My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light.
Don’t you just want to drink in this poem? As it turns out, you can every so often when it makes a guest appearance on the list of libations at EDNA Restaurant. “First Fig,” named for the poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, was one of the first cocktails on the menu at this avant-garde neighbourhood bistro that first opened its doors three-and-a-half years ago.
I remember one of my first impressions walking through the doors of this restaurant with its warm lighting, inviting bar, mismatched chinaware and menus playing on vintage wallpapers: Edna must surely be the grandmother of owner Jenna Mooers. Upon closer inspection, an acronym revealed itself within the branding — “Eat Drink Nourish Always.” Ah, how clever! A little nostalgic charm with a message. But alas, Jenna confesses that naming the business was harder than raising the money to build the restaurant or, for that matter, even removing herself from the culture of Montreal and relocating to Halifax after seven years away. Before opening, Jenna invited close friends and family over for dinner and drinks with the caveat that they were not to leave until the restaurant was named. At 6 am they still had nothing.
There’s an unspoken culinary sisterhood weaving its way through Nova Scotia’s kitchens and dining rooms, and Jane Wright is certainly one of the grand dames, along with a faction of others that includes Stephanie Bertossi (The Bertossi Group), Monica Bauché (Fid Resto), Beatrice Stutz (Le Caveau Restaurant) and many more. Jane is often referenced as a mentor in many of my culinary interviews in this province, not the least of which is her own daughter who claims “she is absolutely my number one mentor.”
Jenna spent her formative years in restaurants, starting out scrubbing tiles and painting chairs on the eve of opening her mother’s own restaurant, Jane’s on the Common. When Jenna was in grade nine, her mother surprised her and her sister by leaving a long-held, secure job to open her first restaurant in the north end of Halifax just a few doors down from their family home. Jenna worked nights and weekends until she graduated from high school and took off for university in Montreal. While she pursued an undergrad degree in social work, followed by a grad degree in business, she worked her way through a veritable hits list of Montreal cafés, bars and nightclubs — from Griffintown Café to Black Strap BBQ, to name but a few. The stars aligned one Christmas when Jenna and her partner, builder Andrew Flood, were home and Jane pitched the idea of a restaurant in a building she had purchased on Gottingen Street to house her expanded catering business (Jane’s was officially closing its doors after a successful run). In under a year, they pulled together a business plan, financing and renovated as a team with the support of Breakhouse.
“If there is one thing my mother taught me,” Jenna says, “it’s if you put your heart and soul into it, your customers will feel it.” She took her cues watching Jane run her business, saying that her mom always pushed the envelope in an honest, hardworking way. And it must run in the family, as there are still four from Jane’s original restaurant team here today.
So now, who’s Edna? Edna is the spirit, the muse and the underlying joie de vivre of this place. Jane’s all-time favourite poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, was an American, 1920s jazz-age, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and playwright who was known more for her character than her work. She was a bon vivant, smoking and drinking her way through society with partners of both sexes, “living life to the fullest because it doesn’t last forever,” Jenna adds. I have to admit, Edna sounds like a boatload of fun. And now sitting in this restaurant, I can picture her here hanging off one of the barstools greeting fellow diners or lounging on a banquette making merry into the wee hours. Themes from her poetry dance their way across the dishes and into the cocktail glasses of this place on a regular basis.
As it turns out, this place has two very distinct personalities: groovy restaurant/bar vibes by night and a flourishing weekend brunch culture by day. You will usually find Jenna working the front of house on any given evening. Jane is usually around nearby. It’s surely these two, with Edna’s essence glimmering in the background, who have people returning time and again.
This 60-seat eatery has seen a big shift since opening in May of 2013. It started as the first full restaurant in the area and is now yet another north end Halifax dining destination, sharing accolades alongside Field Guide, Ratinaud’s The Kitchen Table and others. Within a year of opening, EDNA made it onto enRoute Magazine’s 2014 list of Canada’s Best New Restaurants. The street sees a lot more traffic and Jenna likens it a bit to Montreal, where a successful mix of residential and commercial spaces yields vibrant communities.
Chef Rob Reynolds, hailing from East London, cooked his way through some largescale operations before falling in love with a girl from Cape Breton and making Nova Scotia his home. His resume includes stints at London’s Savoy Hotel and Berkeley Hotels, Monachyle Mhor Hotel — a 20-room boutique hotel with its own farm and restaurant in the Scottish Highlands — and jobs here in Nova Scotia, including ones at Keltic Lodge, Digby Pines, Cunard Centre and, finally, five years at Jane’s on the Common. He references Jane Wright as his second “mum.”
Rob and Jenna both agree that it’s the customers who keep them motivated. Seeing the same faces return more than once a week provides them with the inspiration they need to stay a few steps ahead on the menu and service. Rob loves the bounty of fresh seafood here in Nova Scotia, he says, adding that presenting raw and fresh dishes like seared tuna and salmon tartare is one of the best ways to appreciate a product and see it for what it is.
In my first pass, I sample three dishes in the spirit of the raw and the fried: a lightly fried ShanDaph oyster with lemon aioli, dill and radish, followed by a delicate beef carpaccio with smoked enoki mushrooms, olive oil, a free-range egg yolk from Cold Spring Farm, pickled shallots, wasabi aioli and fresh pea shoots. And to finish, a seared Arctic char from Acadian Fish Farm that hits all the salty, sweet and savoury notes with a soy maple glaze, celery root, bok choy, king mushroom, scallion and an umami punch of dashi broth, all topped with lumpfish roe.
Edna would never make the brunch shift. Truth is, I’ve missed out on brunch here myself for years. When I finally darken that door, licking my wounds from a big night out and soothed by an extra spicy Caesar with a fresh-shucked ShanDaph oyster perched on the rim of the glass, I’m impressed to see there is a whole cross-section of Halifax diners who have the stamina to wait in line four-to-five-deep, drinking coffee and happily chirping away to one another. The place is abuzz. Edna can laze around at home in her silk dressing gown a little longer; they certainly don’t need her this early in the day, as they turn over 260 to 280 covers every Saturday and Sunday.
For most, brunch is considered one of the hardest shifts of the week. Brunch is complex with its staffing, time and volume, and, as Jenna comments, it just requires a lot of stuff — from ketchup to Sugar Twin to extra glasses. For Jenna, and surprisingly Rob, too, however, brunch is their favourite shift. The weekend vibe is a good one. Jenna has worked brunch since she started in the industry, and people often recognize her from her time at one of Montreal’s prime breakfast joints, Griffintown Café. Rob subscribes to the whole just-put-an-egg-on-it culture, often throwing things like a leg of duck confit with poached eggs on the menu. Jenna proclaims that breakfast would be her last meal, and admits to making eggs benny at home for herself when she has a day off.
Baby, it’s cold outside, but my friend and I catch up in the sunny front window banquette, giggling over our Caesars and seemingly bottomless cups of coffee. She orders a deluxe breakfast pork burger, and I the eggs benny with poached eggs, smoked applewood bacon and hollandaise sauce piled on top of fresh buttermilk biscuits. It’s most definitely worth the years it took me to actually get here at this time of day. Shine on, Edna. Shine on. And keep us wanting for more.