FINE DINING, NEW BRUNSWICK-STYLE 

(Originally published in Just for Canadian Dentists magazine, summer 2012)

By John Geary

If you’ve always thought New Brunswick cuisine consists mainly of fish and fiddleheads, you may want to re-think that just a bit…

While seafood and fish do play a prominent role in the Maritime province’s cuisine – and let’s face it, fiddleheads are a pretty iconic dish for the area – if you spend a little bit of time exploring the province, you’ll find some top-notch dining options, and not just in the major cities like Fredericton, Moncton or Saint John.

Fresh (www.freshfinedining.com/)

Diners at Fresh can be forgiven if they feel like they’ve taken a step back in time. That’s because the four-diamond restaurant is built in an old railcar diner. It’s even located on tracks by the old railway station (now a railway museum) in Florenceville.

The small western New Brunswick community is the self-proclaimed “French Fry Capital of the World,” largely because of the McCain plant located there. However, at Fresh, you’ll enjoy much more than French fries.

Fresh usually offers three or four set choices on the menu, which is changed about once a month. The restaurant also offers a unique option: Jeff’s Choice.                       

“Basically, you tell us what you like, what you don’t like and our chef, Jeff MacLean, creates something unique for you, based on that,” says owner Sara Caines. “You can pick which protein you’d like and he’ll build the dish. Or you can leave it completely in his hands for a total surprise.”

The restaurant’s renown extends province-wide, even internationally.

“People from right across the province, from Saint John or Moncton, make the trip, driving here regularly, almost every time we change the menu,” says Caines.

That’s an entire day for those clients, since it’s about an eight-hour round trip from Moncton. Diners need to allow at least three hours to truly enjoy foods like tenderloin steak with a potato skin stuffed with roasted veggies and cheeses or chicken and fiddlehead pasta served with roasted garlic, olive oil and diced red onion. Some choose to stay overnight at a local motel or B and B (like the Shamrock Inn, a five-minute walk from Fresh).

Visitors from Maine and Quebec also eat there, regularly. Fresh has served visitors from places like Hawaii, Tokyo – and even Tasmania.

“We’ve covered the continents,” says Caines.

Did those guests come specifically to eat at Fresh? Probably not. But was it a highlight of their trip?

Does a train blow its whistle in the night?

Auberges Les Jardins Inn (www.lesjardinsinn.com)

Just a few hours drive up the Trans Canada Highway from Florenceville, in the northwest of the province, lays the town of Edmundston. The French-Canadian influence is very strong in this part of the province, and for diners at the Auberges les Jardins Inn, that’s a very good thing.

The fine French Cuisine served nightly includes gourmet dishes that make use of local ingredients: entrees like pork tenderloin stuffed with scallops, fiddlehead pesto and mascarpone or rack of lamb Dijonnaise-style with porto sauce; appetizers that include Maritime seafood chowder and Caesar salad with smoked salmon; and desserts like maple sugar pie (a French Canadian classic) or chocolate cake fondant.

If you want to sample a really traditional French-Canadian specialty, you may be lucky enough to sample ployes while dining there. They resemble crepes – but with a few differences. They are made with buckwheat flour and are cooked only on one side – but cooked on a poëlonne (a type of skillet) that is hot enough so they are cooked right through.

Once they’re cooked, you can choose to fill them with a savoury spread like cretons, a spicy pork meat spread; or, you can pick something sweet like molasses or maple syrup. Whatever filling you pick, you then roll them up and eat them out of your hands.

“We tend to go with something like cretons for breakfast, then go with sweet after dinner, kind of like a dessert,” says co-owner Valmond Martin. “But there is no rule that says you can’t change that up.”

The Ledges Inn (www.ledgesinn.com)

You’ll find Doaktown in just about the dead centre of the province, along the Miramichi River. A little over and hour’s drive from the capital city of Fredericton, people – including celebrities like Bobby Orr and the late Ted Williams – come from much farther afield to fish the river.

They also come to stay and dine at the Ledges Inn. Packages include a room, a guide and a boat – as well as meals. Or, you can call up and reserve a spot for lunch or dinner. After a day of fishing the river works up an appetite, and even if you couldn’t fill your quota of fish, Chef Luc Schofield is ready to fill your stomach with his gourmet offerings.

He has a very unique approach to preparing dinners at the Ledges. He never plans a menu the day before – every day has its own “menu-du-jour,” with ultra-fresh ingredients.  

“I never really know what I might cook when I get up in the morning,” Schofield says. “I see what’s fresh and available, and go from there.”

You can choose from seafood and non-seafood options. For example, you might end up with an exquisite beef tenderloin cooked with mushrooms and a maple syrup-based demi-glace, served with potatoes and snow peas.

Dessert could be a crème brûlée – and after dessert, you certainly will not want to miss the “Grande Finale”: the chef prepares a very spectacular flambéed coffee. Even if you’re not a coffee drinker, you won’t want to miss the show, as he pours flaming liqueurs into a mug.

LOOKING FOR SOMETHING MORE RUSTIC? (Sidebar)

If you want something a bit less fancy and a bit closer to what people might filled their stomachs with before the days of fine dining, you might want to try a “camp dinner” at Doaktown’s Atlantic Salmon Museum (www.atlanticsalmonmuseum.com/). Steamed salmon, fiddleheads, home-baked sourdough and corn bread served on tin plates will take you back in time. Be sure to arrange it ahead of time, though.

Want to go further back in time? Try the King’s Head Tavern at the King’s Landing Historical Village (www.kingslanding.nb.ca), just half an hour from Fredericton. There, you can get a dinner of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, mashed potatoes, carrots and green beans – all cooked the old-fashioned way: in a wood stove with no electricity.

 (SIDEBAR)

FISHING THE MIRAMICHI

Ker-splash!

Not the sound I’d wanted to hear: a salmon escaping.

It had been a trying afternoon. I’d been trying to master the art of fly-fishing - and trying my guide’s patience. Actually, Brian Peterson was extremely patient; I’d hooked him once - in the back of his nylon shell - and his only response? A smile and comment, “Couldn't have been that bad if I didn't feel it...”

This was only the second time I’d held a fly-rod, never mind tried to cast one. I’d taken some quick lessons from Bev Gaston at the Atlantic Salmon Museum the day before, but fly-fishing is much different from spin-casting or deep-sea fishing, both of which I’ve done.

But after watching me struggle, and occasionally offering pointers (well, okay, more than occasionally), Peterson helped me get hook a four-pound salmon.

“Keep it tight! Keep the tip up!” he exhorted.

The fish jumped - once, then twice - a beautiful flash of piscine silver splashing in and out of the water, as I tried to reel it in.

The guide got the net ready to bring it into the boat ... and then the fish spit out the fly and swam off.

Catching the salmon would have made a great story. But losing it makes a great “one-that-got-away” story. However, I wouldn’t have fish for supper, that night, at least.

Live release of salmon is encouraged, but anglers can keep limited numbers of fish for consumption, based on their licence type.

That keeps fish stocks healthy. Just 10 years ago, Atlantic salmon populations there were in danger of disappearing, but conservation efforts paid off and the populations are booming now, a tremendous success story.

But fish or no fish, anglers in the area will certainly enjoy the down-home friendly Maritime warmth found all along the Miramichi. 

- JG