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Northern exposure

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Downtown for dinner with a couple of girlfriends, I decide to combine pleasure with business and drop by 44 North for review purposes. 44 North is the restaurant of the former Sheraton turned Casino Nova Scotia Hotel and now Marriott; as a Casino employee, my ties with the hotel were severed after the sale. With the staff turnover at the hotel, I don’t expect to be recognized; turns out I’m wrong. Forgoing business, I ask who’s in the kitchen that evening, and when it turns out to be a chef that I know, I ask him to cook us whatever he wants—one lobster, one beef, one lamb is all I specify. He works his magic, and we end up with main courses so fantastic I lick my plate clean (I’m shameless when in a state of culinary orgasm).

Then my curiosity gets the better of me—would unknown diners receive an equivalent standard of food and service? Ideally, although the dishes he prepared were not regular menu items, any dish should be up to that standard with regard to freshness, quality and preparation.

I return without the fanfare of the previous visit; there is a different chef on duty, and we order off the menu. The menu is small, mainly seafood, and the prices have increased sharply—in a town with a $30 ceiling on most entrees, 44 North is asking $37 for New Zealand lamb. A good deal is the table d’hote (“table of the host”) menu, four set courses for only $36.95, and I’m told these specials change regularly.

We start with a couple of classics. The bacon-wrapped Digby scallops ($8.95) and shrimp cocktail ($9.95) are presented quite nicely; a small pyramid of scallops sits atop a nice mango salsa, and three gargantuan shrimp ring a dollop of seafood sauce on a triangular blue glass plate. The scallops are cooked just enough, although the bacon could be browned a little more to bring out more of the promised “smoky bacon” flavour.

I love the huge shrimp but am appalled by the seafood cocktail sauce—it’s frozen. No, I don’t mean it’s frozen insta-sauce: it has ice crystals in it and is rock-hard in the middle.

For main courses we try the interesting-sounding haddock chermoula ($16.95) and the coastal shellfish bowl ($24.95), noted as a signature dish. Chermoula is a North African spice blend, popular in Morocco, and this fish is delicious; spicy without being too hot, complemented by mild couscous and sauteed fennel. The shellfish bowl is another story. A tomato-based broth with shrimp, mussels, scallops and a lobster claw, this should be a showcase for local seafood. However, the thick broth smells overly fishy, the scallops and shrimp are rubbery and overcooked, and the greatest sin of all lies in the use of what is surely a previously frozen lobster claw. The lobster is not only salty and dry, but painful —the claw cartilage has not been removed, and when I bite into the “fat” end of the claw, the cartilage cuts my gum.

Fortunately, the desserts—a silky smooth creme brulee ($5.50) and tangy lemon berry tart ($5.95)—are outstanding.

Interestingly, the service is superior to that of our first visit; our second server is more experienced and it shows.

44 North is a beautiful restaurant, open and airy, with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the harbour. There’s not a bad seat in the house. It’s too bad the food is not consistent, because it could well make a name as one of the great seafood destinations in town.

44 NorthMarriott Halifax Harbourfront1919 Upper Water Street Mon-Fri 6:30-10:30pmSat 7am-10pmSun 11am-10pm

There’s not a bad seat on the web. More of Liz Feltham’s reviews at www.foodcritic.ca.

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