Dozens of delicious places opened their doors this year, which is great for the city but bad for the task at hand. Choosing just a few outstanding restaurants from such a large field of contenders is hard work. Tasty, enjoyable work maybe, athough still difficult. Add to that the whole "one person's meat is another's poison," and it's impossible to get right---this list simply can't please everyone.
And yet, here we are, naming some of the top new restos in Halifax. These are the places that in my view made an unmistakeable impact this year, practically from the moment they opened. They shone during meals, of course, and they kept coming up in conversations with people along the whole food chain from casual diners to professional chefs. When I stand back and look at the year in dining, it's a crowded, exciting skyline, and these are the three restaurants that stand out.
The Bicycle Thief
"We love the business. We grew up in the business," says Stephanie Bertossi, one half of the team behind the incredibly successful Bertossi Group, the business yin to her husband Maurizio Bertossi's cooking yang. "I've been in it since I was 16, Maurizio since he was 14. Our combined experience is basically a century. We know the business, understand the business and understand the client."
The success of their newest venture, The Bicycle Thief, makes that clear. The restaurant could easily school a preserve jar how to be jam-packed: if the doors are open, you can bet seats are filled.
The Bicycle Thief is a canny melting pot of tastes and techniques from North America and Italy, which amounts to something akin to your standard Sunday family supper, spiked with Mediterranean sensibilities. It's the latest expansion of the winning formula that sees their collection of restaurants--- which also include Il Mercato and A Mano--- explore the regions and romance of Italian cooking. Sticking with that formula is part of their success.
"Maurizio is an Italian chef. If he was French, maybe we'd be doing French restaurants," Stephanie says, laughing. "It's his food, his vision. Italian food we're very lucky with, it's so all-encompassing and so varied."
Regardless of where they're cooking, they have one goal: "We want each customer to feel like they are coming to your house for a great dinner party--- they feel welcome, don't feel intimidated and we always have great wine."
She laughs again, happy with the casual approach that has come with the years of work, reveling in the fact that you can wear jeans to the restaurant. "I just want people to say they had a great meal and a great time and that they want to come back. I want everybody to leave happy." (The Bicycle Thief, Bishop's Landing, 1475 Lower Water Street, 425-7993)
Bistro Le Coq
This bistro is best described as "An American in Paris." It's a beautiful, inviting space with a menu that puts some distinctly New World flourishes on some Old World dishes. At its heart there is a sincere celebration of French flavours. While it will never be a bar à vins tucked away in the Marais, it's brought a new rhythm to Argyle Street, and ---to put it simply---"'s wonderful."
"The food is comforting, there is lots of flavour," says Shannon Bruhm, vice-president of operations for local resto company RCR. Much like The Bicycle Thief, there is a melding of cultures at work at Le Coq with dishes like delicate, fatty bone marrow getting a local twist with a blueberry jam accompaniment.
"We really tried to pattern it a bit more on North American bistros. I will say that the nightlife aspect of Balthazar in New York is something we were quite taken with," he says. "It's open very late and has an energy crackling that, as soon as you walk in, you want to be a part of---it's like walking into a party."
RCR Hospitality Group finds its influences for restaurants, quite literally, all over the map. Through its group of restaurants--- which includes the Southern barbecue of Q Smokehouse, and a fusion menu with many Asian influences at Onyx---RCR explores a spectrum of culinary ideas with high- concept stand-alones.
"We just really like to eat out and drink wine ourselves, we're no different than our customers in that regard," says Bruhm. "What we were looking for when we opened the bistro was a comfortable place to come, to hang out, to not feel rushed---somewhere to take your significant other on a date and feel like you had an exceptional meal, or somewhere to come in and have champagne and mussels on the spur of the moment." (Bistro Le Coq, 1584 Argyle Street, 407-4564)
A tiny restaurant where tables barely outnumber the days of the week, Laura's Cafe does its best to fill a smaller niche in a vibrant community with simple, rustic dishes, serving a combination of Russian dishes and diner classics. A family-run restaurant, each member of the Vassioukova clan has their hands on something, whether it's your borscht or your bill.
"My mom always liked to work in the restaurant business," says Elena Vassioukova of her mother, Laura. "So when she finally had the opportunity, she took it. My mom is the chef here. She had chef training back in Russia; she owned a restaurant there. My Dad works here, too, as well as my cousin."
What this family is doing is taking everyday flavours and putting them in a Slavic context that is exciting and welcoming, foreign and familiar. Highlights include tender pelemeni---buttery dumplings filled with ground beef, and served with tart sour cream---and salads that touch on earthy, sweet and crisp, like the beet-based venigret and Stolichniy potato salads.
"Most of our cuisine is from southern Russia---we have an Armenian dish and a Georgian dish on the menu, too, because of how close those countries are. It's been a really positive customer response, people love to come in and try Russian cuisine. A lot of people haven't tried it before. We just want to keep the business going, and get more people to try our food." (Laura's Cafe, 1022 Barrington Street, 431-5494)