PRIMAL KITCHEN: A south end carnivore paradise
After adventuring in the culinary arts in kitchens across the world, from the Caribbean to Egypt to Singapore, pastry chef Sue Ann Lambert and culinary chef Morné Van Antwerp found themselves in Halifax. After taking over the former space of fine-dining restaurant Fiasco, they flipped it into Primal Kitchen, a space entirely theirs that offers the most exotic menu in the city.
“We wanted something fun and unique, but not too weird,” says Van Antwerp, originally from South Africa’s Garden Route, a gorgeous coastal region that, along with Southeast Asian cuisine and local flourishes, influences every corner of Primal Kitchen. His specialties are the primal cuts of meat separated from the bone, like loins and ribs, which he complements with eclectic, rich flavors and picture-perfect presentations. With seating for 60, plus summers on the sunny Brenton Street patio, the space is warm and inviting with custom woodwork, a long illuminated bar and a color palette that invokes the sea and the sun, adorned by the majestic African lion.
“On the Garden Route, there are sunflowers as far as the eye can see,” says Van Antwerp. The bright and burnt yellows of those flowers are the principal accents to the large-scale lion murals throughout the dining room. “With the lion, I found comfort in it,” he describes. “It’s the main primal predator. And I also realized it’s the symbol in the Nova Scotia flag. That felt good, too.”
The custom soft-industrial lighting, modern furnishings and rustic woods add a certain depth and mystery to the atmosphere, which is very appropriate: the seasonal menus are safaris of taste.
Almost everything on the menu is prepared in-house, from the condiments to the chips to the jus. The charcuterie meats are all cured, smoked and prepared in Van Antwerp’s economically sized kitchen. Primal’s charcuterie boards are designed to feature a rotation of locally sourced cheeses and exotic smoked meats, like ostrich prepared as droëwors, a salty, smoky and thinly sliced South African dried sausage and Biltong, Antwerp’s father’s recipe for 30-day cured beef strips.
“Biltong is a cured beef that’s everywhere in South Africa, you eat it like potato chips, like when you’re watching a rugby game,” he says. There are also bison rounds and cured pork cuts, lamb legs and special feature meats, which change occasionally, all served with house-made kettle-fried potato chips, crostini and homemade old-school mustard. The boards are especially popular at Primal Kitchen’s happy hour, which offers six-dollar daily pints from a generous selection of craft beers on tap, or Canadian ice wines, ciders (warm and cold) and a gracious wine menu.
“Pretty much all of our background is in fine dining. That’s where we met and that’s where we’ve worked together,” says Lambert, who met Van Antwerp 16 years ago in a kitchen. “That’s what we had been doing and we knew we wanted to steer away from that. We still wanted that level of food, but we wanted people to feel comfortable, and to welcome all price points. If you want a prime-rib steak for two, with all the fixings, we have that. If you want a burger with hand-cut fries, we have that, too.” Van Antwerp adds, “Or a five-dollar taco!” Primal Kitchen can also accommodate vegetarian requests, and it sells Van Antwerp’s own bottled sauces. “We wanted to do what we like,” he says, “A meat-oriented brasserie-style menu in a fun, light space.”
Mission accomplished. Van Antwerp’s creativity shines. Along with a dinner menu, Primal Kitchen recently began offering a prix fixe luncheon with two and three courses of special entrees like rabbit and venison pies and perfectly cooked Atlantic salmon. “He’s really good at the salmon,” Lambert says. The tenderloin burgers can be prepared tartare or well-done; they’re incredibly juicy, with just a hint of char. There’s boar sausage, a beautiful duck confit, bone marrow, and local oysters. The craft-beer braised short rib is a popular item, says Lambert, but popular items change with the menu. This culinary style is an art, and Van Antwerp is a master.
“I do my best to find the most unique meats available,” he explains. Lambert adds, “There is also a very high level of local foods here, so it’s easy to keep foods as locally-sourced as we can.”
For her part, Lambert crafts the sumptuous dessert menu, and the mainstay Malva, a South African apricot sticky toffee pudding, based on Van Antwerp’s mother’s recipe. “It’s sticky, gooey and delicious,” Lambert describes, served warm with a dollop of crème and a toffee coin.
Primal Kitchen is not only a project of artistic proportions; it’s quite obviously a pursuit of love. The deliberate care and craft of each dish is guided by raw, animal instincts. It’s primal, indeed.