Back in December 2012, Laura MacLeod loaded up her jeep and took off across Canada towards Vancouver. Her son, Donald, was just about to graduate from the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts (PICA) and she was about to start a year-long program there herself. “I white-knuckled that drive, thought I was going to die!” she can now say with a laugh. “It turns out Canada is super snowy in December.” Thankfully the Dartmouth native made it: the eventual result, after graduating and making it back east, was The Old Apothecary, her two-floor bakery and café at the corner of Blowers and Barrington.
Now open for over a year, this place has become famous for its made-from-scratch éclairs, croissants, salted caramel brownies and fresh loaves of bread in the window. The rotating breakfast and lunch options, which range from quiches to salads to Danishes packed with tomato, arugula, bacon and cheddar, are putting it on the map, too. Not to mention the interior.
With old brick walls, wood floors and big windows as the bones to work with, Laura put her 17-plus years of interior design experience into this former pharmacy. She ended up with two floors decked out in an Art Nouveau sensibility, bright green couches, modern paintings and even half of a clawfoot tub for a seat in the upstairs corner. “It’s just me,” she says.
When I stop by in May, not long after the first anniversary, Laura cycles in and out of the kitchen alongside Donald and his girlfriend, Emily Perseo, both PICA graduates. Laura’s daughter, Katie, manages the front of the house, and today, just after 1 pm, it’s packed. I opt for the ham quiche, a croissant and a chocolate éclair, and get out of the way, heading upstairs to lounge in that tub.
A week earlier I caught up with Laura on her day off and she told me the whole point here is to offer something decadent where nothing’s rushed, including your stay. “We wanted this to be a place where people could come, plug in their computer and feel like they weren’t being rushed out. As a family, we travelled a lot after leaving Halifax in 2002, and that factor — not feeling like a commodity — was what I really enjoyed in a couple of cafés I’d go back to again and again.”
The vision for the food was similarly straightforward: “A place to just get something really delicious but where you could feel good about it because you knew it was made from scratch.”
Etiquette be damned, I feel good about going for that éclair first. It’s one of the densest I’ve had, and thankfully, unlike some éclairs out there, there’s lots of cream bursting from inside the thin pastry. And because the cream is light, not overly whipped, the cool, rich chocolate icing isn’t too much (a good thing when you go for dessert first).
The quiche is a thick square of gooey goodness with hearty slices of country ham, stringy cheese and two slices of baguette baked into the top. Moist but not wet, the slight crunch of the bread and firm edge of the ham balance everything almost flawlessly.
As for the croissant, it might not be your first choice for a side to an éclair and quiche, but these beauties can’t be missed. As one French reviewer put it, they could bring tears to your eyes. Wrapped in a dark golden crust with a slight glaze, the inside is melt-in-your mouth doughy perfection.
Overall, Laura and her small team deliver on their “really delicious” vision, but as anyone who’s worked in the field knows, not everyone agrees on what’s delicious. Exhibit A: a few weeks before I visit, a lady returned a lemon tart, saying the “pie crust” wasn’t flaky so it was terrible. Well, it’s a tart not a pie, Laura tried to explain; the crust is supposed to be more like a cookie. There was no convincing her, though. “And that can be really hard,” she says, especially because at just over a year cooking for the public she’s still relatively new. “It’s almost easier on me if something is bad than if it’s misunderstood.”
Surprisingly, one challenge that didn’t really slow her or her team down was the expansion this winter. Thinking they were getting lost between a vacant business on one side and scaffolding on the other, Laura signed the lease for the neighbouring empty space after Christmas. She had the wall knocked down in between the two on a Sunday and Monday in February, renos done, and the shop back open on Tuesday. It turns out her hunch was right. It’s a “thousand times better” than the original store, she says, and business is picking up because people can now easily see them on the corner.
As for the future, we should be seeing plenty from The Old Apothecary; Laura has no plans for another white-knuckled, life-changing drive across Canada any time soon. It’s clear she’s happy here. “I hope that anyone who comes in feels happy, too. I want them to get an authentic experience and really good food, and just feel comfortable when they’re here.”