It’s been a hectic few months for Wesley Bernard, chef de cuisine at Daryâ, the newest culinary addition to the waterfront Queen’s Marque district. Preparing to open a restaurant is both an exhausting and exhilarating endeavour full of revamping, restructuring and reorganizing, but once the dust has settled, seeing everything come together is nothing short of magic. The restaurant was buzzing with that fresh sense of excitement when The Coast sat down with Bernard as the team prepared for dinner service.
The Eastern Mediterranean-inspired eatery opened its turquoise doors on Nov. 9, and it’s gotten progressively busier each of the three weeks it’s been here. Daryâ, which means “sea” in Persian, is a love letter to the cuisines of a host of countries, including Turkey, Greece, Iran and Lebanon. As described by Bernard, the restaurant offers an “eclectic and diverse” menu that pulls from the region’s ingredients, techniques and flavours, complete with an atmosphere and aesthetic—an ornate, yet cozy space splashed with teal and gold—that “transports you to that part of the world.”
Daryâ’s menu is the brainchild of Bernard, corporate executive chef Anthony Walsh, who lived in Greece as a kid, and district executive chef Steven Kwon, who called Dubai home for several years. (These names may be familiar: Daryâ is brought to you by Freehand Hospitality, the same folks behind Bar Sofia, Cafe Lunette and Drift.) The three embarked on plenty of research through reading and travel to create the restaurant’s flavour profile.
“We're not locking ourselves into Greek or Turkish or Lebanese or Israeli—we're a snapshot of the whole with my own inspiration and my techniques, and my flavour and aesthetics,” Bernard explains, “We take little pockets of inspiration from seasoning to techniques, and mold them together to be its own unique version of what people grew up with.” Daryâ’s versions of classic dishes deliberately wander from home cooking: “It's not comparable, but it's also awe-inspiring.”
And Bernard’s personal culinary style—he describes himself as a curious and playful but structured and organized chef—shines through in every dish. He’s obsessed with approachable food, scratch cooking and old-world preservation techniques: fermenting, brining, pickling, curing and making his own vinegars and bread.
“A little bit of all of that is in my menu here at Daryâ,” he says, “through the myriad of pickles that we serve here, through smoking and curing meats and fish, through brining and preserving chicken and shawarma spices, and creating really fun and flavourful condiments that complement all of the different items on the menu.”
Speaking of fun and flavourful condiments, Bernard has created his own version of Halifax donair sauce he calls “Daryâ donair.” On top of the traditional ingredients of sweetened condensed milk, vinegar and garlic powder, Bernard’s version is three quarters toum, a Lebanese sauce made with raw garlic, lemon juice and oil. “It gives it a sharpness and a depth,” he explains.
If you want to try Daryâ donair sauce, it’s a feature of one of Bernard’s signature dishes: Shawarma spiced grilled octopus tentacles with ezme (a Turkish condiment made from tomatoes, pomegranate, jalapenos and peppers), charred lemon and pickled pepper. Other menu highlights include lamb tagine, a lamb shank from Northumberland Farms braised in a Moroccan-inspired fruit and nut mixture and topped with toasted almonds, which is “very much like an embrace from the inside;” avocado fattoush salad with crispy pita and a sumac and red wine dressing; sea bass that’s imported from Greece; and a falafel that apparently has to be tasted to be believed. “People have always had falafels but when they have our falafel it hits a brain cell that just inspires thought, like ‘What is going on? What did you do to make this so good?’”
But the star of the show isn’t any of these mouthwatering concoctions. It’s bread. “Bread is definitely the centerpiece of what we do here at Daryâ, what it kind of brings together as a community, as a space, as a culture,” Bernard says. The restaurant is meant to be a meze style of dining, meaning lots of small, shareable plates. “Everything should be kind of like a feast or a meal that is shared amongst friends, and the tables should always be full of something, whether it be olives or spreads or pickles or different cured meats or fish plates. But bread is the one vessel and the centerpiece that kind of ties it all together, where it's that communal sharing, family vibe that Daryâ wants to be able to present.”
No matter what dish you try, what Bernard wants to achieve is a “wow factor,” on the first bite, a sense of surprise that makes you question how it happened. “Where it seems so simple, so humble that you wouldn't expect these big, prominent flavors to shine through,” he says. “Making simple things shine. That’s my goal.”
Bernard is pleasantly surprised at how good the reception has been so far. “I had my doubts in the beginning just as far as how different we were, and how many cultures we were trying to encompass into this one space,” he says. Bernard and the team were anxious about doing everybody’s culture justice, and didn’t want to offend anyone by trying to replace the nostalgia of their grandmother’s kitchen.
“But from all of the experiences and all of the people that have given us feedback, it seems to be quite the opposite,” he says. “People are transported back to their childhood or back to their grandmother's couch, having these dishes resembling things they used to grow up with, and it inspires them and it inspires me.”
The chef says Halifax is undergoing a culinary evolution, with a heightened desire for elevated experiences both in food and in atmosphere. And Bernard believes Daryâ delivers on that demand for refined dining—but it’s also something different. “It stands alone in the sense that it's offering something that Halifax hasn't had before,” he says. “I think we've pushed the boundaries as far as what we can accomplish from making this kind of food from scratch and also going out of our way researching different techniques and ingredients and sourcing them where they never existed in Halifax before, we started to really push the envelope.”