My first experience at a Basque restaurant was in Barcelona, at the end of a rambling walk through El Born. A couple of barrel-aged voices, low and thick with fermented bravery, bounced off the curve of the narrow alley. Upon rounding the bend, we found two hoary old men, Garnacha sloshing around their glasses as they sang to one another, to everybody. Of course we stopped for lunch.
The bar was stacked three shelves high with pintxos, mostly tiny open-faced sandwiches, montaditos, spiked with toothpicks: Silky crab salad, salty Iberian ham and anchovies, eggy slices of tortilla, handmade Basque cheeses and creamy potato croquettes. We snaked our arms through the crowd around the bar, picking pintxos like flowers, and when we had our fill, the piles of toothpicks were pushed across our plates like beads on an abacus to calculate the bill. It was great.
The marriage of the simplicity and precision in Basque cuisine, the aromatic depth of Spanish flavours and the spirit and conviviality of the Mediterranean is a heady one. It's very easy to fall in love with. And with its inspiration rooted in those things, so, too, is Highwayman.
The narrow restaurant actually wouldn't be out of place in El Born. There is an abstract romance to the space, too, coziness in the clean lines. Dusky jewel tones, warm deerskin browns, glints of copper and walls the colour of a cloudy sea evoke its namesake Alfred Noyes poem.
With Field Guide and now Highwayman, Dan Vorstermans has become the city's most exciting chef. The food at his restaurants sees outward interests filtered through inward reflection. With Highwayman, there is a clear line of inspiration that leads not only to Spain, but to Grant van Gameren's chic Toronto restaurants, Bar Isabel and Bar Raval. But Vorstermans and the team are resourceful and bright, offering contemplation that is elemental in great Atlantic Canadian restaurants, to both the menu and the bar program.
And the bar program at Highwayman is a highlight: It is tightly focused and distinct within the Halifax bar scene. There is a nice selection of Old World wines accented with some lively local options, and the focus on amaro and vermouth not only makes sense with the exceptional cocktails, but makes for a wonderfully European experience.
Having enjoyed dinner and snacks at Isabel and Raval with my friend Kelsey, when she visits it makes sense to meet at Highwayman.
With our friend Mark, we split a meat and cheese board ($26) with thin slices of silky jambon pays—part of a wonderful collaboration developing menu items with Ratinaud's Frédéric Tandy—and mild, buttery Azul de Posada blue cheese. We also order several pintxos: A bright combination of firm, pink tuna, zingy pickled pepper and green olive ($8), lightly charred octopus with a heat-flecked, peppery Romesco ($10) and a pile of pork belly ($7) that switchbacks its way around the tall toothpick.
The ricotta agnolotti ($16) is a drift of light pasta dumplings stuffed with mild, slightly sweet ricotta in a delicate, cloudy whey broth, given bright life with peeled grape tomatoes and a sprinkling of flowers and bright green pea shoots. A drizzle of grassy parsley oil runs rings around the flaky trout fillet ($22), the shatteringly crisp skin flecked with salt. As robust as trout looks, there is a lightness to the flavour that allows for the sweet greenness of grilled asparagus and the breezy tang of crème fraîche to sing. Both dishes are simple, but well-defined. Service is exceptional.
The last few years have spoiled us with places like EDNA and Field Guide, which continue to establish themselves as contemporary greats while new restaurants like Little Oak gleam with thrilling promise. And Highwayman is really something special: Easily one of the best restaurants in the city after only a few months. Of course I will be back.
1673 Barrington Street
Sun, Tue-Thu 4pm-12am, Fri-Sat 2pm-12am