NS Chefs Pop-up Series with Ray Bear

The Nova Scotia Chefs Pop-up Series made an impressive start just over two weeks ago, with chef Ray Bear inviting guest chef Dave Smart to help take over the kitchen space at the Scanway Bakery and Café on Grafton Street. About 18 lucky food enthusiasts, including myself, were just able to squeeze into the space and enjoy an exclusive meal from two of the most creative and artful Nova Scotia chefs around. It proved to be an intimate and, understandably, very social pop-up venue. Each chef, demonstrating his distinct style, created one dish per course, transforming your typical three-course meal into a six-course feast.  And yes, that means there were two desserts. Impeccable wine pairings were provided by Jenny at Bishop’s Cellar.

Dave's first course: confit squash, mushrooms, roasted pearl onions, brown butter, toasted hazelnuts, sage croutons, lemon-ginger.

Dave’s first course: confit squash, mushrooms, roasted pearl onions, brown butter, toasted hazelnuts, sage croutons, lemon-ginger.

First course was brought to you by Dave: A salad of confit squash, mushrooms, roasted pearl onions, brown butter dust (which melted in your mouth and became brown butter), toasted hazelnuts, colourful sage croutons, and tangy lemon-ginger gel.  Presented in classic Dave style, a gorgeous asymmetrical plate with styled pops of colour and a plethora of textures. But don’t worry — it wasn’t just pretty; everything about this salad came together in a nicely balanced way, a great first course.

Ray's first course: fresh ramen, vegetable infused pork broth, crispy bits salad, kimchi aioli, herbs

Ray’s first course: fresh ramen, vegetable infused pork broth, crispy bits salad, kimchi aioli, herbs

Second course (second first course, actually) was from Ray; I really enjoy when he uses Asian inspiration. This dish had fresh, house-made ramen noodles in a vegetable-infused pork broth. The broth was infused using a vacuum coffee maker, shortly before the course was served. I thought it was just so flavourful. Also in the broth was crispy bits salad (pork with crispy bits), fresh herbs, enoki mushrooms and, rimming the bowl, a kimchi aioli. Umami deliciousness.

On to Dave’s main course, cured and cold smoked scallop, cauliflower pureé, green apple, pickled raisins, and curried granola. Dave explained that the scallop was seared on one side only, bringing two temperatures to the plate and some colour to the top. The pickled raisins were perfect, a great way to offset the sweet-rich scallop and velvety cauliflower pureé. The crunch of the granola was fantastic, I was a huge fan of this plate.

Ray's second course: NS spring lamb, calamari, olive, fingerlings, almond romesco, saffron-vanilla pudding

Ray’s second course: NS spring lamb, calamari, olive, fingerlings, almond romesco, saffron-vanilla pudding

Ray’s main course had so much fun stuff going on, a Spanish-inspired lamb dish that showed off a lamb sausage stuffed purple shallot, calamari, olives, fingerlings, almond romesco sauce, and saffron-vanilla pudding. Showcasing both the calamari tube and tentacles gave this plate such a great visual aspect, and I loved the two different preparations of the lamb, both delicious. That heavenly well of jus inside the pudding was unbelievable. It was a beautiful main course.

On to dessert, which I typically skip. Dave’s dessert was perfect for me… it was savoury and involved cheese. An Urban Blue cheese cheesecake schmear, black currant, pistachio crumb, and beet sorbet. The earthy flavour of the beet really came through here, and again, all the flavours and textures were superbly balanced, it was, for me, the perfect level of sweetness (not much).

Ray's dessert: Butterflies & Drops of Jupiter

Ray’s dessert: Butterflies & Drops of Jupiter

Ray’s trippy-looking dessert, described on the menu as only “Butterflies & Drops of Jupiter” was a big wow for the crowd. Pete Luckett jokingly referred to it as the dessert Ray must have thought up on LSD.  In reality it was an amazing dessert with many intricately designed and placed elements. The main part (the green thing) was passionfruit around a white chocolate-lime Bavarian. The raspberry ball had rose water, elder flower juice and yuzu. The butterfly looked as though it would just be fondant or something similar but was a delicious paper thin biscuit. The other “drops” of foam on the plate were blueberry and blackberry. It tasted even better than it looked.

Keep an eye out for the next edition of the Nova Scotia Chefs Pop-up Series; I’m sure there are many more impressive meals like this one in the works.

Pop-up chef series finale at Front & Central

Fourth course - piggy (sous vide pork tenderloin)  in a mushroom blanket, roasted shallots, bread pudding and parsley sauce.

Fourth course – piggy (sous vide pork tenderloin) in a mushroom blanket, roasted shallots, bread pudding and parsley sauce.

What better way to avoid a Nova Scotia winter rut (food and morale) than design a series of delicious tasting menus with your friends?

Tasting menus are the way I like to eat. I enjoy running the restaurant that way,” says Dave Smart, chef and owner of Front & Central in Wolfville. “This was the second year for the series. I start them in January when the dust settles from New Year’s.”

The “pop-up chef series” for 2014 ended on April 25, and I was lucky enough to be invited, as Dave’s guest (his treat), to cover the last of the event via social media. The guest chef on this particular date was Peter Dewar – and man, do these guys’ styles work together well (not to mention Peter is a member of Culinary Team Canada). They presented a five-course tasting menu at an unbelievable price of $50 per person, along with an optional wine pairing at only an additional $25. Tickets were sold in advance.

Of course I brought Geir along (nothing like chefs cooking for other chefs) and we made a night out of it in Wolfville, taking advantage of the special rate for this event at Victoria’s Historic Inn. To make it even more convenient, the inn is within walking distance from Front & Central.

Second course (my favourite) - "bread and butter", which was chive hollandaise and rye bread pudding.

Second course (my favourite) – “bread and butter”, which was chive hollandaise and rye bread pudding.

From the pop-up series Dave says he’s “had lots of great feedback from guests, and many repeat diners.” It’s no wonder. The service is fantastic — it’s easy to tell the staff genuinely enjoy the tasting menu format — and the restaurant is beautiful. The food absolutely went beyond our expectation in creativity, taste and plating.

A highlight for me was second course, called “bread and butter”. This was chive hollandaise paired with a rye bread pudding, meant to be eaten together… each spoonful was better than the last. Check out our dinner, starting with some fantastic gin cocktails, course-by-course in the gallery below.