On the road in Nova Scotia: Seafood at the source
We have a lot of chef talent in town, but even though they can work wonders and give us very good seafood here in Ann Arbor*, a trip to Nova Scotia is a reminder—no fish tastes as good as it does right from the sea.
When I’m traveling, I’ll often chose a dish and try it in various restaurants to get an idea of how different cooks express it. This time it was seafood chowder. I travelled up and down the “Bluenose Coast,” from Halifax to Shelburne, sampling seafood chowder, which, rather than concentrating on a single type of seafood (as in, say, clam chowder), combines a mix of fish and shellfish. Each of the chowders I tried was house-made and had its own personality. Some reflected the varied cultural heritage of the region. At White Point Lodge, a classic rustic resort dating back to the 1920s, they conjure Nova Scotia’s ties to France with an Acadian-style chowder that uses fennel and smoky bacon in the stock. I had a big bowl for lunch in the old-fashioned dining room, looking out a bank of windows at the pounding surf.
My favorite turned out to be in the most humble setting, a small roadhouse called Sea Side Seafood (902-683-2618) on the Lighthouse Route in the tiny community of Hunts Point. Sea Side Seafood was the kind of place that had hand-painted signs posted on the two-lane highway about ten kilometers in advance. I knew it was going to be unique, but it seemed like it could go either way--uniquely good or bad. It was great, at least for the chowder. They are very protective of their recipe, and wouldn’t budge when I tried to pry out some of the secrets. Here’s what I managed to ferret out or deduce on my own: they make the chowder fresh; they balance a mix of haddock, shrimp, lobster, clams, and scallops, and don’t let one ingredient over-power, but there’s lots of seafood and it gives the chowder a chunkiness. Owner Mike Smith did allow that he travels all over the coast to get the best and freshest ingredients. I’d say this was a chowder in the English-Irish vein with straightforward seasonings—salt, pepper, fresh chives—so that the sea flavors stand out clearly. The stock is made with seafood, onions, and potatoes, and it is not thickened with any kind of starch. They add just enough of what I’m guessing is either whole milk or half-and-half to give it a creaminess but not heaviness. There were no fancy accoutrements, just saltines, but that was enough. The deep mug of $8.95 chowder was perfect fuel for hiking on a windy, overcast day.
We had lots more great seafood during our week in the Maritimes—a lobster supper where were sat with a Nova Scotia environmentalist who demonstrated lobster-eating and gave us a lesson in lobster physiology; phenomenal oyster fritters at Bish World Cuisine in Halifax; panko-crusted Digby scallops at White Point lodge. The batter and deep-fry mentality is unfortunately strong all over, but even at a touristy joint overlooking the wharf at Lunenburg, a plate of fried clams was so lightly coated and quickly fried--and most importantly, so utterly fresh--that it tasted much more of briny, meaty clams than anything else. With raw materials like these, it’s hard to go wrong.
(*My favorite local restaurants for seafood (in no particular order): Zingerman’s Roadhouse, eve, the lunch counter at Monahan’s, Logan, Pacific Rim, and Café Zola.)