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Voyages: The Kitchen Table

Voyages: The Kitchen Table

Have you ever eaten moss? I have, the first time I ate at The Kitchen Table. It was reindeer moss: light green and porous, like a loofah, with ramp powder, and fresh cream cheese. Chef Joe MacLellan told diners to eat it with their hands like chips and dip, because that’s how he’d do it. It was delicious and surprising, but the flavours were still rooted in comfort and nostalgia (it somehow reminded me of sour cream and onion chips). This was the beginning of a few obsessions.

After that first experience, I was so enthralled with MacLellan’s food that I pitched writing about it to a few national newspapers, but as we know, the East coast doesn’t get much love on that front. I kept eating there, and eventually my interest in the food turned into an interest in the person making it. Chef MacLellan is my partner now, so either take this as bias or as extremely in-depth research – the choice is yours.

Joe plating-min

The Kitchen Table is a 20-seat restaurant in Halifax’s North end. It’s unique in a few ways for such a small, mostly casual dining city: it has a set 8-course tasting menu, it’s tucked away in the back of local charcuterie and cheese shop Ratinaud French Cuisine, and it’s required that you reserve in advance to eat there. MacLellan’s food is a modern take on Canadian food, with a mix of new and old techniques, quality proteins and vegetables, and foraged foods that grow wild in Nova Scotia.

Although the Kitchen Table uses mostly local ingredients, MacLellan doesn’t like to set limits for himself. If there is top quality fish available from Ontario, he’ll put it on the menu, but he will always put good local product on the menu first. The seasons and availability of produce dictated by them largely shapes the flavours on his menu. A menu might run for one week, then the next week, a few dishes will change and some might stay. MacLellan also caters to allergies, and will make a menu for that diner, as long as the allergy is stated when the reservation is made.

Dinner starts at 7:00 PM for everyone. You enter the restaurant by walking through the front shop where cheese and housemade charcuterie and sausage is sold, and through a door to the back of the building where you’re greeted by a small staff. There is a large communal table–a huge glass top sitting on driftwood roots–where most diners sit, and a handful of bar seats at an open kitchen, where you can closely watch the cooking and plating. Seating is planned in advance based on group size and comfort.

Dining room-min

Dining room 2-min

Shelves lined with jars of dried, pickled and preserved vegetables, fruits, and flowers are scattered artfully along the left wall. Music is low. Once everyone is seated, the owner Frederic Tandy welcomes guests, and the meal begins.

The first thing placed in front of diners is salt, butter, and warm, white, rustic bread rolls. The butter is made in house, the salt is pulled from Nova Scotian seas (collected by MacLellan even in the winter months), and the bread is baked fresh every day by the adjoining charcuterie shop specially for service. The cultured butter is the best I’ve ever had, rich but also acidic and tangy, made with local Fox Hill Cheese House yogurt.

Joe and his team plate quietly. The servers move about the room in a thoughtful, respectful way. In my opinion, the best servers move in a way where you almost don’t notice them, because they are reserved and anticipate your needs before they even register to you. They fill your glass before you even realize it’s empty. Your once crumpled napkin is quietly replaced with a freshly folded one while you’re in the washroom–that’s what the service is like at The Kitchen Table.

When booking, there is the option of doing a wine pairing with every dish, arranged by their consultant sommelier Atima Kamra (who does a fantastic job of making harmonious pairings). If you prefer to bring your own, there’s a $10 corkage fee. I usually opt for bringing my own and with my previous experience eating at The Kitchen Table, I choose bright, aromatic white wines which tend to pair well with MacLellan’s food, in particular his affinity for pickles and pickled things. I too studied wine like the sommelier, but otherwise, I would highly recommend putting your trust in her.

Course 1: Wild scallop with preserved seaweed and scallop cracker.

1st-min

The scallops are buttery soft, and perfectly seasoned. On top of them is a thin layer of hand-foraged preserved local seaweeds in oil, burnt leek, dried smoked mussel, pear juice, and sherry vinegar. Small bits of scallop cracker cover the top of the seaweed.

Texturally the dish is light, with the airiness of the cracker and the lightly cooked scallop, but the flavour is intense and layered. Together the components have a strong truffle-like flavour, coming from the cracker and preserved seaweed. The New Brunswick scallops, which were cooked sous-vide, have a clean and simple flavour, balancing all the intensity from the two other components in perfect harmony.

Course 2: Pickerel with pickled ramp, charred cabbage, and lardo.

2nd-min-min

All of the components of the dish sit on a dollop of dashi emulsion. For those that don’t know, dashi is a broth made with bonito (tuna) flakes and seaweed and tastes like a creamy, umami cloud.

Beside the dashi emulsion is a small piece of pickerel from local fishmonger Hooked, which is brined and cooked sous-vide. The pickled ramp, a wild onion that grows all over Nova Scotia, brings zippy acidity to the dish, leaving me wanting more in each bite. With a menu that is locally sourced, the winter can be a challenge, so preserving, drying, and pickling is essential to MacLellan’s menu and for adding flavor throughout the less abundant months.

The crunchy pork fat, or lardo is scattered sparingly on the dish, and is sourced from sister business Ratinaud French Cuisine. The businesses work with each other as much as possible to minimize the amount of food waste they create.

The fresh soft fish, bitter crispy cabbage, crunchy lardo, acidic and sweet ramp, and funky dashi emulsion come together to form a state of equilibrium.

MacLellan’s plating is beautiful. With multiple courses and small portions there is room for artful plating and negative space. Although sometimes the components are whimsically placed and spaced, they are meant to be tasted together. Together they show MacLellan’s knowledge of the interplay between acidity, bitterness, sweetness, fat, texture and weight.

Course 3: Steamed mussels with dill pickle vinegar gel, parsley oil, leek cracker, and mussel broth.

3rd-min

This dish is eaten with a spoon, like a soup. The aroma is intoxicating, and smells like sweet corn and dill, despite there being no corn in it. Dots of bright green parsley oil float on top of the mussel broth, like little neon fish eggs.

3rd 2-min

This dish makes my eyes wet. It’s like nothing I’ve ever tasted, but at the same time elements of it remind me of that quintessentially Nova Scotian dish–fish chowder. Salty, herbaceous, and rich, but balanced by the dill vinegar gel and the vermouth in the broth.

This might be one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

Course 4: Butter poached lobster with smoked sweet potato puree, raw daikon, and lobster bisque infused with chamomile, and sorrel.

4th-min

My favourite part of this dish is how the bisque and puree play off each other. They are both a similar color, both soft, complex, and sweet. The puree is smokey, the bisque is floral.

The lobster tail is nicely cooked and seasoned, but still muscular and meaty.

4th 2-min

The chiffonade of sorrel, a small leafy herb that tastes like green apple skins, and raw daikon disks, brighten each rich bite.

Course 5: Foie gras foam, pickled beets with wild rose, apple cider gel, dried apple, roasted beet greens, and horseradish oil.

5th 1-min-min

Foie gras can be overwhelmingly rich when eaten seared or in torchon form, but the way MacLellan prepares it, with a texture like whipped cream, makes it much lighter in texture. While the mouthfeel is totally different than usual, the flavor is still meaty, mushroomy, and intense, with a bit of sweetness.

The beets, cider gel, dried apple, and oil are under the foam and on top, while the roasted beet greens create a canopy that hides the rest of the dish.

5th 2-min-min

MacLellan’s plating often has an element of surprise: sometimes components are completely covered by others and you have to dig to find them.

The roasted beet greens are crispy and can be dipped in the foie gras foam. The beets are the best part of the dish: sweet, tart, and intensely aromatic. The wild rose is prominent and beautiful.

Course 6: Squab with salsify puree, wild cranberry jam, and roasted coltsfoot flower.

6th-min

Squab (or wood pigeon) is a lovely protein. The first time I had it was at The Kitchen Table. The best way I can describe it is like duck, but less fatty, and more tender.

The cranberry jam is deliciously sweet and tart. The salsify, a hearty root vegetable which tastes almost like a cross between parsnip and celeriac, is velvety and rich.

The real surprise here is the coltsfoot, a locally foraged wildflower that is one of the first signs of spring in Nova Scotia. In this case it tastes grassy and fresh, but also like a buttery tart shell.

Course 7: Beef ribeye, roasted parsley root puree, burnt carrot, and meat broth and Banyuls vinegar reduction.

7th-min

You can see the crystals of finishing salt melting in the small pool of brown butter on top of the slice of medium rare ribeye. The carrots are burnt on the outside and give into a sweet soft interior.

All of the ingredients are delicious when dragged through the vinegar and broth reduction on the plate.

Course 8: Chanterelle mushroom meringue, toasted hay pudding, and salted coffee soil.

8th-min-min
Above: I smeared the meringue through the hay pudding and soil; a dish that can be eaten with ones hands should be needed

MacLellan is crazy for mushrooms. That’s why they are even in his dessert. During mushroom season they find their way into all parts of his menu. When he has the time, he’ll forage his own around the province.

He has never tired of the flavours of mushrooms, especially chanterelles and porcinis. The Kitchen Table sources its foraged local ingredients from Fred Dardenne at FD Wild Foods, a man with encyclopaedic knowledge of the edible wild foods of Nova Scotia. On this menu the seaweeds, coltsfoot, chanterelle, cranberry, wild rose, and sorrel are from Dardenne, and their relationship is crucial to MacLellan’s way of cooking.

The meringues are thin, and slightly sweet. The chanterelles, which naturally have a light, stone fruit-like flavor, add complexity.

The hay pudding is incredible. It both smells and tastes like toasty, funky butterscotch, or sweet yeast.

You could almost eat this whole dish with your hands, using the meringue to scoop up the hay pudding.

The coffee soil is sweet, bitter and salty, with the salt really bringing the whole dish together.

To finish the meal, coffee, or herbal tea made with locally foraged dried herbs and flowers is served alongside two tiny sweets: a sugar covered strawberry gummy and a duck fat caramel.

I’m left feeling full, but not too full, and perfectly satisfied. The diners at tonight’s seating debate which dishes were their favourites, but have serious trouble picking. A customer comes up to the bar and tells MacLellan it’s the best meal he’s ever eaten.

Tandy invites interested diners for a tour of the front charcuterie and cheese shop, and then people trickle out.

MacLellan’s food leaves such an impression, because each dish finds balance. None are too much or too little of something, they’re just right. MacLellan’s dishes also have the perfect amount of familiar and unfamiliar, letting guests ground themselves and feel comfortable with a known texture or flavor, but pairing it with something that they’ve perhaps never encountered.

The pace of the meal is nice and slowish, giving guests a moment to ponder each dish and take a sip of wine before another arrives.

The sourcing for The Kitchen Table’s menu is done at just a handful of places. Most, if not all of its vegetables come from Ted Hutten at Hutten Family Farms. The red meat is usually from Getaway Farms. Seafood comes from fishmongers Hooked and Afishionado. Wild produce, again, comes from FD Wild Foods. Some protein, such as squab or duck, comes from Quebec.

I’d call MacLellan’s style of food proudly Nova Scotian, not in the stereotypical sense of down-home food like lobster rolls and blueberry grunt, but in a reinvented and imaginative way, that takes pride in the ingredients available here, wild or farmed, by making them into the best flavours and dishes imaginable.

This restaurant sets the bar for the East Coast, right up there with other acclaimed spots like Raymonds Restaurant, Little Louis’ Oyster Bar, or The Bite House. There’s finesse, knowledge, and heart in every course.

I think about how I’d like to have the mussel dish again, but I know that MacLellan never puts exactly the same thing on his menu twice. Next week it will be different, and the week after too. Then spring comes and MacLellan has a whole new array of fruits and vegetables to play with. It’s a different experience and a different menu each visit, with a promise of great flavours, awe, and consistency. Can you imagine what a pickled wild rose petal might taste like? Go find out.

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