Inspirational. Inventive. Incredible.
These words are top of mind as I reflect on the seven-course meal I had during a recent stay at DesBarres Manor Inn in Guysborough. My husband and I made a concerted effort to come up with new adjectives for each meal because the words “Awesome!”, “Fantastic!” and “Wow!” just weren’t enough to highlight how we felt during a meal that, to put it frankly, rocked both our worlds. It was sensational.
Chef Joe MacLellan, who has been cooking up miracles at DesBarres for two years now, thrives on the challenge of creating a menu that surpasses expectations. Even if you have dietary restrictions, he proves to you that your dining experience doesn’t have to be the mundane; it can be a journey of taste that is extraordinary.
Born and raised in Antigonish, Joe spent ten years travelling and cooking before returning home to Nova Scotia. During his time away he spent five of those years working with top chefs in Toronto where he gleaned ideas on creative and impressive presentation. I laughed, but wasn’t surprised when he told me that as a young cook he would spend his paychecks going to fancy restaurants and begging the chef to make something off the menu for him so he could be exposed to new and exciting ideas. I believe it is those experiences that contribute to his success as a chef. He is ingenious.
During our conversation Joe shared that to him, “Cooking is literally a playground- I can have so much fun with it. If you’re open to what I’m doing then it’s even more fun.”
It couldn’t be more obvious that this is the case! The food consumed that evening was some of the most interesting I’ve had in terms of presentation. The ingredients themselves were fresh and simple, and perhaps uncomplicated to him as a chef, but to my inexperienced eye, all the dishes looked incredibly intricate and complicated to make.
It was fun to meet someone who so clearly enjoys surprising guests with his culinary creations and a chef who is so full of energy. It is inspiring.
cucumber +olive oil + sea salt
My husband and I purposely kept our bellies empty that afternoon knowing our 7:30 dinner would require some extra stomach space. Our tasting menu started with a cucumber +olive oil + sea salt palate cleanser which came in a shot glass. We were informed that it should be taken like a shot, and all in one gulp, so we complied happily. It was delightfully refreshing and immediately awakened our taste buds for what was to come. In one word, it was energizing.
Beets + Goat cheese + Salted Walnuts
The goat cheese in our first course was incredibly creamy and made fresh that day. It balanced perfectly with the salt of the walnuts and the sweet from the beets, which came in a beautiful variety including roasted beet greens, pearls of red beet juice (this is the attention to presentation and creativity that I referred to earlier), and candy cane beets. The sheer effort put into this dish alone astounded me. It was, in a word, amazing.
Olive oil poached cod cheeks + Lemon puree + Potato chips
Secondly, we had a play on the traditional Fish & Chips dish. The cod cheeks were succulent and tender. The lemon puree induces mouth watering as I recall the meal, and the chips were crunchy and perfectly salted. I would take this over the standard, greasy fish and chips any day. It was delicious.
Butternut squash soup + Coffee + Pumpkin seeds + Smoked lobster
When our server Krissy first brought out this dish and called it “soup” I was confused. There were lumps of lobster, pumpkin seeds and a smear of coffee paste at the bottom of the bowl – but no soup. I thought I was about to experience some kind of modern day soup, which in fact was not soup at all. Steve and I just looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders.
Not leaving us much time to question the “soup”, Joe immediately whisked in, gave an explanation of the contents of the soup and then proceeded to pour butternut squash soup over everything else in the bowl. Ah ha! They pulled a fast one on us, and for that I give them an A+ for presentation. The addition of coffee to our soup seemed bizarre to me at first, but there was nothing weird about the taste. It was perfection.
Butter poached lobster claw + Rapini +Lobster reduction
These two pieces of meat were all I needed to die happy – any more would have put me over the edge as I was already in food utopia. At one point during this course I asked the server if she thought lick marks on the plate might be a compliment to the chef. It was heavenly.
Scallop ravioli + Toasted cauliflower + Pine nuts
Heading into the fifth course, Steve and I started to run out of room for more dinner, but we took one for the team and continued on with our scallop ravioli + toasted cauliflower + pine nuts. The ravioli was tender, the toasted cauliflower and pine nuts gave a smoky flavour to the dish, and the fennel fronds added an interesting dimension to the overall taste. It was sensuous.
Beef tenderloin + Onion rings + Bone marrow + BBQ sauce
Course six…heading into a food coma, we were excited to try the beef tenderloin. This was by far the most flavourful cut of beef I have had in a very long time, if not ever. The smoky sweet flavour was everything one could want in a BBQ sauce, but Joe of course took it up a notch by adding bacon powder (white power substance shown in photo below) to the mix.
There is no question that bacon makes things better, it was divine. The onion rings were perfectly crispy and the bone marrow was tender (and packed with protein I learned). It was luscious.
Gala apples + Salted caramel + Pie crust crumble + Maple syrup, cinnamon ice-cream
Course seven: dessert. As I have mentioned in a previous blog, dessert goes into a separate belly so there was no problem at all trying to fit this in! We were served Chef Joe’s take on apple pie. My taste buds were actually overwhelmed and the ice-cream is the BEST I have ever had! See below for proof of my excitement in tasting what is to me now the world’s best ice-cream. It was nirvana.
The dining experience at DesBarres is very intimate. The kitchen is meant for one chef so numbers are maxed at 16 people a night. Krissy Parker, the innkeeper, also acts as the main server and takes turns with Joe bringing guests their meal. She was there to greet us early in the afternoon when we arrived. She served us our dinner, and greeted us at breakfast the next morning as well. If that’s not commitment to one’s job then I don’t know what is.
Fortunately for us, we were spending the night at the Inn so didn’t have far to go after our seven-course meal. The rooms are spacious, the beds incredibly comfortable, and the inn gives you the feeling that you’re spending the night with family. Family you love, and can’t wait to come back and visit.
There are games to play in the parlour room, delicious scents wafting out of the kitchen all day long, and cozy robes available to snuggle up in between your meals and excursions (which of course we took full advantage of!). It was luxurious.
We enjoyed a good night’s sleep and awoke to the scent of bacon frying in the kitchen. After the massive dinner the night before we really shouldn’t have been hungry, but we followed our noses down to the dining room and enjoyed a lovely breakfast complete with fresh brewed Full Steam Coffee (from the brewery right in Guysborough), frittata with ham and almonds, bacon and toast.
After breakfast we packed up our things, said our goodbyes to Krissy, and headed back to Halifax full of good food and happy memories of our night away and new friends made. It was unforgettable.
*Also enjoyed during our stay was some pale ale from the Authentic Seacoast Brewing Co., right down the street. If you’re ever in the area, the Rare Bird pub (where the beer is served), and the Skipping Stone Café and Store are great additions to your foodie itinerary as well!