Thursday, 10 September 2015

Dining as performance art sparks up our evening

Recently, Greg and I visited Michael Smith’s Fire Kitchen at the Inn at Bay Fortune, purchased by the famous chef earlier this year and extensively renovated. The old kitchen and way of food service are out, and a new method is very much in. So popular, in fact, that we had to wait a couple of weeks for a reservation to this family-style eating experience.

The previous day, we received a reminder: arrive at 6:00 for the oyster-shucking cocktail hour. So, what did we find when we got there  at 6:01? In the first place, not many other people.  I knew being on time would be the equivalent of being too early; my dining companion still has to learn this. However, we were warmly greeted by a chilly hostess in the cool autumnal air outdoors. She explained the procedure for dinner, then went indoors to find a coat!   

We admired the new reception area (blond wood ceiling and birch trunks room divider).   Once the doors to the kitchen were open, which reminded me of waiting for the doors to open at  the Maple Dining Room at Christie Gardens, a few of us straggled into what was the former main kitchen.  We ate, not Colville Bay, but Fortune Bay oysters harvested about as locally as you can get — about 500 feet away in the sea. Local provenance is the byword here.  

With Bloody Mary ice on top, they were delicious.

We eschewed the gin and tonic, figuring at $13 a mason-jar drink, we could imbibe at home for much less money and equal effect.

Greg and I were not quite sure what to do with ourselves for the next 45 minutes while we waited for dinner to begin, so we sat in the lounge and watched other people arriving, while at the same time avoiding making eye contact with them, as they were with us. Is everybody here an introvert?

Carrying our coats with us, as the former coat closet was now a mini-store for cook-books by Michael Smith,  we decided to explore the dining room, found our name chalked on a slate, determined we would have to sit across from each other at dinner  (no sotto voce comments possible, darn it), and hung our coats on the back of our chairs. 

More people had arrived and seemed to be gravitating to the other end of the long room where the new ovens are. There, we found the next stage: pastrami salmon with lemon caper aioli being assembled on crackers by a very young man (to our elderly eyes). He could barely keep up with the  demand. Mmmm good! There was also smoked beef  with beer mustard, also very good as, initially, the beef was not too rare for my liking.

More drinks could be added to our tab were we to indulge in local beers.  Again, we passed: too pricey.

I got a big kick out of talking to the young chef unwrapping the baked beets plucked earlier in the day from the Inn’s garden. Rail thin and wearing a baseball hat backwards, he was cheery and chatty. I asked him, wasn’t the heat from the fire a bit much on his back and he said he was used to it. He told us they burn maple, birch and something else and that there is not a lot of hardwood on the island so they have to source some of the wood in New Brunswick …well, still pretty local! (All the gravel for driveways here comes from New Brunswick too, by the way.  Some things just can’t be helped.)

Here is our take-home menu.

In addition to place-setting menus, the courses for the night’s feast were written on the wall  on brown wrapping paper suspended from what looked like an antique paper roll, with an  impressive serrated edge at the bottom. On another wall, the 40-plus ingredients for the salad were listed. Inspecting these items relieved me of the necessity of talking to total strangers. I said to Greg, we should have gotten a group together, so we would know people.

However, that all changed when we got to our tables. We were saved by a retired teacher and co- owner of tourist cottages, who introduced herself and encouraged the rest of us to do likewise. We did and soon we were finding lots to talk about with one another.

Course after course arrived  with explanations from one of the chefs as to their significance. Sourdough yeast for the bread  takes a month to develop from potato mash, so even the yeast is local!  The resulting 12-grain Red Fife sourdough bread was irresistible, especially with brown butter.

The Taste of the Island Board was delectable. The peas could have been younger, but the dilled beans were yummy. There was way too much pate, delicious though it was, and too few crackers.  Jeff McCourt’s cheese from Glasgow Glen was pizza-flavoured — and it was “gouda.”

Cue the chowder:  all local sea food, delicious.

The invitation to smash the sand crusted on the baked halibut drew several volunteers. After whacking the sandy crust, the participants shared their adventure on their I-phones, while the chefs removed cabbage leaves from the fish, placed there  to protect it from the grit. Served with cauliflower, it was a bit bland… Even the spicy sea rocket provided from local beaches by the Inn’s forager didn’t spark it up quite enough.

However, the occasion itself kindled energy in the crowd.The conversation noise level rose, while course after course was presented. I found out the back stories of my seatmates (I already pretty much know Greg’s). Not telling them here … as what is said in the dining room stays in the dining room. It was just so convivial. 

A 90-year old woman and her 50-year old son shared a birthday, and of course everyone in the room belted out Happy Birthday when their cake was marched in.   Want to know where on the Island to go for afternoon ballroom dancing lessons? Now I know. 

I didn’t think I would like family style dining, but it turned out I do. Four hours after we arrived, we all said goodbye and wended our happy ways home.

If I had a word of advice, I’d say make the main entree portions a bit smaller. We sent way too much chicken back to the kitchen as we simply couldn’t eat it all.  Same with the excellent brown butter mashed potatoes. The beets, zucchini and roasted onions were very enjoyable, and the quantity was just right.

Also I was told that some of the garnishes the forager finds are few and far between on the beaches. Now that local plants are used in quantity at many restaurants, I worry we might be enjoying the results on our plates but over-foraging in the woods and beaches.

Nevertheless, I am looking forward to returning anytime I want an energetic, participatory, delicious dining experience. Good for Chef Michael for embarking on this rollicking adventure in Prince Edward Island hospitality and local foods.