, when my friend decides to order the sea bass, our server nearly hugs her: “you’re going to love it!” When placed on the table, she claps excitedly: “it’s so good.” Because this is both a bar and a restaurant, there’s no pressure to pay up quickly. Sure, you can eat and run if you want to, but you could also stay for a few hours and hang out, maybe order some more food again later. That’s the vibe here: friendly and relaxed.
The butter basted sea bass is indeed delicious, and, from a menu heavy on sweet comfort food like brisket burgers and baby back ribs, it is an excellent example of Deneau’s classical touch. While the presentation is elaborate (tabbouleh, rhubarb relish, chimichurri), the backbone of the dish is dominated by something simple: a delicate piece of fish accompanied by perfectly cooked French beans.
Another menu hit is the Smoked Apple and Bacon Seafood Chowder – a generous bowl of mussels, shrimp, sea bass and scallops, and sweet smoked apples. Other menu items, (such as those delicious cauliflower tacos) use Chain Yard cider in the sauce or the batter. Everything is designed to either incorporate or be paired with cider.
The comfort-food defining moment of our dining experience is the new-to-the-menu Icebox Butterscotch Brownie Cake. Again, there are no great secrets here. Deneau has already revealed to me that the main ingredient in this chocolate monster is actually a store-bought Deep n’ Delicious Cake. Crazy! Although we are nearly full to the brim, we drum up the courage to stick our spoons in the brownie and indulge.
Deneau takes a slightly philosophical approach to his cooking. “Our favourite word is to parallel,” he explains, “like with our experiences and our food memories in life; to try and relive our youth and our exciting days, but also to give people new food memories. That is really the whole idea.”
He’s on point with the cake, as my friend and I relive memories of last-minute birthday parties, midnight trips to the fridge as kids, and even drunk indulgences in our twenties on our way back home from downtown (“keep the taxi running, I’m going into Green Gables to buy a cake!”).
Slightly giddy from the sugar (or maybe it’s the cider talking), I have a revelation. While some restaurants try to engineer themselves to be “urban” or “Italian” or “feminine” or what have you, Unchained Kitchen, with its impetuous, slightly addictive comfort food menu, relaxed come-as-you-are vibe, and a server who literally claps with joy when she hands you your meal, is a teenaged space. More specifically, it’s where hungry teenagers like me come to hang out, once they hit their forties.
Head to Unchained Kitchen with an appetite and an open mind. And if you’re wondering what to order first, I’d definitely recommend the blue cheese donuts.
2606 AGRICOLA STREET, HALIFAX
(inside Unchained Urban Cidery)