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MARK DEWOLF: Small plates, affordable dining - Halifax welcomes Bianca and the new GIO

The look of Halifax's GIO restaurant remains the same but the restaurant's new concept is small plates with various cultural influences reflecting Halifax melting pot population.
The look of Halifax's GIO restaurant remains the same but the restaurant's new concept is small plates with various cultural influences reflecting Halifax melting pot population. - Contributed

Two of Halifax’s most respected restaurateurs are making their plates smaller and the dining experiences less expensive to adapt to the new COVID reality.

The Prince George Hotel has reimagined GIO as a sharing plates dining experience while the RCR restaurant group closed its well-regarded Bistro Le Coq and reopened in the same location as Bianca: an Italian-inspired restaurant designed to capture the spirit of Italian aperitivo hour.

It is a bold move for a restaurant group that also owns some of the city’s most upscale fine dining eateries, including CUT Steakhouse, Agricola Street Brasserie and SHUCK Seafood.

Of the creation of Bianca, restaurant general manager Alicia Williams says, “the impetus for Bianca was to simply have a place that the importance of socializing with your small group was the most important. Instead of designing the restaurant and floor plan to maximize seating or do what is best for the most people in the space, it was to make each table have its own very personal environment and space. I think COVID has made people realize going out to a restaurant is more than just the food and drinks, but the conversation and appreciating the ability to connect with others in a restaurant environment again. It is something we seriously used to take for granted. After the shutdown, we seriously don’t (take it for granted) anymore.”

Bianca hopes to entice a younger demographic with its version of happy hour. The new restaurant structurally remains the same as Bistro Le Coq but fresh, white-washed walls lend Bianca a casual, come as you are, atmosphere.

“Sometimes a great dining experience is just good food…you sit, you eat, you talk…and enjoy being able to enjoy that in the company of others,” Williams said. “Bianca hopes to allow that to happen in a more natural setting because it was designed that way, as opposed to being turned into something it was never intended to be.”

The late afternoon happy hour should inspire post-work drinkers and hip, early evening imbibers to their address on Argyle Street, Halifax, N.S.. For $4, guests enjoying a drink will get a specially curated plate of small bites from the kitchen.

“Sometimes a great dining experience is just good food…you sit, you eat, you talk…and enjoy being able to enjoy that in the company of others..."  Bianca's Alicia Williams 

The drinks list is true to the restaurant’s Italian inspiration. Created by bartender Matt Dash, the drinks are priced a hint below neighbour’s places, with great emphasis on unique adaptations of Italy’s legendary Aperol Spritz.

The Aperol Spritz has taken Italy by storm over the last decade, and quickly established itself alongside the Negroni as the country’s signature cocktail. The drink is classically served in an ice-filled wine glass and is a blend of two-parts Aperol (a bright orange-coloured citrus, vanilla and herb scented liqueur), three parts Prosecco and one-part sparkling water and garnished with an orange slice. Bianca offers a variety of spritz options for dinners to enjoy including a sumptuous Arancia Rossa.

The food menu at Bianca is concise but mostly is on target, less a delicious but slightly duck out of water Asian-inspired peanut and miso-rubbed chicken dish. The surprise winner is an artichoke crostini ($7) appetizer that evokes the simplicity of authentic Italian cuisine. A lightly charred broccolini ($12) dish offers more complexity than expected while the calamari are solid but could do with a light lift of acidity to brighten the flavours.

Pastas are simple, straight forward and priced significantly below competitors (capellini, $13). Also, on the must-try list is their steak tartare (note: I did not taste and am basing on comments of other diners). Dinner for two including two appetizers, two pastas, a shared dessert and two spritz cocktails is possible for $100 including tax and tip.

GIO

Up the hill at GIO, located at The Prince George Hotel (1725 Market St., Halifax, N.S.), long-time food and beverage manager Shawn Lewis is a little more explicit in his rationale, explaining, “we purposively made GIO more affordable, understanding where world is at, as give back to our customers.”

Gio has long been a mainstay of the Halifax dining scene and is not immune to change and adaptation. When you have had as many high-quality chefs as GIO has in its quarter-century tenure, change and adaptation is part of the equation.

Original chef Stephen Huston was the first to bring notoriety to this un-hotel-like restaurant, but through the years, chefs like Ray Bear introduced molecular gastronomy while Ted Grant brought a return to classic flavours. More recently, Bee-Choo Char, Barry Mooney and now chef Greg Burns have all put their own culinary stamp on the cuisine of GIO.

While Burns shares Lewis’ viewpoints with respect to COVID, he suggests the new GIO’s focus on smaller, more shareable plates “provides more of an experience. Plates are now designed to be shared. I think this will provide more flexibility for guests to come as small groups. The menu design allows for them to try more dishes and more variety of flavours.”

The service level remains elevated at GIO – a restaurant that can be commended for its commitment to staff training, evidenced by a fleet of sommeliers and sommeliers in training - while also providing a relaxed atmosphere.

"The menu design allows for them to try more dishes and more variety of flavours.” - GIO's Greg Burns

Burns brings his own unique approach to the cuisine developed under the tutelage of guidance of other great chefs. Burns’ CV includes an initial stint at a resort in the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia, time spent at the renowned Fogo Island Inn in Newfoundland and work under the tutelage of chef Michael Smith (Inn at Bay Fortune, Prince Edward Island) and chef Martin Ruiz Salvador (Fleur de Sel, Lunenburg) respectively. A self-described classically French trained chef, Burns suggests the diversity of cultures seen on the GIO menu reflects the way he cooks at home.

While the menu offers a range of ethnic influences, partially influenced by the diversity of GIO’s kitchen and wait staff, which includes Lebanese, Indian, Nepalese, Jamaican and Indian, and according to Burns, “there is always a French bottom note that grounds the dishes.”

The menu continues to highlight unique ingredients, whether they be the once, but now less so exotic octopus or celebrated local ingredients, such as locally-produced Ciro’s Burrata. I, for one, have my sights sent on an evening beginning with Spanish-style prawns ($14) and finishing with rabbit ragu ($16).

In an era of $15 cocktails and $20 or even $30-something pasta dishes, the concept of a more elevated yet affordable dining experience resonates with me. I hope it resonates with other restaurateurs as the mutually beneficial relationship of lower restaurant bills leading to increased dining frequency is a potential win-win for both sides of the Halifax dining scene.


Bianca’s Artichoke Crostini

Serves 6 to 8

1 block cream cheese, room temperature

1 head garlic, roasted (45 minutes at 350 ºF), mashed

Salt

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup cornstarch

One loaf rustic country bread*

Olive oil

Canola oil

1 can artichokes, drained, air dried

2 lemons

Asiago cheese

Bianca's Artichoke Crostini is a delicious example of an Italian-inspired small plate.  - Contributed
Bianca's Artichoke Crostini is a delicious example of an Italian-inspired small plate. - Contributed

 

Directions:

Whip softened cream cheese in mixer until smooth. Add the mashed garlic cloves and mix. Add a quarter-teaspoon of salt to taste.

Prepare the dredge for the artichokes by placing equal parts flour and cornstarch in a medium size bowl, season with salt to taste. In a small pot, gently heat up canola or vegetable oil, using a thermometer, until 325ºF.

While the oil is heating prepare the crostini. Cut slices of bread into one-inch thick pieces, drizzle them with olive oil and season with salt. Toast bread in oven. Once the bread is finished, fry the artichokes.

Cut the dry artichoke hearts into quarters and toss them in the dredge prepared earlier. Make sure to shake off any additional flour before frying. You will only want a thin coating. Carefully place them into the oil and allow them to fry for about a minute and a half or until they begin to brown.

Once finished, transfer the artichokes to a large metal bowl and season with salt. Spread garlic mixture evenly over slices of bread. Top each with a few pieces of fried artichoke.

Take a lemon and zest some of the peel on top of the artichokes; the lemon compliments the artichoke very well, so the more the better.

To finish the fried artichoke crostini, add slices of Asiago cheese (use a vegetable peeler to peel off long thin slices of cheese). Drizzle with olive oil and you are ready to eat.

Bianca uses bread baked daily at their sister restaurant Agricola Street Brasserie but also recommends similar great bread at LF Bakery on Gottingen Street in Halifax.

Pro Tip: If you don’t have a thermometer, the easiest and safest method to test the oil temperature is to stick the end of a wooden spoon into the oil. If you see many bubbles form around the wood and they start to float up, your oil is ready for frying. If it is bubbling hard, the oil is too hot; let it cool a bit and check the temperature again.


Bianca’s Arancia Rossa

1 Serving

1 oz Luxardo Aperitivo

1/2 oz Campari

1 oz orange juice, freshly squeezed

1/2 oz lemon juice, freshly squeezed

1 barspoon Cointreau

2 oz sparkling wine

Splash club soda

Directions: Place Luxardo, Campari, orange juice, lemon juice and Cointreau in an ice-filled wine glass. Stir to combine. Top with sparkling wine and club soda.


Chef Greg Burns’ Lemony Herb Shrimp with White Beans and Chermoula

Serves 4

Ingredients (chermoula sauce)

3/4 cup olive oil

1 shallot, minced

1 garlic clove, minced

2 tsp coriander

2 tsp cumin

2 tsp paprika

1/2 tsp turmeric

2 tsp red chili flakes

1 cup chopped parsley

1 tsp kosher salt

1/2 lemon, zest and juice

Ingredients (shrimp and white beans)

4 tbsp unsalted butter

2 shallots, minced

2 garlic cloves, grated

1 cup chicken or vegetable stock

2 15-ounce cans cannellini beans or other white beans, rinsed

Kosher salt, to taste

Cracked pepper, to taste

4 tbsp parsley, finely chopped

1 lb large shrimp, deveined, peeled

2 tsp fresh lemon zest

2 tbsp fresh lemon juice

Directions:

Start by making the chermoula sauce. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil to a small saucepan set over medium heat. Add shallots and sauté for one minute until soft. Add the garlic and dry spices and sauté for 30 seconds. In a bowl, combine the chopped parsley, salt, and lemon juice and zest. Add the toasted shallots, garlic and spices to the bowl and mix.

Now make the shrimp. Add 2 tablespoons of butter to pan set over medium heat, when butter is foaming, add shallots and sauté for 30 seconds. Add garlic and sauté for 10 seconds, then add chicken stock. Reduce the liquid to half its original volume. Add the drain beans, salt and pepper and simmer for four minutes. Finish with parsley, lemon zest and lemon juice. Add the reaming two tablespoons of butter and 2 tablespoons of water (the emulsion will allow you to cook your shrimp without burning) to a sauté pan set over medium heat. Stir occasionally until the shrimp are pink and starting to curl (about 3 to 4 minutes). Serve the beans in bowls topped with shrimp and chermoula sauce.

Mark DeWolf is a connoisseur of all things food and drink. He's a creative director with SaltWire and local fare is his specialty. You can subscribe to his Follow a Foodie newsletter here.

 Watch Mark whip up seasonal plates in his video series, In a Jiffy, and go deeper with food trends and kitchen challenges weekly 

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