When I was assigned this article, Studio East Food + Drink had only been open a few weeks and our editor had already been six times. Hmmm, I thought, a bit overkill, perhaps? No sooner had I darkened the door myself than
I was there three times within one week. Simply uncanny. It’s not that I am not this thorough usually, but I have to admit that I’ve been working my way through this menu with a fervor — a fervor for flavour.
“I think it’s about the right plate at the right time,” says chef-owner Saronn Pov. When Saronn first moved to Halifax and opened her stand at the Halifax Brewery Market, she wasn’t sure people were ready for flavours from Southeast Asia. Halifax didn’t have the same multicultural feel as her native Toronto. But within a month, her opinion changed. Not only were Haligonians well-travelled and enthusiastic for her Cambodian fare — they loved their curries so much they even rallied around a public poll naming Cambodian cuisine the one thing missing from our culinary scene.
This place is comfortable. A print of Bill Murray lords over a corner of the bar like he’s saving himself a future seat; the walls are adorned with artwork, including folksy scenes of Halifax; and chalkboards are scrawled with fortune-cookie wisdom and funny little doodles that have to be vetted through at least three people to determine if they’re wall-worthy. There’s a map of Nova Scotia with local producers being filled in over time. I feel like I am somewhere else and not quite in Halifax. And with many visits in a short span of time,
I have seen it bathed in a hungover morning haze at brunch, with sunshine streaming in, tracing long shadows across the floors in late afternoon as the kitchen staff prep for the evening’s meal, and I’ve seen it with steamed windows from the collective breath of a lively, packed restaurant late at night.
Saronn wanted to open a restaurant for years, and with encouragement from friends and family, she finally took the leap this past October along with partner and chef Ray Bear. They’re a dynamic pair, that’s for certain. She is a self-taught home cook with an unquenchable enthusiasm to learn and hone the cuisines that continue to inspire her, and he is classically trained chef with a primary focus on large-scale fine dining throughout his career.
Saronn started cooking when she first left home about 20 years ago. She was on a fast track at Ryerson University, majoring in graphics and communications with an eye on management of large-scale printing houses. But she soon found herself spending more time cooking at home than going to school. In a period when there was no Food Network or the myriad of online culinary resources that we have access to today, she simply cooked by instinct. She spent her hard-earned extra funds on eating at restaurants, would often follow an evening out with a robust market visit, and then would work steadily to replicate and perfect a particular dish she’d had the night before.
Born in Thailand, she grew up in the infamous Toronto neighbourhood at Jane and Finch, which is often described as one of the most dangerous communities with the largest concentration of criminal gangs in any area of Canada. It was also home to a large group of immigrants and refugees with many nationalities represented, such as Jamaican, Mexican, East Indian and Sri Lankan. It made up a rich fusion backdrop, so it’s no wonder she’s found herself here in this place with a palette of flavours to play with. In spite of the odds, her single mother managed to get three Cambodian meals on the table a day for seven kids with a full-time job. Saronn was inspired by her mother’s cooking, which used no appliances and no recipes. Everything was made from scratch, cooked by feeling — touch, texture and taste.
As she recounts these stories to me on this particular afternoon, her life roles out like a tapestry; a melding of many influences and cultures — from her humble beginnings, to her experiences travelling the world, to her moments back at home making meals for friends. Cooking in her own kitchen was therapeutic and fun. At first, she never cooked Asian food, but she did cook just about everything else — Italian, French, American comfort food. In 2008, she left a job to pursue the first phase of her culinary dreams: starting up Saronn’s Kitchen. There she cooked every day, developed recipes for a Cambodian cookbook, blogged, did restaurant reviews, held cooking classes and did small-scale catering, which led to market stands in a few cities like Vancouver, Calgary and eventually Halifax.
Saronn and Ray met on Twitter via mutual friends and found themselves embroiled in many intensive food conversations over social media. In 2010, they finally had the opportunity to meet in person when she came to Halifax to judge a seafood competition. One thing led to another and the two of them ended up travelling the world together in search of culinary experiences — Arizona, Russia, Korea, China, across the U.S. and Canada — always excited to be in places where ingredients they loved to cook with grew plentifully. They both feel these travels shaped them as a couple. They eventually made their way back to Halifax when Ray was asked to return to Scanway to support a business he was very attached to, thus giving the two of them the opportunity to explore Nova Scotia with the same appetite as they did globally. And over 10 stormy winter days early last year, they wrote their business plan, secured a space in mid-June and entered four months of renovations before opening in mid-October.
It’s time to address the Bear in the room. Ray is no stranger to the Halifax culinary scene. In fact, he’s nothing short of notorious. No one has ever disputed his talent; the man can cook. But there is that perception out there that he has left a few restaurants and people in his wake.
Growing up in Sackville with rather humble means, he came from a family of hard workers within the restaurant world. His mother was a restaurant manager and his grandmother was a waitress at The Armview for 28 years. He knew he wanted to cook from a very early age, and started working at Scanway when he was just 15 years old; thus beginning a life-long relationship with Scanway founder Unni Simensen and her family. She gave him his start in the pastry kitchen and continued to inspire him throughout his career. From there, he went to culinary school, had his first official chef gig opening Sweet Basil Bistro, then moved on to many other roles, including opening Gio at The Prince George Hotel and, of course, his own place, Bear.
Fine dining was about celebrating and elevating the plate one ingredient at a time, making the food be the best it could be. But it was also about big money, big restaurants, high stress, staff fallout, tight margins, and pleasing customers and owners alike. The industry has completely changed in the last 20 years, he comments. When the rug was pulled out on fine dining after the economy crash, he hit the road, travelling and consulting in places like Dubai, South America and South Africa. He felt both fortunate and humbled to travel and work with chefs around the world at all stages of their careers.
They are both hesitant to label what they’re doing as Asian fusion, mostly so they can continue to introduce new flavours from their travels (you may see Moroccan or Spanish dishes soon). I dare say its Cambodian forward, Asian fusion. It’s certainly more Cambodian food than I have ever had in a condensed period of time. This cuisine is heavily influenced by the borders Cambodia shares with Thailand and Vietnam, along with significant periods of Cambodia’s own history, such as French colonization, which left behind legacies like the baguette, evidenced in the num pang sandwich (similar to a Vietnamese banh mi). Traditionally, meals are made up of three or four dishes, where each dish will be sweet, sour, salty or bitter in taste to ensure that you’re getting every flavour to satisfy your palate.
For Saronn, it’s all about how to bring unknown flavours forward, like David Chang did for steam buns and ramen. What could she do to make Cambodian food more accessible? She laughs as she references her fermented Cambodian sausage, which, on their menu, is wrapped in bacon and served on a stick or in a sandwich. For Ray, it’s the opportunity to cook with full flavour, no holding back. Together they have to pick their battles. They both agree they are each other’s harshest critics but that their different outlooks support the same overarching goal: good food. He moves fast and furious, she takes the time to taste and tweak — a self-described flavour fixer.
It’s not a huge menu. It features approximately six small plates for sharing with an optional side of rice. There’s a nod to street food and Asian night markets with four meat-on-a-stick-combos: Cambodian sausage ’n bacon, two kinds of chicken (Thai citrus and sumac chicken), and the Night Market Lamb, which was fall-apart-sublime in a beet glaze, garlic lemon aioli, cilantro, mint and crispy bits. Any time something is described on a menu as “crispy bits,” it’s a damn good thing. The mains are reasonably priced given the portion sizes. For example, the Ultimate Pork Ramen Bowl is about as big as your head and features pork prepared three ways ($16). There’s also the glorious Chang-esque steam buns stuffed with braised pork bellies and all the fixings. All sauces and curries are from scratch and nothing is deep fried. There’s a punchy and acidic slaw with cilantro and lime that dances its way across a number of dishes, along with kimchi nicely balancing out the plates.
It was brunch, however, that blew my mind with the minor dim sum focus, playfully called “Sum Sum.” There’s a runny, sunny-side-up egg on every dish. A few of the dinner dishes masquerade as breakfast (perhaps still up from the night before) like the steam buns, the num pang sandwich, along with an official brunch burger and omelet. But it’s the bao buns that steal the show: delicious little steamed buns packed with Chinese barbecue minced pork and green onions topped with that egg. And when the yolk hits the pork and the hoisin sauce, it’s magic. A combination so good that the only thing you can think about while eating it is: How long is it to your next plate?
What was otherwise a rowdy little block of late-night donair revelers may very well become another bright spot in Halifax’s growing network of destination neighbourhoods. With memories of Jane’s on the Common imprinted on the brain and a new wine bar close on the Studio’s heels right next door, now all this community needs is a name. For now Saronn and Ray seem content to create a culture that keeps the customers and staff happy. As Saronn says, the business is going to let us know what it needs; without people in these seats, it’s nothing. And with any luck, they’ll achieve a work-life balance down the road that still fits in travel so that they can keep bringing unique flavours home.