On this particular afternoon, every single customer walking into the Salt Shaker Deli is making a beeline for the sunny deck. And who wouldn’t? It’s a deck with an incredible view of Lunenburg’s harbour teeming with boats and not a single cloud in the sky. I’m sitting across from Chef Martin Ruíz Salvador, and he admits he and his staff have just hit that critical fatigue moment in the middle of their busiest season. You have to make hay while the sun shines and muster up every bit of energy in your soul to soldier on through. This is true for many people in this industry.
It’s awfully comfortable here: a front porch room with a couple of tables overlooking busy Montague Street, warm dark wooden floors, light lime green walls adorned with stylized prints of olive oils and aperitifs, a checkered red and white picnic tablecloth and brown kraft paper on every table, a long bar with comfortable stools cutting through the middle of the restaurant, and waiters and waitresses running around in cute logoed tees. The place is simply abuzz. It’s full of tourists on the day of this interview, but the ratio will subtly shift and soon give way to more locals through the winter months. This place is open year-round, unlike the other three restaurant businesses run by Martin and his wife, Sylvie. These two are pillars of Nova Scotian cuisine on the South Shore and beyond.
Two issues back, I met the self-professed “Honourary Mayor of Lunenburg,” Adam Bower of the The Grand Banker Bar & Grill. And I dare say, I have just spent time chatting with the person I’d perhaps call the “Baron of Lunenburg.” He and Sylvie appear to be serial entrepreneurs. “We are by no means trendsetters,” Martin states, but I would argue that it’s about the right trend at the right time in the right place, which the two of them have an obvious knack for. They have that ability to spot opportunities and have real estate finds and culinary trends constantly align in the place they call home.
For those who follow their careers, it may have come as a bit of a surprise last year when Martin and Sylvie announced they were taking a sabbatical and temporarily closing down their longtime, award-winning restaurant Fleur de Sel for a year. Then came the big reveal: the birth of their son in December, and it was all starting to make sense from a distance. But this summer yet another bombshell when they launched their latest venture, The Half Shell Oysters and Seafood, the province’s first open-air raw bar with a Spanish tapas twist. This is hardly a sabbatical, folks.
If you can say anything about these two, it’s work hard, play hard. Over the years, they’ve seized the opportunity to travel in their limited downtime, often heading to some of the world’s top food destinations with other chef friends, checking out food trends in situ and eventually bringing them back to our part of the world. As Martin explains, this is something that was instilled in him from the very beginning. During his youth, he’d tag along with his siblings and his parents — both professors at Dalhousie University — on their year-long sabbaticals to places like Mexico and Spain.
Martin’s interest in food stemmed from these worldly experiences but was also reinforced here at home; he credits his neighbour Pauline who babysat him for almost 10 years when the family lived in Blandford, Nova Scotia. She introduced Martin to a whole slew of South Shore classics like Solomon Gundy, Tancook Sauerkraut and Lunenburg Pudding.
After graduating from the Scottsdale Culinary Institute in Arizona, Martin followed Sylvie to Dublin, Ireland, where she was pursuing a career in IT at the time. It was there that he was exposed to French fine dining under Chef Aiden Byrne at the Michelin-starred Commons Restaurant (it regained a star during Byrne’s brief run there). From there it was off to Lyon, France, to delve even deeper into this cuisine, and somewhere along the way Sylvie fell in love with the business too. Their fate was sealed when Martin did two culinary tours of duty at some of Lyon’s finest Michelin-starred restaurants — Brasserie Léon de Lyon and Le Caro de Lyon. However, they were both keen to head home to Nova Scotia to open their own fine-dining restaurant.
Martin’s Nova Scotia culinary pedigree includes time at Maple, Le Caveau at Domaine de Grand Pré Winery and finally Il Mercato Trattoria, where he helped open the Bedford location with Stephanie and Maurizio Bertossi. He developed a great relationship with the Bertossis and was inspired by their work ethic and hands-on approach to their own businesses, much like he had experienced in Europe. These two have had their own illustrious 30-plus year career together, opening many of Halifax’s most successful restaurants including daMaurizio and The Bicycle Thief. Their mentorship and support of Martin and Sylvie when they opened their first restaurant remains key to their success to this day.
Fleur de Sel opened in 2004 and immediately started racking up accolades, earning, in its first year, spot number eight on enRoute magazine’s Top Ten New Restaurants in Canada list. It went on to earn four diamonds from CAA, and just this past year it landed at number 22 on Canada’s 100 Best magazine’s top restaurants list. For Nova Scotians, this quickly became a destination restaurant — Lunenburg’s only fine dining option — one you travel for and build a stay around. Their focus at the start was on an elevated seven-course tasting menu. In 2015, they added a five-course tasting menu. In the span of time they were open, they noticed a marked change in people’s palates. They also only had two Nova Scotia wines on their menu when they first opened, but when they closed they had over 25.
But I digress, as I am supposed to be focusing in on the Salt Shaker Deli. In 2007, another downtown location became available, and they had a desire to open a more casual place offering deli fare — comfort food like sandwiches, pastas and pizzas done well — and take-home, readymade meals. With just 16 seats, they soon found that no one wanted to take food home; they simply wanted to eat at the restaurant. Fast forward to a renovation and where they are today: doing about 350-plus covers a day in the height of the season. The restaurant now seats 55, including that sunny deck.
It’s a big menu and there’s no skimping on fare; the portions are generous. They change it up seasonally but have managed to build the menu around many crowd favourites. There’s a bit of international flair added into the mix, too, with pad Thai and butter chicken on offer, but the real focus appears to be on gourmet sandwiches and signature pizzas, with over 14 of Greasy Marty’s pizzas to choose from. Martin has me try one of his personal faves, the Smoked Salmon Club. It comes on the freshest of ciabatta bread with the restaurant’s own smoked salmon and tomato, bacon, greens, red onion, capers and cream cheese. The range of sandwiches is wide, from fried bologna to a fresh lobster roll. And why pizza? It’s one of Martin’s all-time favourite foods. At his suggestion, I dip into the delightfully salty and sweet prosciutto and pear pizza with roasted garlic oil, pear, prosciutto, red onion, mozza, brie, arugula and a balsamic reduction. This is simple, product-driven, local food mostly made from scratch and incorporating as much fresh seafood as possible from right there at the source. And this isn’t even mentioning the always expanding selection of local beers, wines and spirits (Ironworks is just down the block!).
In 2014, another perfectly-situated property became available and The South Shore Fish Shack was born. They were blindsided by the immediate success of this business that features, you guessed it, a robust, locally-sourced menu of fresh seafood in all of its glorious forms, from classics like fried clams to newer dishes like lobster poutine. And, of course, along with the aforementioned Half Shell, these two businesses now run side by side seasonally from May to October. And it doesn’t stop there, as they have four well-appointed guest rooms above the Salt Shaker at the Spinnaker Inn that can be booked year-round.
What lies in store for these two and their ever-increasing South Shore empire? As they work quietly behind the scenes, shaping the new format for Fleur de Sel (scheduled to make its return around May 2017), we’ll just have to watch their travels to glean intel on potential food directions — and perhaps check out the Lunenburg real estate listings a little more closely.