LITTLE OAK: A spectacular new wine bar on the Halifax waterfront
Nestled into the posh surroundings of Bishop’s Landing on the Halifax waterfront, Little Oak is a welcome refuge offering warm and personable service, satisfying small plates, a charming vibe and lots of personality — all in a very small space. What some thought would serve as the perfect overflow venue for nearby larger restaurants has, on the contrary, proven to be its own very much worthy destination for food and beverage experiences, both big and small.
Opened this past July by the Agricola Street Brasserie ownership team — husband and wife duo Mike Hase and Rachel Knox, along with chef Ludovic Eveno — Little Oak has quickly blossomed into a serious food and drink stop in Halifax. The trio was approached about a year prior to opening by a leasing agent for Bishop’s Landing who was wondering if they’d be interested in operating there. “[The agency] had some other ideas of what they wanted,” says Knox. “We were interested in doing something different, but we couldn’t quite put a finger on what that would be.”
So, Hase and Knox hit the road and the tarmac, gathering inspiration from their travels. One spot in New York City particularly caught their attention. “[We] came across something that we thought would be really fun to open, which was just a really, really small bar with some food,” says Knox. Very small indeed. Little Oak has just 33 seats, including those at the bar, and a good portion of the 860-square-foot space is dedicated to a beautiful wine cellar encased in glass.
“We don’t really consider ourselves a wine bar. We are wine-centric but we just think of ourselves as a bar,” says Hase. And yet it’s hard to not think of wine when you walk into Little Oak, see the cellar, peruse the list and, most of all, when you hear the in-house sommelier and manager, Nicole Raufeisen, speak about the wines.
“I’m interested in carrying wines that I feel there’s a real story behind them,” says Raufeisen. “I’ve also tried to focus on things that haven’t been on lists around Halifax yet, some things that are a little unusual.” Reading the by-the-glass section it’s easy to tell Raufeisen’s interpretation of a wine list is broader and inevitably more interesting than most. There is saké offered by the glass, along with lesser-known orange wine, and a generous number of sherries.
It is quiet when I enter Little Oak after dark on a Thursday night. People at just two other tables have been seated. A white quartz bar flanks one end of the rectangular-shaped establishment, while at the opposite end is a raised, retro-inspired built-in booth. The space between is the dining area, running adjacent to the wine cellar. True to its name, most of the interior, including the table tops, floors and walls, is crafted from oak.
Inside the cellar is a chalkboard on the wall announcing feature wines available by the glass that are poured using a Coravin, which is a hand tool that allows wine to be poured from bottles without removing the cork. A Coravin has a needle that passes through the top of the bottle and the cork, while a cartridge pumps argon gas through the needle and into the bottle to force the wine out. “It’s our opportunity to offer people the chance to taste more premium wines by the glass,” says Raufeisen. “It also allows us to offer more dynamic pairings with the menu, give something a little special.”
On my visit to Little Oak, I am served by Raufeisen. She starts me off with cold saké, first offering a tray of various drinking receptacles. I choose a small, black clay tumbler. The saké is meant to pair with my first course, which, much to my delight, is a cold seafood board. It’s dropped off by the chef, Ben Ridgley, and he points out the various items: Thai marinated mussels and pickled shrimp in mason jars, a bowl of scallop ceviche and a pile of smoked salmon. The mussels, marinated in chili, lime, ginger and basil, are incredible, and because they’ve been preserved in the oil the texture is rich and fatty, yet there is a fresh and vibrant acidity from the lime. The scallop ceviche is buttery and smooth, complemented with flavours from the shallots, chili, lemon and herbs. This is my kind of starter.
The next course immediately changes direction, offering sweeter, lighter flavours by way of a fig tartine. Atop toasted almond-thyme bread is airy, house-made chive cheese, delicately placed quarters of sliced fig, and pea shoots. Spiced honey is drizzled on the plate.
On the wall near the kitchen is a chalkboard declaring the six small plates of the week (or day) depending on what Ridgley can get in fresh, or feels like making. In addition to rotating, seasonal creations that change often, there is a standing menu with bar fare like oysters, spiced nuts, olives, cheese and charcuterie, along with the seafood items. While there are a lot of snack offerings at Little Oak, the option to “eat the menu” — that is, all the small plates — is available for $72. The six small plates are typically enough for a meal for two people, and wine pairings are offered at $38 per person.
Ridgley next arrives at the table with a flawless looking classic beef tartare — one of my favourites. Finely chopped shallots, pickle, capers and parsley are amidst the raw beef, and it’s all topped with an egg yolk while the plate is finished with a dollop of nice, hot Dijon mustard. Warm, crusty bread that’s soft on the inside sits on the side.
Knox says that when Ridgley was recruited from Agricola Street Brasserie to run the kitchen at Little Oak, they were thinking of only serving cheese and charcuterie. “We got [Ridgley] on board, and he’s just a really good cook,” says Knox. “He said, ‘I wanna go down there, but I wanna cook. I don’t wanna slice cheese.’ So it kind of rolled from there.” The chalkboard menu is eclectic, with no set theme. Ridgley says the inspiration is simply “local and seasonal. As for genre or type of ethnic food, I don’t stick to one.”
Three ravioli are next placed in front of me; they are on a bed of lush parsnip purée, and filled with delicious red wine-braised rabbit. Spooned around the ravioli is a rich, natural jus, on top is an apple salad, and there are pickled cranberries. The sweet and tart cranberries and crisp apples are the perfect balance to this otherwise robustly filling pasta dish.
Another pasta course with boisterously rich flavours arrives at the table: ricotta gnocchi with earthy, seared cremini mushrooms. The heady scent of garlicky pesto hits my nose; it smells like something warm, filling and nap-inducing. I can see the gnocchi and mushrooms are sitting in a pool of olive oil, and they are topped with shaved Parmesan. There is no escape from the rich, gratifying yet simple flavours of this dish.
The fifth course of the evening again changes directions completely, as Ridgley presents me with a Thai-inspired dish offering a healthy portion of seared halibut. There are Brussels sprouts (still with a tender crunch) dressed in Tamari fish sauce offering a salty punch of umami. A generous topping of crumbled peanuts give this dish richness and texture, while birds eye chili, cilantro and citrusy Thai basil round out the flavours.
As the night progresses, people stream into Little Oak, quickly filling the tiny space from wall to wall. By 9 pm there is not a seat left in the house, and the vibe is busy but chill; the intoxicating smells wafting from the kitchen easily consume the entire place, and voices are loud and jovial. Speaking with Raufeisen about the clientele that has been drawn to Little Oak since opening, she says it’s been pretty mixed: “That’s actually been one of the positive things, that it’s been really diverse.” With the kitchen staying open until 2 am on busy nights (the stated hours are “4 pm until late”), Little Oak has also attracted many people looking to get some great food late at night.
Doubting that I can fit in another course, the biggest one yet is dropped off at the table by Ridgley. It’s an Indian-style lamb curry he's made that’s accompanied by very potent ginger pickle, raita with mint and raisins, and fresh tomatoes. There’s a lemony salad, too, made of cool, shiny ribbons of sliced cucumber, apple and celeriac on top of house-made kefir. The refreshing salad is the perfect way to cleanse the palate between bites of curry. The lamb tenderly falls apart, and the sauce is a beautiful deep red-brown; it is not fiery, but a very flavourful tomato-based curry.
The meal ends with spicy chocolate mousse topped with chantilly cream. It is served in a small mason jar and — much to my liking — has a very generous kick. Raufeisen pours me a glass of port to savour with dessert. Throughout this experience her service, timing and pairings have been impeccable, and it’s easy to see there is a real spirit of teamwork amongst the entire staff at Little Oak.
As I reflect on this wonderful meal, I think about how a visit to Little Oak in the very near future will offer a completely different menu to explore, and how wonderful that is to have in Halifax. Speaking with Hase and Knox, it’s easy to hear how refreshingly different Little Oak has been for them, as owners. “You can change stuff so quickly . . . it’s so fun,” says Knox. “Creativity is there, you feel inspired, you feel excited. We feel excited as customers to come down because it’s always changing.”