Mateus Bistro beckons, bright and orange, on Main Street in Mahone Bay. It's a bright exclamation point on the end of a meandering observation, a dawdle of a drive down along the Lighthouse Trail as it wraps itself around the curves of the coastline.
The south shore was made for summer. Fishing villages sit tucked into coves with sun-bleached boats sitting in still waters, buoys piled up in neon jumbles or hung on drooping lines on the sides of weather-scarred sheds. Battered wharves lean rootless into the water, weak in the knees at the sight of lavish yachts that cruise by.
Mahone Bay is a vintage postcard given life by a breath of salt air, a jumble of Easter egg houses—purples, teals and yellows—between puffs of leafy trees. Three steeples jab into the sky by the water's edge where boats sail lazily in the bay. Tourists and townies walk in small crowds on the sidewalks, patios are crowded with pint glasses and ice cream cones.
Six years ago chef Matthew Krizan opened Mateus Bistro, and the restaurant has quietly built a reputation as one of the province's must-go dining destinations. There is a focus on seasonality, approachability and refined home cooking with nods to Krizan's childhood in Czechoslovakia and his family life here. We amble in on a Sunday afternoon. The bright sun and a crisp breeze make it ideal patio weather. A high railing lined with verdant shrubs and puffs of pink and white flowers cut the wind with leafy waves. Vibrant art and a sun-baked antlered skull hang on the orange walls of the 160-year-old building. String lights hang above and quiet music hums.
We're quickly brought menus and water. We order hot coffee ($3.50) and a cold Shipbuilders cider ($8.75). I start with a cup of seafood chowder ($8), which features tender mussels from nearby Indian Point. The chowder is rich without miring the seafood in creamy muck. Marjoram offers a hint of musty fragrance. The mussels have creaked their way open, their deep oceanic flavour a nice counterpoint to the delicate haddock and tender potatoes.
I will almost always prefer a salt cod fishcake to a haddock fishcake ($14), but the Bistro makes a good case made for the latter. Pan-fried to buttery crispness on the top and bottom, the cakes are a firm mash with lots of flaky haddock. I do wish there had been about three more cups of the sweet, tart chow. The salad is nothing special, fresh and summery with a zingy vinaigrette. It's a bit underdressed, but it does the job.
The same salad is served with the Blackstone Benny ($14), which features two beautiful soft-poached eggs with yolk that melts into the wilted spinach and warmed-through tomatoes. The excellent hollandaise is a real treat, as are the potatoes, edges flecked with burnished crispness from a light fry.
We wrap up the meal with a dessert of summer berries ($10), a mix of strawberry, blueberry and blackberry, heavy with the floral sweetness of Grand Marnier and a dollop of fresh whipped cream.
The country can feel time-worn, but it sure wears that time well. On the drive home, brightly painted houses and tiny replica lighthouses on pristine lots alternate with battered trailers and rusty-edged mailboxes. We peruse yard sales with everything from VHS tapes to dried starfish and hollowed-out lobster claws crammed onto pebbled driveways, and then we stop for the swirl of soft-serve at a country diner where someone boasts they drove seven hours from New Brunswick for the fried clams. That's only an hour from Halifax. Mateus Bistro isn't the only thing that beckons.
533 Main Street, Mahone Bay
Mon, Thu Fri 5-9pm