Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 17, 2022
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A Mouthful of the Maritimes

Take the time to eat your way across Nova Scotia

Chef Dale Nichols, formerly of Toronto's Canoe, is known to sport trousers festooned with lobster and crab. While cooking at Delta's Hotel Halifax, he gave a fresh halibut the sort of respect it deserves but rarely gets.

He cradled the fish like a baby. Fastidiously, he checked the mouth and jowls for worms, a nasty phenomenon rampant in cod and still more common in warm-water fish. He filleted the halibut and then pan-fried the fillets until they were just right -- underdone. He placed the fish simply and artfully atop yellow beans and curried sweet potatoes. He then drizzled a sauce of white wine, cream and Annapolis Valley herbs over the top and garnished it all with macadamia nuts. Voil". Welcome to the way food ought to be prepared.

The gastronomic reputation of Nova Scotia, like other Atlantic provinces, used to be lamentable. We were told the locals were fixated with incinerated bricks of beef and the fish was whisked off to big-money markets in New York and Toronto.

Now a record number of tourists are demanding fresh fish, and fresh fish cooked properly, which is to say, not much at all. We heard, too, that local palates were finally snapping out of their Van Winkle slumber and that trend-setting chefs were shaking up kitchens that hadn't been stirred since the Scots took over in the 18th century. There are wonders to be had, which co-exist with gluey chowders and fried, fried, fried slabs of haddock.

One morning, Dale drove us out to Sambro Fisheries in the town of Sambro, which used to be the "swordfish capital of the world." Owner Jim McPhee used to send out four tractor-trailer loads of fish a day. Now on a good day, maybe one is sent. No surprise there, but Jim McPhee had other surprises. A lobster, he told us, should be eaten during a full moon when the flesh is "so packed you can't get at it." He showed us how to remove worms from the cod -- armies of them per fish -- with pincers.

Food has a past in these parts and at the Maritime Museum, Titanic artifacts are by far the biggest attraction. We were instantly drawn to the ship's menus: In first class, the rich ate fillets of plaice, roast capon and three splendid cheeses: Stilton, Roquefort and Gorgonzola. Second class got baked haddock in a "sharp" sauce, curried chicken and spring lamb. The untouchables in third made do with gruel -- yes, gruel -- fish, cheese and biscuits. Nothing like a cruise when you're short in the pocket.

Food is hitting the streets in Halifax. Into its second season is Lobster Tails at Spring Garden and Queen. It's a fast-food eatery boasting the "best tail in town." Fusion-inspired lobster sandwiches are the specialty of the owners, the Swim family (no kidding). The buns themselves are lobster-tail shaped and the sandwich of choice is the Asian, which contains lobster, bok choy, scallions, sesame seeds, lettuce and spices.

Outside the library we spotted Bud the Spud, chip wagon extraordinaire. Owner Bud True told us he had spent the last 24 years "trying to perfect the french fry." He sells only fresh, hand-cut fries -- never the frozen crap. Obviously, Bud loves chips, as he's travelled the planet eating them in places as far off as Europe and South America.

Our first dinner was at McKelvie's, located in the 1902 fire hall for the past 18 years. It's not a new restaurant, but it's solid and the room looked good with exposed-ducts-and-sand-blasted brick. McKelvie's crabcakes are crisp, meaty and loaded with real crab and come with curry mayo on the side.


There's also Willy Krauch smoked salmon, a tribute to the late Willy's international reputation as maker of the best smoked salmon in the world. A mixed platter of fish and seafood contains generous salmon, scallops, tiger shrimp and haddock in melted Asiago cheese. Nothing is overcooked, and it's all fashionably garnished with Thai green and purple basil. Rounding out dinner was a Nottage Hill Chardonnay chosen from the decent wine list. Sweet-toothers could do worse than a cranberry crême brulée that garners a seven on my wife's one-to-10 scale.

Our second Halifax dinner was at Da Maurizio in the Halifax Farmers' Market. It was wonderful, easily a candidate for best restaurant in the province. The exposed-ducts-and-sand-blasted brick look was a bit much by then, but high ceilings, designer grappa bottles and soaring spirits soon distracted. The most sophisticated menu in town prompted indecision: Salmon napped with black caviar sabayon, halibut pan-seared with porcini mushrooms and magical, fat raviolis stuffed with lobster and shrimp arrived in a ginger and sherry sauce, practically levitating off my plate. Me, I've never been able to say no to duck two-ways: a marriage of confit, the juicy thigh preserved in its own fat, and paired with magret, which is a melt-in-your-mouth breast in wild cherry and port wine sauce. Okay, it's not a fish, but it swims, doesn't it?

We then "toodled" around the countryside from Cape Breton to the Lighthouse Route. Our first overnight stay was at Liscombe Lodge, east of Halifax. Its dining room is a plush, rustic affair graced by a real piano player. The menu has something for everybody, from tots to grannies, which is usually the kiss of death, but not here. The restaurant bakes its own individual loaves of bread and oatmeal biscuits. It serves thick-cut smoked salmon served with pumpernickel bread, and its seafood chowder comes packed with halibut, scallops and crabmeat. Rack of lamb is the whole rack, not a paltry chop, and pink and juicy all the way.

But the restaurant is really about chef Steve Conway's dazzling planked salmon. I pooh-pooh any salmon that's been cooked more than three minutes, but I ended up eating my words: Conway's salmon, strapped to 15-year-old oak planks and frequently basted with butter and herbs, sits over an open fire for 45 minutes, yet it emerges juicy with its underpinnings sweet and seductive, courtesy of a curing in dark rum and maple syrup.

We forged on through a terrain of lobster traps and tumbledown shacks and dropped into the Margaree Salmon Museum, which covers everything about the nature of Atlantic salmon and the sport of catching it.

Arriving on Cape Breton Island, we settled into the Point of View Suites, a peculiar marriage of RV parks and fully outfitted beach houses within sight of the great fortress of Louisbourg. Owners Tom and Linda Kennedy do a nightly lobster or crab boil. During our stay, Tom boiled 50 kilograms of local snow crab. For $22, you get one kilogram of crab with drawn butter and slaw and potato salad on the side. If you'd like wine with the crab, you can bring your own.

Dinner takes place in an octagonal seaside dining room, but we hustled our crab back to the comfort of our room, moved a table to the balcony to watch the sunset paint Louisbourg gold, uncorked a bottle of plonk and savoured our massive portions of crab. The latter called for surgeon-like skills, but it was worth the effort.

Cape Breton's grand hotel is Keltic Lodge, a sprawling resort at the start of the Cabot Trail. We dropped by for lunch at the hotel's secondary Atlantic Restaurant. The Atlantic proudly upholds all the traditions that disgraced "Down East" in the first place. Fish and chips are fresh out of the freezer and with one bite you've choked back half a litre of cooking oil. The chowder's paltry shreds of fish stuck to the outer sides of the bowl and its biggest bite was a lump of undissolved flour. In every direction, half-finished plates were being carted off to the kitchen. Nobody gave a second look and nobody cared.

We returned for dinner at the Purple Thistle, the lodge's premier restaurant. It resembled a cruise-ship dining room with 160 diners. It was predictably big on lobster, but the runaway bestseller was, oddly enough, Alberta beef.

We figured we couldn't lose with smoked salmon, inventively paired with pickled cat-tails. Mesclun salad arrived neatly bundled in cucumber, dressed with honey vinaigrette and sided with red and yellow tomatoes. Lovely. The Bouillabaisse was loaded with mussels, scallops, shrimp, salmon and smoked halibut in a saffron-flavoured fish stock. But if that was bouillabaisse, I'm Bud the Spud.

So I ordered lobster, a crustacean of sea-monster proportions, and what's more, it was a female packed with roe. Unfortunately, the kitchen overcooked it. There's no greater culinary disappointment than overcooked lobster. My poor gums throbbed from the attempted assault, so I welcomed the distraction of dessert, a deftly executed terrine of peaches and nasturtium petals sitting in a fruit coulis.

Nova Scotia has country inns the way October has falling leaves, but finding a good meal is a shaky prospect. At Sydney Mines we ate at the Gowrie House Country Inn, one of those private-estate environments where one dines in a parlour that resembles some Agatha Christie contrivance in which one of the guests keels over into the soup. Mushrooms in a flaky vol-au-vent and juicy roast chicken convinced me I'd survive the night, but an exciting fish dish would have been nice.

Lane's Privateer Inn in Liverpool had mixed results: The seafood chowder had more seafood than flour; mussels in garlic butter and bay scallops, with just a kiss from the pan, melted on the tongue; but darn it, the hallowed salmon arrived cremated. It was sent back and another cremation was sent out in its place. If salmon is our prince of fishes -- and it is, by gawd -- where's the respect? Lowly haddock gets respect.

Toward the end of our journey, we dipped into Murphy's Fish and Chips in the Truro train station. Fish and chips may not represent true cuisine, but on the other hand, just try to find good fish and chips in this country. Murphy's offers haddock fillets in light, crisp batter, and chips that have never seen a freezer. VIA Rail's Ocean, the overnighter from Halifax to Montreal, passes through the Truro Station. I had visions of Murphy's staffers in hats and aprons running alongside the train and dispensing deep-fried paradise to passengers in every coach.

This didn't happen, but it did give me an idea. Before departing from Halifax for the homeward journey to Toronto, we hopped out to the hamlet of Tangier for a quick raid on Willy Krauch's smokehouse. Willy arrived from Denmark in 1951 and opened the smokehouse in 1956 that quickly became the darling of US presidents and British royalty. Now the venerable operation proffers the world's most celebrated smoked salmon at a bargain price of $21 for half a kilogram.

We forked out the $21 and left with half a kilogram of the maplewood-smoked, tangerine-hued fish -- pre-sliced and ready to eat. We paused at a bakery for fresh rye bread and then found a bottle of Riesling in the government store. Snuggled into our cozy VIA bedroom, we unfurled the picnic. The wine, chilled in ice from the bar coach and served in plastic cups, stood up to the salmon. Willy's salmon tasted as unctuous and deeply smoked as it was the day I met him in the summer of 1972. And as Nova Scotia rolled by, green and gold as dusk descended, we tipped our glasses to Willy's ghost


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