Picnic at Dart 127 Portland Street Tue-Sat 4-10pm Sat-Sun 10:30am-2pm
There is a line in the movie The Haunting—the perfect 1963 version, not the terrible one from the '90s where Owen Wilson is spoilered in a spoiler with a spoiler—that always makes me think of downtown Dartmouth. When Eleanor Lance, the walking goosebump protagonist, arrives at Hill House, the scoul of a housekeeper warns that once the sun sets, everybody with a lick of sense will be safely in town, away from the house with the titular haunting. "No one will come any nearer than that," she warns. "In the night. In the dark."
She might as well be talking about Portland Street.
Once the golds and pinks of the sunset—the view of which is one of life in Dartmouth's great perks—give way to dark, downtown Dartmouth practically yells "Shut it down!" Most businesses that stay open after 6pm are bars. A lot of people would define them as sketchy. (But those people have probably never seen elderly couples two-stepping to a three-piece at Staggers.)
The recent opening of The Canteen seems to already be changing the way people interact with Portland below King Street, but at night the inky centre of downtown can still come across as impenetrable in its emptiness. In the night. In the dark.
The Dart Galley has been a bright spot by the corner of Dundas since it opened in 2014. It is a true gem, a quirky space that has made a delightful mark in the arts community with collaborative exhibitions steeped in pop culture, fandom and a celebration of local perspectives. A renovation last year expanded to include Picnic at Dart, a space for food and drink and an ongoing collaboration with chef Allan McPherson who had been hosting pop-up dinners at the gallery under his Picnic banner.
As a space, the restaurant is an eccentric extension of the feel of the gallery. Purple-blue walls are a dusky backdrop to black and white stripes, silvery grey tables and a birch tree with fairy lights in the window. It feels like it took inspiration from a dinner party thrown by David Lynch in the Deetz dining room.
The menu changes often, to coincide with the gallery's changing installations. The wine and beer program focuses pretty heavily on local options, but I decide on the Chilean Icalma merlot ($9) a budget-friendly, quaffable blackberry jam of a wine. When the server brings the wine, she also brings a few slices of warm bread with a salty compound butter.
The juicy wine plays really well with devils on horseback ($9), which use preserved plums in place of traditional dates. It's an unattractive plate—the five little lumps sit in dark streaks of housemade chili sauce with pickled vegetables in a neon puddle of oil running between them—but each bite is a nice combination of sweet, sour, creamy saltiness and the chili sauce snaps with heat.
As I sip my wine, a few more tables fill up. Chatter and music, sizzles and clangs make it feel a bit like a dinner party. In the window of the restaurant, in the darkness between the glow of the fairy lights of the trees, I watch a hazy, wobbly reflection of the chef at work.
There is very little of the slow-cooked beef cheek ($16) on my plate and the few scrappy hunks present are parched, wholly dependent on moistness of the surrounding roasted red pepper and sauce, which has the promising flavours of a comforting, wintry stew. The accompanying polenta is gluey, odd in texture: Neither a creamy spoonful nor a crisp-edged cake. The vegetables—mushrooms, beet, asparagus and redundant peppers—are beautifully cooked, but Dead Sea salty.
I finish with an intensely flavoured, mildly sweet chocolate cake ($7.50). The cake is a nice idea, but a cloying pool of chocolate sauce flattens each bite.
It is clear that chef McPherson is an idea man—his small menus are always big on creativity—but some editing would be beneficial. Even with some issues, it is nice to see this much imagination in one space, to see this union of Dart and mouth.