HIGHWAYMAN: Spanish-inspired restaurant and bar brings a taste of Basque country to Barrington Street
Energy — it’s what transforms a bricks-and-mortar space into an experience; it provides the emotional element that allows people to connect with their surroundings. Energy is also a driving force behind entrepreneurs and their ideas, pushing them forward to turn aspirations into realities. Energy is not in short supply at Highwayman, a 40-seat Spanish-inspired restaurant in downtown Halifax run by a foursome of twenty-somethings. This young team of restaurateurs have the stamina needed to show up every single day and put in the hours, while at the same time executing a couple of the best and most interesting dining experiences in the city.
It’s a damp, cloudy spring evening in Halifax when I stop by Highwayman for dinner. As I enter the long, narrow space through its glass door on Barrington Street, I’m immediately greeted by a friendly face and seated at the end of a long banquette that flanks an entire side of the restaurant opposite the bar. From my perch I can easily watch other diners and the bartenders, and I can peek into the white subway-tiled kitchen.
It’s just after 7 pm, and the restaurant is almost full, the space abuzz with murmurs of animated dinner conversations. There is a warm, snug and romantic feel to Highwayman’s interior, even with its dramatically dark and cold blue walls, which are softened by touches of wood, vintage sconces, an ornamental tin roof and candlelight bouncing off mirrors. The musical selection of lush vintage R&B tunes allows the soft, comfy vibe to come full circle.
“There’s a point where you really like working in restaurants, enjoying it, the money is good, but there’s no personal connection,” says Adam MacLeod, co-owner of Highwayman, of his and Michael Hopper’s decision to take the plunge into restaurant ownership. MacLeod met Hopper behind the bar at La Frasca, before moving on to Field Guide, where he formed a relationship with the owners there (and his future business partners) Ceilidh Sutherland and Chef Dan Vorstermans. The team of four opened up the Spanish-inspired Highwayman on April 7, 2016, naming their restaurant after the famous Alfred Noyes poem. “Now was a good time for us. The interest was there, the energy was there and so we’re committed to being here all the time, working together,” says MacLeod.
“It’s drinking food,” says MacLeod of the menu, which he credits to Vorstermans’s interests when they were planning Highwayman. “He was inspired by a few restaurants that opened in Canada. And it was the style of cuisine he was into,” adds MacLeod. “We were all supportive. It’s Spanish pub/tavern food. Which is enjoyed with drinks in a really social setting. Which is what we try to execute [here].” Both MacLeod and Hopper have mixology backgrounds, so the cocktail (or “drinkables”) menu is as impressive as you’d expect, and the wine and spirits offerings are appropriately European inspired.
After settling in, the first thing my server, Hannah, points out is the gin and tonic menu taking up prime real estate at the top of the cocktail list. Gin and tonic is considered the national drink of Spain, and on this list eight gins of varying styles are matched with complementary garnishes that also flavour the cocktails. I choose a botanical gin from Montreal called Cirka that’s served with fresh strawberry and basil. I’m also given bar snacks — warm, salty Marcona almonds, savoury green Bravo (or Chupadedos) olives and tender sweet peppers. Addictive stuff.
The gin and tonic washes down the salty snacks perfectly, and in anticipation of a course from the raw seafood bar, Hannah pours me a glass of Manzanilla, a fine, very pale and extremely dry sherry. A tray of ice is set down, displaying eight side stripe shrimp from British Columbia, a seashell full of delicate scallop crudo, half a lemon, and some mellow and sweet poached rhubarb. The scallop crudo has orange and grapefruit segments, chervil and cold-pressed olive oil. It’s fresh and bright, marinated just long enough to get the proper texture and flavour of the scallop without the acid cooking it completely through. The shrimp are served raw in the shell, and they have a sort of creamy texture, perfect for swiping along the cut lemon before popping them in your mouth.
The raw bar is a new addition to Highwayman, and tonight it’s housing fresh oysters, shrimp, snow crab legs, tins of sturgeon caviar and other tinned, preserved seafood. “Spain has a big fishing background. We wanted to make sure that while we’re serving Spanish food, we’re also serving Nova Scotian cuisine as well, in a Spanish style,” says MacLeod.
The entire offering at Highwayman is meant to be shared, something that is reinforced by the style of service and the menu design. “There’s tons of communication between us and the guest — and we want it that way. Our menu is written in the most barebones way possible, where you’re almost forced to ask questions,” says McLeod. There are 45 menu items, all of varying sizes and quantities, so customers rely on their server’s knowledge and opinion of what's appropriate for their table size. "Even if they’ve been here before, it’s up to [staff] to make sure they have the right amount of diversity in their meal,” says MacLeod. “A sharing plate doesn’t mean the plate is small.”
Highwayman has eight choices for pintxos, which are small finger foods typically served at bars and taverns in the Basque region of Spain. They are often bread-based vessels carrying toppings like egg, smelts or cheese — but the combinations can vary widely. The Highwayman menu also has tapas, cheese, charcuterie, raciones (which translates to “rations,” though these are the bigger dishes) and offerings from the raw bar. From the tapas list I choose the classic, simple pan con tamate — grilled house-made sourdough rubbed with garlic, grated fresh tomato and sea salt. I follow it with lightly pickled asparagus and devilled eggs atop idiazabal pintxos. Idiazabal is a firm sheep’s milk cheese with a tangy and slightly smoky flavour. A generous hunk of cheese instead of bread? I’m into this. The combination is rich, and the pickled asparagus is needed to round out the bite.
Next, a citrus salad with fresh, crunchy radicchio, endive, bitter and earthy garden cress arrives. It’s complemented with vibrant grapefruit and orange segments, juicy pomegranate seeds, and toasted almonds, all tossed in sherry vinaigrette. Both the crunchy and nutty flavours of the almonds balance the salad nicely.
The large, family-style dish, or racione, of the night is next— the pollo con pimientos, a whole chicken leg that’s been brined for 24 hours, seared and finished in the oven. It sits in a puddle of pan jus, and is surrounded by colourful, grilled and local lunchbox peppers. The chicken is fragrant and seasoned simply . . . juicy, uncomplicated and entirely delicious.
For dessert it’s crema catalana, which is a custard delicately flavoured with cinnamon and orange beneath a hard sheet of deeply caramelized sugar. I shatter the stiff layer of dark, bitter sugar and enjoy several bites that are balanced by the sweet, creamy, citrusy custard — a fantastic finish.
Highwayman is an afternoon, evening and late-night destination open from 4 pm to midnight Tuesday through Thursday and on Sunday. On Friday and Saturday, the hours are 2 pm to midnight (closed Monday).