Sunday, September 6, 2015

East Coast retrospective

So earlier this summer Chris and I traveled to New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island - I was in Saint John for work, and he tagged along since he can work anywhere. After my work was complete we spent three days in Charlottetown for some much-needed R&R. Both of us were pleasantly surprised by the high calibre of the restaurants we encountered in both cities. C-town is of course a huge tourist destination, but Saint John hadn't been on my radar before this year. Its downtown (they say "uptown," actually, which makes sense when you look at it on a map) is small but very charming, including a terrific city market building and a strip of waterfront restaurants that comes alive in summer with its row of patios facing the harbour, a stage set up for frequent live music, and nearby shopping and hotels to round out the tourist experience.

Chris had more time and opportunity to eat out than I did (I mostly ate as part of my work event, and rather well at that) but we did manage to go to dinner together a few times. The standout for me, by far, was the Saint John Ale House, whose chef Jesse Vergen was a Top Chef Canada competitor in 2014. Not only is the food exemplary, full of local flavour and colour, but the selection of beers on tap is stunning, running the gamut from local craft selections to large brewery offerings without setting a foot wrong.

My Greek salad and bacon-wrapped scallops were both mouth-watering: the salad had a generous amount of high-quality feta and a well-balanced dressing atop local produce, while the scallops were plump and perfectly seared in their local, smoky-salty bacon coats, crowned with crispy dulse (dried seaweed, a local delicacy) and drizzled with house-made tomato cocktail sauce that enlivened each bite.

Chris tried the house-specialty chicken fingers, which the menu notes are "as seen on the Food Network's You Gotta Eat Here," and with good reason. These were probably the best ones either of us has ever tasted - they went so fast they didn't even get photographed.

I recall having some sort of gin and grapefruit cocktail that was delicious, while Chris sampled one of the many (many) local brews on tap. We finished with a shared plate of peanut-butter-chocolate mousse that was everything we wanted and more. It was as if someone had taken a really good PB cup (a fancy one, like the Justin's organic ones from Starbucks, not a Reese's) and thrown it in a blender with some whipping cream. Decadent and satisfying.

Chris went back twice after our initial dinner to try more food and more beer, raving each time about his experience.

We also sampled the Urban Deli (terrific, Italian-inflected sandwiches) and Thandi (Indian-Thai fusion in an absolutely stunning space - try to get the huge front window booth when you go. The service was a delight, my green curry with seafood was delicious, and they will adjust any dish for allergies and intolerances). Chris had what he called the best bibimbap of his life at Ta-Ke Sushi on King Street; I'm sad I missed that one. We ran out of time before getting to try East Coast Bistro or Happinez Wine Bar, two recommended spots, but that just means we'll have to make a return trip someday. Given the warm welcome we received from every single person we interacted with in Saint John, I don't think it will be a hardship.

Over the bridge and through the hills to Charlottetown we went, in giddy anticipation of more delicious seafood (knowing that the cruel, cruel summer of the landlocked awaited us here at home). We were not disappointed. The first evening we walked downtown from our delightful bed and breakfast (the Elmwood Heritage Inn; highly recommended) to the Merchantman Pub, where we were welcomed warmly and ate very well indeed. My expertly seared scallops (sensing a theme yet?) came in a citrus leek vinaigrette with some ginger soy slaw. I got to choose my sides and went with broccoli with almonds and roasted red bliss PEI potatoes, both perfectly cooked and delicious.

Chris had pan-fried haddock with cherry tomato chutney, as well as potatoes and broccoli, and devoured it all before I could take a photo. He also enjoyed a Gahan blueberry ale so much that he ended up buying some from the brewery to take home.

The following night we returned to a favourite from last year's quick stop in Charlottetown: the Water-Prince Corner Shop. The objective: lobster.

Oh my goodness, did we feast. It's making me sad just looking at this photo, three months later, knowing how long it could be before I get to eat lobster this fresh again.

We also had pie:

Made by the loving hands of our waitress, who was a delight. We waddled home deeply contented and wishing we could pack the Water-Prince into our trunk to take back to Ottawa with us. Honestly, if we could bring some East coast hospitality to Ottawa, I think we'd all be a lot happier. We always feel welcomed and valued out there, anywhere we go.

I'm thankful that it's just a two-day drive away. Until next time, Maritimes. 

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