Big Day Downtown – Try Something New

Big Day Downtown

“Try Something New.” That was the vague challenge of this year’s Big Day Downtown, a marketing strategy by the Downtown Halifax Business Commission that sees bloggers and media types wandering the downtown core with a $100 credit card, checking out businesses that interest them and then—clearly—writing about it.

Last year there was no theme. Kristina and I just wandered from coffee shop to market to brewery to restaurant, exploring food and drink found on the peninsula. This year, there’s this pesky twist. “Try something new” is a simple conceit, but I didn’t want to try some random, new restaurant or store just for the sake of fulfilling a brief. I wanted to really embrace the theme. I wanted to have a bit of an adventure.

So I decided to email someone new. I fired off a missive to Chef Craig Flinn, the chef/owner of Chives, one of the best restaurants not only in downtown Halifax, but in Halifax, period. There! New thing: done. Mission accomplished! Checklist completed! Blog. Save. Post. Exit. Thanks for the money, Downtown Business Commission. See you next year!

But wait! Craig emailed me back! So I guess there’s more to this whole thing.

What Craig emailed me back about, what he agreed to do, is this: a black box challenge. Well, actually, a black bag challenge. The terms: I go to the Seaport Farmers’ Market with my co-blogger, Kristina, and we fill my grocery bag with some of the latest seasonal produce, local fish and meat, and whatever else we want from the vendors, bring the bundle of goodies to Craig and he will make something new with the sight-unseen ingredients. He won’t know anything in advance, and he must try to use all of our selections in the context of a meal. He suggests two courses. I certainly don’t argue. Instead, Kristina and I basically spend the next week high-fiving about the fact that Craig has agreed to cook for two weirdos he’s never met in a challenge that is clearly, deliciously weighted in our favour.

The morning of our meal, Kristina and I wander around the market looking for inspiration. We decide to start with proteins and build from there. The first place we head is the Fish Market. Plush scallops and fleshy, pink salmon fillets are tempting, but a chubby, freckled Arctic char proves irresistible. Cha-ching. $21.43.

Big Day Downtown - Fish Market

We want to give Craig lots of options, though, so we also decide to stop by Getaway Farm. On the way, we are distracted by colourful little boxes of fresh peppers and some adorable bulbs of garlic—bulbs the friendly salesgal at Seabright Nursery assures us to be “very stinky”—so we stop pick up a bundle, along with one of the alluring red finger chili peppers. We also get a little pot of chives, since it seems appropriate. Cha-ching. $5.50.

The Getaway Meat Mongers are nothing new to me or Kristina, so we make a pretty quick decision, and pick up a small pork loin. Cha-ching. $7.20.

Big Day Downtown - Getaway Farm

Having the pork and the char tucked away, we feel an immense amount of freedom since the world is basically our oysters when it comes to ways to dress these guys up, so we head to the Elmridge Farm booth to go nuts on produce. Kristina had spied some blackberries in our initial reconnaissance, and I was eager to get some fresh corn, since it’s finally in season.

Located in the Annapolis Valley, Elmridge Farm is a small, family-run operation that always has heaps of beautiful, organic produce. This week made for a pretty exceptional haul. We picked up a softball-sized onion, two ears of corn, a couple of green tomatoes, a bunch of blushing beets, a pint of fingerling potatoes, another pint of blackberries, a handful of green beans and a bushy batch of fresh parsley. Cha-ching. $17.50. As we meandered out of the market, we also picked up a bottle of Tideview Cider (Heritage Dry) at Noggins Farm and a small round of Ran-Cher Acres fresh chevre from the Foxhill Cheese House storefront. Cha-ching. $13.00. Cha-chingggg. $4.23.

And then it was off to Chives.

Big Day Downtown - Seaport Farmers' Market

The restaurant is closed when we arrive, but busy nonetheless. A construction team is hard at work in the entry, laying down new flooring. We wander in through Ciboulette next door, to be brought through a side entrance where Betty Bartel, a chef who often works with Craig and who had come in to act as his sous-chef, greets us. Soft clinks and clanks echo out through the kitchen where more workers are making what used to be a 3-bedroom apartment behind the restaurant part of an expanded kitchen. It’s clearly a huge job, and Craig is clearly a busy man.

We unload our bags onto a counter in the kitchen. “It looks like the new menu,” laughs Betty. Unavoidable, I guess, since we bought local, seasonal ingredients and that is the order of the day, every day, at Chives.

“My commitment for using local comes from my early experiences as a cook,” says Craig. “I always worked at restaurants that cooked that way, even in the Swiss hotel during my apprenticeship. Everything was sourced locally, and served proudly. I believe it isn’t a fad or movement but simply a return to the way great restaurant were always run. I have always strived to cook as well as I can, and tried to create the best restaurant that I could, so Chives must always cook in this way. I do not follow the strict notion of the 100 mile diet—I love coffee, vanilla, cinnamon, olive oil, pepper, etc.— but when we have great ingredients right here, whether they be carrots or feta cheese, why would I choose something from far away to where I have no connection?”

Craig immediately starts making two piles with certainty, the fish and pork acting as team captains of sorts.  Onion and tomato move back and forth between the two; the poor green tomato is the out of shape kid picked last to play. The blackberries get their own special place: dessert. Kristina and I can barely contain our squeals at this point. It’s almost embarrassing.

They gather all of the goods and head to the prep station, where Craig chops through the onion, dropping it in a sizzling pan with a big knob of butter, while Betty makes quick work of the corn. Two pots of water bubble and steam next to the caramelizing onions. Beets go in one, while the other is for “general blanching,” Flinn says to Bartel.

Craig is excited about all of the market ingredients. He spends thousands of dollars a week creating the restaurant’s menu using products from the vendors at the market. He counts Elmridge Farm—the farm where we purchased our produce—as one of his favourites. The restaurant also has its own garden.

“Farmer’s markets provide the consumer with an opportunity to become connected to their food. This is done by asking questions of the farmers and learning about the challenged they face, and hopefully gain a better appreciation of our food. We are blessed to have the food we have, but so many of us take it for granted,” he says. “Friendships with farmers can be very rewarding things.”

And so can gardening. “I have become a better cook since I began trying to grow that perfect tomato for my guests,” he says.

Big Day Downtown - Cooking at Chives
Chop chop chop, bubble bubble bubble, sizzle, sizzle, sizzle. It’s all onomatopoeia all the time in the kitchen. And all the while, construction workers weave in and out, working on the expansions. It’s like tiny, contained cyclones throughout the kitchen area, but Craig doesn’t notice. He’s also a storm of activity. He slices through the char, making slick fillets and then pounds the pork loin to prepare it for cooking while Betty hunches over the filleted fish like a surgeon, deftly and delicately plucking out the bones. They’re busy. So we retreat and leave them to it. Oh, and maybe we high-five again.

Big Day Downtown - Our Meal at Chives

Not even an hour has passed since we walked in with the groceries and the first dish is delivered to our table. A crispy-skinned Arctic char with tender, sweet beets, firm green beans, caramelized onions and pert pops of green tomato. The crisp, salty skin and alternately sweet and green flavours of the vegetables are a perfect balance. A bright vinaigrette made with the Tideview cider we brought ties it all together and a sprinkle of chives finishes the dish. It’s a stunning plate of food, one that I wish was on the menu for real. I’d love to eat it again.

The second dish is the pork, made into schnitzel with breadcrumbs—the only major ingredient out of his pantry outside of our bonus dessert course—and the fresh parsley we brought. It sits on top of an incredible ragout of fingerling potatoes, corn, red finger pepper and the creamy fresh chevre. Some wilted beet greens are tucked underneath. (Bonus points for using as much of the product as possible!) Kristina is in heaven with the carbo-loaded ragout. I imagine making a version of it at home, failing in comparison and then openly weeping at my kitchen table as I compare what would be a sad shadowy reality to my technicolour memory. Again, I’d love to eat it again.

The third dish is a clafoutis, a cake rich with our sweet, tart blackberries. A big dollop of fresh whipped cream is in another bowl. Another addition from the pantry, but that’s ok with us. This was an extra course, really. It’s a huge dessert, but somehow… somehow… we manage to pack it all in.

If there was any real challenge in this, I’m not sure who the winner is. Craig and Betty delivered an impeccable meal, so they won on that front. But we ate that meal, so clearly we won. It’s your classic win/win, I guess. But we actually only spent $68.86 of our $100.00 on our Big Day. Which means Kristina and I have a $31.14 deposit ready to go to try something new off the Chives menu and put another mark in our win column. So take that, Craig Flinn. And by “that,” I mean our money. (Damn it. Flinn wins again!)