THE KITCHEN TABLE - The ultimate eight-course tasting experience in Halifax's North End
Strolling by Ratinaud French Cuisine on Gottingen Street in Halifax’s north end, you probably wouldn’t suspect that beyond the charcuterie display, there’s a stunning space hosting Halifax’s best dinner party, four nights per week. Wednesday through Saturday, guests gather in a communal setting to intimately experience chefs Frederic Tandy and Joe MacLellan’s high-end, eight-course tasting menu — the city’s least-known and most impressive fine dining scene.
“When I started doing it, it was because I was sort of missing cooking,” says Tandy of The Kitchen Table concept. “I was doing the [charcuterie] shop side, but I was missing the side of cooking and creating.” Tandy, originally from France, opened Ratinaud French Cuisine (a shop specializing in charcuterie and cheese) five years ago. The Kitchen Table launched in 2013 at the old location, accommodating up to 10 people. “We started by doing it twice a month, just on the weekends. And then it became more and more, so when we moved in [the new location], its like why not expand and start up the business?” Ratinaud and The Kitchen Table opened in the current location at 2157 Gottingen Street one year ago this December.
The space — built specifically for The Kitchen Table — is framed with white pine timber posts and beams, has a high, ornate tin ceiling, and showcases original brick walls that date back to 1880. It then transitions into a bright, clean and modern open kitchen backed with white subway tiles. It was designed and built by EcoGreen Homes, is unbelievably sustainable and thoughtfully created, with impressive design points like cork floors and a dining table made from wind-fallen, sun-bleached Spruce trees.
MacLellan started working with Tandy during the shop relocation and expansion, in October 2015. They had previously met through mutual industry connections while MacLellan was in the kitchen at EDNA as sous chef. Tandy says, “I didn’t really know what was [MacLellan’s] style of cooking. So basically to try to see if he’d be suitable and someone I could work with, we did a first dinner [together], and it was like we were working together for ten years.” It was clear to Tandy that MacLellan and his food philosophy would be just what The Kitchen Table needed, and so he came on board as executive chef.
“We have eight courses, and, we try to change about four courses each week,” says Tandy. MacLellan describes his creative process in three parts. Part one is making lists, every Sunday, of vegetables bought at the market, what’s in stock at the restaurant, what meat is available, what preserved items they have on hand, and notes from the previous menu. Part two is creating flavour profiles of what's available. “A few details are written to how I may go about the dish but the details are never set in stone,” says MacLellan. The third part of designing the menu is to “experiment, create, and evaluate.” When he gets into the kitchen, MacLellan thinks about the plate-up, and “works out the ideas of how and why each dish comes to be. Constantly processing, analyzing and tasting.”
I see that process firsthand during my visit to The Kitchen Table, where I take a hightop seat at the bar, directly facing the prep and plating area. The sous chef is in front of me grating foie gras. There is a hum from the diners at the communal table; it’s Saturday night and the small crowd is happily anticipating a full night of great food, company and wine. The Kitchen Table starts at 7 P.M. and doesn’t wrap until 10:30 P.M., so we all settle in, get comfortable, and introduce ourselves to neighbours. My fellow bar-top guests are all return customers. Tandy, tongs in hand, is soon placing a warm, crusty roll on my slate side plate. I’ve chosen to have the house-provided wine pairings that evening, available for $45, instead of bringing my own, which is offered at a reasonable $10 per bottle corkage fee.
Tandy begins to address the crowd and do introductions, presenting the culinary team (himself, MacLellan, and the sous chef) and two servers. First course is placed in front of me, a modest portion of cod cheeks, sourced from Shelburne, that were brined then cooked sous vide in salt pork fat. The cod is the best-tasting I’ve had — it’s meaty, tender and delicate, in a mellow yet complex sauce made of caramelized yeast and fennel vinegar. The plate is garnished with scrunchions (tiny cubes of of pork fat that have been rendered until crispy and brown) and adorable, tiny salt and vinegar chips that melt in your mouth. A wonderful opening course.
The second plate arrives — a shallow, charcoal coloured bowl that is home to a pile of grated foie gras torchon as light as snow. The foie has completely covered, and is melting into, every crevice of what’s underneath: Shallots that have been cooked in sweet onion stock, then charred and marinated in the burnt juices before being reheated with ashes from the shallot peels, plus crispy shallots, all on a on a bed of dreamy pear purée. The richness of the foie permeates the entire dish. There is a small sprinkling of dried chamomile on the very top. Every single person down the line mutters “wow!” in reaction to this perfectly indulgent course.
Third course is a playful take on clam chowder. In the centre of the bowl are plump, wonderful clams from Malagash, lying in a shallow pool of creamy broth made with clam juice and from-scratch buttermilk. Directly on top of the clams, three delicate crouton discs have been placed, offering a welcome crunch. In the broth there are tender potatoes and leeks, and briney niblets of dill-pickled corn that have sunk to the bottom. The corn cuts through the richness of the broth perfectly, along with bright green drops of vibrantly favoured dill oil. The duo of dill is clever, an unusual spin on a classic flavour combination.
Fourth course features a mound of Cape Breton snow crab — it’s covered in toasted, charred kale, slightly off-centred on a large round charcoal coloured plate. An abstract line of roasted squash and brown butter emulsion is slashed across the plate, and a scant amount of shiny, translucent red trout roe is placed around. Turns out the tender, stringy snow crab meat has been seasoned with reduced cream (made with crab stock), intensely amplifying the flavour and richness. The kale is charred almost black, is super fragile, and it gives each bite of crab a very fine crispy crunch with just a hint of bitterness to combat the lusciousness of the crab and emulsion, while the trout roe offers wonderful little bursts of salt. This is a completely sophisticated dish, an exercise of flavour balance that allows each ingredient to shine.
On the other side of the counter, it’s hard not to notice what a harmonious team effort is playing out. The vibe over there is raw, yet calm. There is the necessary, professional urgency of serving eight courses to 20 people on a timeline, but without any tense body language or outbursts. “[The Kitchen Table] is a restaurant that focuses on quality of food and experience. It's the perfect job,” says MacLellan, and it shows he loves being there. Throughout the night his banter with the customers is friendly and genuine; he answers any and all questions we might have about technique, ingredients and suppliers.
The fifth plate is the least colourful, but is probably the most surprising, flavour wise. Caramelized yeast is used to make a broth, along with smoked bone marrow fat, to achieve outstanding umami flavours. Mingling in the broth is a large, singular ravioli and three discs of sliced raw kohlrabi. Inside the ravioli is an explosion of mushroom essence, it is rich, umami, and somehow creamy. The chefs have used preserved chanterelles, both in oil and dried, that were foraged locally.
MacLellan describes the sixth course as a “Jackson Pollock-looking plate.” There are dollops, drops, powders and drizzles of various elements, with the off-centre focal point being a beautiful piece of squab, crispy skin facing up. The squab is seared rare then poached in duck jerky butter; MacLellan quickly describes the protein as a wood pigeon, sourced from Quebec. The accoutrements all complement the rich, dark meat and also are intriguing on their own — there is pickled spruce miso, which tastes like the forest, small slippery pieces of porcini mushroom, along with porcini powder and porcini pudding, plus foraged elderberries that have been reduced, bringing sweetness to the plate and visually a dramatically deep, purplish-red colour.
Some might think tucking into seventh course would be daunting, but somehow it’s not. The pace of the service, varied flavours, textures and portions, plus fantastic wine all make an eight course tasting menu completely doable. The final savoury course is lamb from Oulton’s Meats in Windsor, aged two weeks on-site at Ratinaud, then cooked sous vide at 144 degrees for three hours. To finish, it is roasted in lamb fat, butter and dried lavender. A bright mustard made from turnip greens lines the round plate, there is a drizzle of lamb jus, and off to the side is pickled fennel topped with raw turnip. The lamb is fabulously tender, and the flavour from slow-cooking it sous vide style is incredibly intense.
Dessert course is, appreciatively, not overly large or sweet. Hiding out underneath a super thin cracker made from cinnamon and toasted oats, are tender Royal Gala apples on top of a dollop of roasted hay pudding. Yes — they use actual hay, roasting it at 225 degrees for four hours. The result gives the pudding earthy, grassy and nutty notes. While I’m enjoying this mild but complex, unlikely dessert, guests are offered coffee or tea. I choose tea and am served an incredible blend that is made in-house from foraged plants — mine has Sweetfern, Coltsfoot, pine tips and Labrador Tea leaves. We are all served petit fours — a duck fat caramel and a strawberry paste candy rolled in chamomile sugar — on a beach stone.
“I think there’s definitely people who are looking to have a true fine dining experience [in Halifax].” says Tandy. “Not only the food, not only the service and not only the ambience — basically what I try to create is those three things, combined in one place.” The Kitchen Table is a novel concept in Halifax, a set, multi-course tasting menu that is so high-end it rivals much bigger cities — and it seems to be working. “I would say on average we we’re probably about 70 per cent capacity,” says Tandy. The price point is a humble $85 per person, more than reasonable for the quality of food and experience offered here. Looking to the future, Tandy would like The Kitchen Table to be busier, and to start growing vegetables and herbs onsite. For now, the plan is to “just keep doing what we’re doing, always trying to push a little farther. We want our guests to have fun, but we want to have fun as well.”