The best way to judge a breakfast place is to order the eggs Benedict, because there are only two correct ways to make the dish.
The first correct way to cook an eggs Benedict can only be found in greasy spoon diners. Greasy spoon Hollandaise sauces are usually made by adding water to some powdered sauce mix. These powder-based sauces are consistently good—and how could they not be? North American food eaters have been trained to appreciate the uniform consistency and flavour profiles that come with our highly processed and manufactured diet.
It’s hard sometimes to remember that there is a better way to eat eggs Benedict: When it’s made from scratch from fresh ingredients by a French-trained chef—a chef like Elias Fathallah at Caribbean Bliss (3619 Novalea Drive) in Halifax’s north end.
The meal starts with a thin slice of banana bread cut into six portions and covered in a light dusting of powdered sugar. The bread is served soft and warm, and even though banana bread is normally sweet, Fathallah’s amuse-bouche is a delicate blend of sweet and savoury. “It’s a special ingredient,” Fathallah smiles when he collects the plate. He’s a single dad who smiles easily when he talks about the things he loves: The food he makes, and the two girls who help out around the restaurant.
The two girls are his daughters and the inspiration behind the restaurant’s namesake sauce. “Sweet and sassy,” he says with his easy, infectious laugh. The sauce is a blend of sweet mango and a fiery, slow-to-kick-in jerk finish, and the flavour gets more complex and intense with cumulative bites. In his original home of Lebanon, Fathallah went to school to learn, and then cooked, French cuisine before coming to Halifax in 2011.
“My goal was to open up my own space and have French cuisine,” says Fathallah. And prior to immigrating, he had the name and menu for his French restaurant ready to go. But he couldn’t find a location. “While I'm waiting, I found the Caribbean place up for sale. So I came to check it out. And I found Caribbean cuisine.”
Fathallah’s Hollandaise sauce is a subtle affair. Unlike the in-your-face richness of diner Hollandaise sauces, Fathallah uses his sauce to compliment the other flavours in the jerk chicken and pineapple Benedict. Cutting into the perfectly soft poached eggs creates a delicious mess of breakfast on the plate. The meal then becomes a mix-and-match of whatever can be sopped up by the buried English muffin (or biscuit). Each mouthful is a delectable combination of the sweet pineapple, the complex jerk spiced chicken, the rich and smooth Hollandaise and the yolk of the egg.
The Hollandaise sauce alone is worth the price of admission. And whether you’re in the market for a traditional or a Caribbean fusion benny, Caribbean Bliss may be the ultimate Halifax has to offer.
For those who aren’t fans of bennies, there are other breakfast options, like the Jamaican chicken and waffles, served with a drizzle of mango purée, that taste like a crossroads of Caribbean and French cuisine: Light, buttery waffles with just the right combination of spicy chicken, sweet pineapple and smoky maple bacon with an added tang of goat cheese. It’s got all of the goodness of regular chicken and waffles, but with more flavour and without the heaviness that sits in your stomach.
As often happens when a meal is shared between two Coast reporters who often talk about sports and politics, the conversation lazily meandered through last week’s Wanderers game and eventually landed back at politics. Caribbean Bliss exists in a weird place and time in municipal planning. Halifax council is in the middle of a huge planning process that will try (among other things) to encourage Home Occupation Uses. Which is a fancy way of saying small community businesses where the owners live on the property.
“When you are in a community like the north end, everyone knows you—everyone,” says Fathallah. “We are neighbours; we are like family. This is bigger than business. Everyone knows me, and I know everyone else.”
Even though HRM council is trying to encourage this type of community business, the only reason Caribbean Bliss can exist here is because of the old Convoy Place grocery and snack bar, which operated as a restaurant in the 1950s before zoning existed. As a result, Caribbean Bliss is allowed to remain a restaurant as the property has been grandfathered into Halifax’s regulated land-use bylaws. But if council is successful in the vision it’s trying to implement with its regional plan review, small community restaurants and stores run by people with a deep passion for their community are poised to make a roaring comeback.
“I love helping people. And I found a way,” says Fathallah, standing beside the table with a plate in his hand. “The closest way to the heart is [through] the stomach. So that's how I ended up cooking and doing food for people.” He places a dessert called pain perdu on the table.
Pain perdu directly translates to “lost bread,” and is the French way of saying French toast. This rich bread dish is normally a feature on kids' breakfast menus due to its proximity to dessert. There is no ambiguity in Fathallah’s dish: It is dessert. The bread, like the waffles and the Hollandaise, has all the hallmarks of what seem like Elias Fathallah’s main strengths as a chef: Rich food without the typical heaviness of rich cooking. The pain perdu is sweet, dense and rich, but it’s not heavy. It has an undertone of savoury spicing, which perfectly blends with the intense sweetness of the scoop of vanilla ice cream.
With files from Martin Bauman