CHIVES CANADIAN BISTRO: Long-loved mainstay makes a solid return to its roots
I distinctly remember one of the first bites of food I had from Chef Craig Flinn at Chives Canadian Bistro years ago. It was back when I was at the Atlantic Film Festival, when we would treat revered festival guests to the best in fine dining in Halifax at the time. On this one particular evening, I was hosting a boisterous group of filmmakers and media from around the world — wines flowing, engaging conversations, lots of laughs — and I ordered what I can only refer to as a fall-off-the-bone beef short rib. This doesn’t even come close to accurately describing it. I believe I picked up my utensils and paused to look at the succulent piece of meat on the plate in front of me. It quietly laid itself down to rest in its own bite-size pieces. Through time, I’ve practically stalked that short rib, and have been lucky to have a few different versions of it, including one I now make for special occasions at home after Craig relented and gave me his basic recipe.
I’m ashamed to say that it’s been some time since I darkened the door at Chives for a meal. I’m not quite sure what has kept me away. In my mind’s eye, I must be missing that expense account. But see, that’s a perception thing that Craig and his fellow business partners have been struggling to get across. This is not fine dining — this is bistro-inspired fare. This is casual, approachable and affordable dining at its best.
When Chives first opened its doors 17 years ago, it was one in a league of fine-dining establishments in Halifax, from Maple to daMaurizio, Bacchus to Bish. This many years later, few remain. The team at Chives has worked hard through many iterations to stay true to their fundamental mantra: the best-tasting food from the best locally sourced, seasonal ingredients.
Since I last officially checked in with Craig for an article on 2 Doors Down in June 2016, he got married, welcomed a son into the world and rebranded Temple Bar to 2 Doors Down Bar + Bites. On top of that, just this past fall Chives had a major facelift. I’m here for the new autumn menu and to check out the renovation. By the time you read this, the menu will be well into mid-winter fare.
I approach these articles in a couple of different ways. Sometimes I share a meal with the chef/proprietor, then I’m alone in a kitchen or dining room post interview snapping shots. Or every so often I have the good fortune to include a cohort for an eat-the-menu approach. When my husband heard “Chives,” he was in, and the two of us settled in for an evening of epic eating.
To start, their warm signature buttermilk biscuits are delivered to the table in brown paper bags with whipped butter and molasses. Craig is not afraid to put it out there: “I’m proud of how consistent and flavourful our food is after 17 years, and that we have had the ability to remain connected to some of the same local farmers and producers since 2001.” Most people know of Craig’s impressive pedigree as an award-winning, published chef who worked his way through Canada, Switzerland, London and New York before opening Chives. However, this is a team effort through and through.
Darren Lewis, a reservist with the Canadian Armed Forces for over 13 years, had a penchant for throwing dinner parties. When he hit 30 years old, and was looking down the barrel of a continued military career, he did an about-turn and signed himself up for cooking school. On the very first day of class, he met Craig.
Darren’s post-school track was different from Craig’s, as he first landed in the culinary enhancement program at Walt Disney World in Florida. He was recruited to handle the logistics of a month-long food and wine festival at the Epcot Center, where he managed celebrity chefs, demos and dinners, and worked with the likes of Julia Child and Bobby Flay. Through mutual chef friends, Darren and Craig’s paths continued to cross, including at a large country club in Long Island, New York, where they ran all of the food operations for a stint. When Craig approached Darren to be the chef de cuisine to open Chives, Darren jumped at the opportunity. Here since the very beginning, he shifted from his chef de cuisine role to operations manager and co-owner in 2013.
Darren feels the place is more elegant than it has ever been and that the food mirrors the setting. He’s happy with the culinary team, and is quick to add that you need the engagement and vibrancy of younger cooks. The menu shifts every three weeks at the hands of two chef de cuisines, Scott Tannahill and Jameson Braun.
The appetizers hit the table. First, a plate of Cajun flash-fried oysters with sweet potato, a punchy slaw, chorizo barbecue and chipotle aioli. Then, a spicy, sweet and tender General Tao pork belly in a sesame-ginger honey glaze with a crisp cashew coleslaw. Next, duck two ways: a duo of a confit spring roll with sweet-and-sour plum sauce and a tender, thinly sliced coffee-smoked breast with a tart apple and celeriac slaw. And to finish this round, a sampler of the night’s pasta special: a spinach-and-mushroom agnolotti with peas, pea shoots and a decadent cream sauce. Normally, this would be a few shared bites and copious amounts of note-taking, but, I kid you not, we polished off every plate and I hardly wrote a word.
George Davis is the general manager overseeing the front of house and beverage program. He always worked in restaurants through school, first during his bachelor of political science degree, then while he studied public administration. Just as he was about to take a job writing policy in Ottawa, he couldn’t bring himself to leave an industry he had grown so fond of. His track had him managing Ryan Duffy’s, working with the Bertossi Group and then five years in food and beverage in British Columbia. Returning to Halifax, he gave his résumé to Craig just six months after Chives opened and the rest is history.
George feels that the three of them share the same food philosophy. He became the third co-owner shortly after 2 Doors Down opened. He, too, is excited by the restaurant’s evolution. “It’s a warmer space that encourages people to sit and enjoy a meal for a little longer,” he says. There’s hardly any turnover in the front-of-house team, and there’s a wealth of knowledge on the floor on a nightly basis.
This isn’t the first renovation this space has seen in 17 years; it’s actually the fourth in one capacity or another. The last one took place four years ago, when they made a move to make Chives more relaxed and fun in its appearance and food program, all in an effort to continue to dispel that myth of fine dining. Then along came Chives’ peppy younger brother, 2 Doors Down, who simply nailed it on casual fare and atmosphere. All the while there was a quiet movement from a staunch group of regulars who just wanted the old Chives to return.
Everything in the dining room is reflective and welcoming. A dark ceiling and wooden floors pull the room together, making for an intimate setting. There are warm earth-toned walls, new tables and chairs, and clusters of asymmetrical, amber-glass pendant lamps adorning the ceiling. Long teal-blue crushed velvet banquettes line the dining room.
It’s more upscale and sophisticated, yet still comfortable and unpretentious. Being a former Bank of Nova Scotia location in the 1950s, Chives has always carried a bit of old-school glamour. It even has a vault that houses the wines and a private dining room.
Thinly painted gold lines over the bar pick up the flickering tea lights, and cobalt-blue water glasses add another pop of colour. The pièce de résistance is a wall of 47 gilded antique mirrors that Craig collected from all over Nova Scotia and restored himself. The renovation was a group effort in collaboration with designer Joanna Lane and her team from Staged for Upsell.
We both order a main, but in the meantime the kitchen sends out one of their signature dishes — caramelized scallops with a warm roasted sunchoke and smoked bacon salad punctuated with garlic chips, roasted vegetables and fresh pea shoots. It’s like a deconstructed bacon-wrapped scallop platter, and if this is salad, sign me up. My husband’s dish is a lean, balsam-fir-smoked venison with a beet pave and a cranberry apple compote, pickled wild mushrooms, grilled vegetables and a natural jus. Me? I am here for the short rib. I take a bite and stop to finally write a note, and it is this: “pull-the-f**k-apart-short-rib.” That’s all I wrote down. Seriously, not so helpful when pulling an article together after some time has passed. But I digress. It was as good, if not better than before: a braised beef short rib resting on a bed of celery root and parsnip purée with local mushrooms, red wine jus, buttermilk onion rings, grilled asparagus, beans, tomatoes, beet greens and a dab of mushroom ketchup. I’m afraid after such a large meal, we simply couldn’t even consider dessert, though I’m sure the sticky toffee pudding would have done the trick.
As I was penning this piece, I came across this quote from ethnographer Wade Davis in an article written by a friend of mine about the iconic Fogo Island Inn in Newfoundland, and it captured the spirit of Chives perfectly:
A culture survives when it has enough confidence in its past and enough say in its future to maintain its spirit and essence through all the changes it will inevitably undergo.
If this doesn’t sum up a restaurant that is nearing two decades old and has made a solid return to its roots, I don’t know what will. The trio at the helm has never been more united and, frankly, assured in their approach to what they are doing.
Chives Canadian Bistro is open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday.