Like Casanova seducing the women of Venice, Chives swept into town and ignited the passions of food lovers. All the talk of fresh local ingredients and seasonal menus had foodies talking; being featured on Life Network’s Opening Soon brought huge amounts of publicity, and the bistro was off and running. But that was almost five years ago (December 2001), and I wondered if the flames were still burning.
I will confess to having had doubts about the longevity of Chives, located as it is toward the middle of Barrington on one of the less-travelled blocks. No parking and a walk-up to the second-floor dining room didn’t seem all that convenient in such a fickle business.
Once you do make it up the lovely, gently curving wooden staircase, it’s a beautiful restaurant. A fireplace on one end, deep flame-coloured walls and light wooden floors make for a dramatic and intimate space. They’ve added a private dining room on the front, a bright airy space perfect for parties.
I especially like the “wine cellar,” a room with a table for four that once served as a bank vault. Decorated with wall sconces and wine bottles, this space could be very romantic (if a little claustrophobic).
We start our meal with the “hot pot” (soup of the day, $6.99) and the pan-fried Annapolis Feta Cheese ($8.99). Someone in the kitchen loves asparagus, for this soup does justice to the spring vegetable—intensely flavoured, garnished with creme fraiche and is that parsley oil? Divine. The feta, a triangle of golden browned cheese, sits atop a compote of tomatoes, cucumber, peppers, olives and vinaigrette, a Greek salad of unique architecture, the flavours of the Mediterranean created with local ingredients.
On to our main courses, the salmon ($22.99) and pork tenderloin ($21.99). The salmon is a large (almost too large) filet, tender and moist, with vegetables and potato hodge-podge. I’m not a mustard pickle fan, which is the condiment that comes with this salmon, but they are fine pickles that I am sure a pickle fan would love.
The pork tenderloin is wrapped in bacon, smoked and served on polenta (baked cornmeal), all on the house barbecue sauce. Another large portion, the pork is served medium and sliced thickly. Polenta is too often served as nothing more than a backdrop for the protein, a bland rubbery chunk of unmemorable blahness, but not here. This polenta is full of sweet corn and laced with the taste of aged cheddar, fulfilling on its own. But it’s the sauce that’s the star of this dish. Smoky, sweet, hard to put a finger on; the taste reminds me of a Mexican manchamantel (literally, “tablecloth stainer”) sauce, only lighter on the chipotles (smoked jalapenos). It cries out for more of the warm tea biscuits (with which we began our meal) to sop up every drop.
When chef Craig Flinn and pastry chef Darren Lewis, the owners, opened Chives their wish was to create “an extraordinary casual dining experience,” with seasonal, fresh ingredients and high-quality food and service. So often such intense passion burns out, unable to be sustained, and like old lovers, we part ways with bittersweet regret at what might have been.
It is exhausting to stick unwaveringly with a vision, and the fact that Flinn and Lewis have kept the fires burning at Chives is nothing short of remarkable.
Chives Canadian Bistro1537 Barrington Street 420-9626 Nightly 5-9:30pm
Keep the fires burning with Liz Feltham on the web: www.foodcritic.ca