The blank faces of storefronts in a strip mall can sometimes seem like a police line-up: not one of them might be guilty of anything, but as your eyes cruise down the line, you can't help but feel more than a little unsure. A strip mall might very well be the natural habitat for delicious fast food, but more often than not it's just hard to believe a great sit-down restaurant can exist in the shadow of a Christmas Discounters store.
In one of the many unassuming strip malls that line the way through Lower Sackville, my friend and I find Chef's Menu. Yellow cafe curtains line the high windows like a toothy grin, below the boldly simple restaurant sign.
Inside, the restaurant is as sunny as the curtains hinted it would be. It's also much bigger than the small storefront indicated. High ceilings painted a brick red and muted yellows create a warm openness in the room. A long banquette lines the wall and dark wood bar tables are scattered throughout. Tiny bell-shaped pendant lights, department store artwork and mumsy fake floral sconce arrangements make the restaurant look like a Homesense show room. It's modern in a way that totally lacks edge: unexceptional without being unappealing.
Our server brings us water and menus that lean heavily toward pastas and sandwiches and other simple fare. We get the chicken and broccoli crepes ($14) and the pulled pork sandwich ($11). I pay an extra $2 to upgrade my side to a spinach salad.
The crepes are plated like pasta: they look like cannelloni. Spears of crisp broccoli, earthy mushroom and tender chicken are tucked into the rolls, which sit in a rich pool of peppercorn cream sauce. Cheddar and Monterey Jack cheese have melted over the crepes, making each bite almost recklessly creamy. It is a tasty indulgence.
The accompanying garden salad is fresh and crisp, a spring respite from the wintry heaviness of the crepes, with big chunks of red pepper and crisp coins of cucumber.
The spinach salad is also good, but has a few problems. The sliced egg is overcooked--- powdery yolks and watery whites---and there is too much shredded cheese. But the velvety dressing is delicious and the peppery red onion, thin slices of mushrooms and spinach are all firm and fresh.
I like the salad more than the sandwich; the pulled pork is a disappointment. I was initially very excited by the pretzel buns, looking forward to the super dense chewy delight of a good Laugenwecken. The bun arrived steamed, deflated and damp, lacking the bready heft I was hoping for.
After one floppy bite, I opt for a knife and fork, even though there isn't a lot of pork on the sandwich. What pork is there is well- seasoned, but has a pulpy, almost squishy texture. The so-called Cajun barbecue sauce also lacks spice, exhaustively relying on sweet and smoky notes. It is ultimately a very forgettable sandwich.
We decide to finish with coffees ($2), a slice of cheesecake ($7) and a family recipe carrot cake ($6), which our server guarantees to be incredible.
The daily cheesecake is Bailey's flavoured, drizzled with chocolate. It's daintily boozy, with a thick and crumbly crust. As our server indicated, the carrot cake is the real highlight of the day---it's light and fluffy, a layer cake instead of a simple sheet, with mellow ribbons of cream cheese frosting throughout. It has an unfortunate garnish of gaseous, cloying whipped cream, but even that can't touch the greatness of this cake.
While the meal has been a bit uneven, there is a hominess and simplicity to Chef's Menu that makes me want to return. If you're driving through Lower Sackville, it's worth picking out of the line-up.