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Voyages: East of Grafton Tavern
Written by Patrick Fulgencio
November 15, 2016
Now that cold winds are funneling into every street in the downtown core, it’s about time I visit a cozy spot on the Argyle strip. East of Grafton Tavern has much coziness; walk in, take off your mittens, and take in the ambiance.
The self-described ‘purveyor of rare fare’ opened its doors on Canada Day this year with a simple message for its patrons: expect the unexpected. Award-winning Chef Luis Clavel seeks to bring classic childhood nostalgia evoking dishes to the table – but with a twist. The attention given to the overall quality of the dining experience, paired with a unique take on dishes that have never been done in Halifax before make this one hotspot you simply cannot ignore.
Walking into East of Grafton feels like the welcoming embrace of a tender hug on a cold day. Warm lighting pervades the interior while the large windows facing Argyle Street let natural light bleed in. This interesting combination of mood lighting gives you the feeling of being connected to the outdoors without having to leave the warmth of the tavern.
Even the decorations scream cozy. With a mesh of wood, leather, and metal accents throughout the interior, you can’t help but think you’re inside an antique western saloon. It’s rugged, it’s rustic, and it looks like everything has age to it – perhaps because many of the details do. There are old floorboards from a church in Lunenburg, Edison bulbs illuminating the tables, real silver cutlery, and even the ceiling is comprised of a mosaic of tin tiles from all over the world. Let’s get something straight here – this ain’t your mama’s tavern.
At East of Grafton Tavern, there’s a focus on local product, food and beverages. All syrups and bitters for cocktails are made in house, and you’ve got six taps, all craft beer, with five regularly on tap and one from the featured keg. The keg rotates, and so does the menu with the seasons. And as if that couldn’t get any better, half-priced bar snacks go down every single night from 5:30 – 6:30 PM. Yes, you are welcome.
While I let that little tidbit of wisdom swirl around in your mind, I think it’s time to talk food. Today I start off with “Them’s Damn Fancy Nachos” ($17). Layers of melty cheddar, signature smoked jalapeno sauce, pico de gallo, and pickled pepperoncini all drizzle down a tower of homemade blue corn chips. The whole thing is oven baked in a can, and when served, there’s just a mountain of black and gold begging to be torn up. It’s like a game of jenga, except the name of the game is to demolish the tower as quickly as possible by eating it.
To help get you through it, there’s salsa and jalapeno sauce coating each bite. After trying it out, you’ll soon realize that there’s a huge difference between grocery store salsa and authentic salsa. It’s fresher, more flavorful, and you can actually taste each ingredient. The jalapeno sauce starts off sweet but gradually creeps up on you. With the heat of the jalapeno and the cilantro and garlic in the salsa all building up to form a spicy crescendo, it is definitely recommended that this dish be consumed with friends (*blows steam out of ears*).
Next up comes the Warm Kale Salad ($11) – a jungle of double-smoked bacon, caramelized shallots, toasted pine nuts, orange segments and buttermilk dressing. Even the kale is sautéed in bacon fat; making this complex salad any veggiephobe’s dream come true. The caramelized onions do a good job of complementing the smokiness while the orange segments offer a much-needed citrusy blast to cut through the richness. As everyone on the Starving Sailor team knows, I’m the resident carnivore, so when a salad like this comes along, I’m more than just a little excited.
The Seafood Chowder ($14) is a highlight, I’ve been told, and I definitely agree. It’s rich, creamy, and the fried oyster on the side is an awesome touch. Inside the chowder is a rich halibut stock filled with generous chunks of sustainable local oyster, haddock, shrimp, salmon, and dill biscuit. The reason this dish is so popular is that it is about as comforting as it gets on a cold Maritime day like this (the thick and creamy texture itself is enough to subdue the worst of your shivering fits).
With the oyster being fried in a tempura-like batter, it takes on a much meatier texture. Every bite of the chowder is the promise that all your troubles will go away as long as you stay in this moment. Everything is tender, nothing is overcooked; all the flavours blend perfectly. With all these incredibly tasty appetizers under my belt (literally), I’m not quite sure I’m ready to move on to the entrées, but oh well, another day of trouble in paradise.
The first of three is their take on Tuna Antojitos ($21): seared Albacore tuna, feta, pico de gallo, avocado, their own tortillas, ponzu aioli and pickled shallots. Meaning “little cravings” in Spanish, antojitos are essentially any type of snack food that can be found on the streets of Mexico and are something I have never seen before on a menu in this city. A concoction of ingredients wrapped in a flour tortilla, think of this version like a fluffy pizza pocket. To add to the madness, the ponzu aioli adds a bit of acidity and infuses these bite-sized treats with a fusion of Mexican and Asian flavours.
The Grafton Burger ($19) can’t be ignored on its way out of the kitchen. Four 4oz cast-iron blackened house-ground chuck & sirloin patties are squeezed between two bacon-peppered buns, and smothered with old school cheddar to form a one-pound monstrosity (I’ll leave that there for you to think about). This is a burger for champions – not for the faint of heart.
When you consider such a huge amount of meat, it’s hard to really notice the homemade milk buns, white cheddar, garlic aioli, smoked chipotle sauce and honey smoked peppers, but somehow all these elements come together to form a burger of epic proportions. Once you get beyond the scary front, the burger is everything one should expect – just a reliably delicious (and heavy) cheeseburger.
As if the burger wasn’t enough already, the hand-cut fries are made of russets cooked in two different stages. It seems like a lot to do for fries, but trust me when I say it’s all worth it. They’re smoky and simple, starchy and soft, crispy and smooth, all at the same time. These are the type of fries that are so good; you don’t even need salt to enjoy them.
The last of the entrees is the Butter Chicken ($21) served with a side of cracker bread covered in feta, caramelized onions, roasted cauliflower, and cilantro aioli. Break off a piece, dip it in the rich gravy, and get a nice chunk of chicken on top to achieve the perfect bite. While the butter chicken is flavourful enough, the cracker bread offers up it own set of complexities but it does not clutter up your taste buds. By using feta instead of paneer cheese, Chef Clavel adds a contrasting saltiness to the dish that is different from any butter chicken I’ve ever had before.
And just when I think it’s all over, I am surprised with dessert. The Salted Caramel Blondie ($9) – and I drool at the name already – has no twists or surprises, just decadence of the highest grade. Brown butter, Skor bits, and dulce de leche fortified with sea salt adorn this beauty of a dish. The sweetness greets your palate and then rests nice and warm in your belly.
It’s got all textures: crunchy, chewy, and gooey – the best way to end a meal. Each time I come back to it, I think I remember how sweet the taste is, but nothing can prepare me for the real thing. This is a case of amnesia that I certainly don’t mind having. Consider me converted from brownies, blondies are the new way to go and I am scraping this dish clean.
With a belly full of food, I rise and put on my coat reluctantly. I realize now that I was not even close to prepared for what East of Grafton had to offer, and I am certainly not ready now for the winds that await me outside. To paraphrase our photographer Tibor, this place is like the cabin fishermen retreat to at the end of their day, put on a fire, and cook their daily catch, but it is much more than that. While I am not a fisherman, and I didn’t work my ass off to put this food on the table, I somehow find myself deserving of such an indulgence, and I have the amazing staff here to thank for that.
It is clear East of Grafton prides itself on guest satisfaction and sincere service, and their accommodation of the Starving Sailor team goes to show how they go above and beyond for every customer that walks in that door. On days where it is cold and miserable outside, East of Grafton offers a warm reprieve in every sense imaginable.