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FOOD AND DRINK

4 MIN

Moncton's Dining Scene Starting to Roll Uphill

Don't just stop in for Magnetic Hill. Stay in Moncton for hopping brewpubs and a budding restaurant scene that draws on local heritage and ingredients

It’s early yet and the supper rush at Manuka has not yet begun, so the chef, Camille Pluymackers, is able to bring a few of the dishes to my table herself. We start with a scallop tartar from the Bay of Fundy, 35 kilometres away. It’s hashed like its beef equivalent, with pink peppercorns, and lime-and-chili mayonnaise. It’s followed by large medjool dates wrapped in bacon and stuffed with goat cheese, served on local greens.

So far, so 1990s, I could imagine the Toronto and Montreal types huffing into their whole octopus and mezcal manhattans. But I enjoyed it all. Something exciting is going on here in Moncton. I felt like I was present at the birth of a scene, a scene that can draw on the city’s deep Mi’kmaq, Acadian, German and British roots. It should be a nice boom, judging by all the food-based conversations I’m eavesdropping on from the tables on every side of me.

A couple of days earlier, I had been sitting in a window table of the Tide & Boar, a gastropub on Main Street, with Charlene Fox, a lifelong Monctonian and descendant of an old Acadian family. Over dusted oyster mushrooms and a Milk Stout Nitro from Left Hand Brewing in Longmont, Colorado, she looked across and down the street to some of the dozens of sorts of businesses that simply didn’t exist in Moncton till very recently –  Go Sushi, the Mexicali Rosa’s, Mojo Audio Lounge and Piatto Pizzeria and Enoteca – and told me what Main Street used to mean to her.

“Freshii’s across the street used to be Spanky’s,” she said. Spanky’s was a bar. Blue, Canadian, Keith’s. “And this place was Crackers.” A bar. Blue, Canadian, Keith’s. “And I remember, one bar had a ‘bladder-buster night.’ ” Blue, Canadian, Keith’s and Moosehead.

Chad Steeves, the owner of Tide & Boar, is the latest in a line of Steeves or Stiefs, a clan who are celebrating their 250th year in Moncton in 2016 along with seven other “founding” German families. The gastropub opened five years ago and was one of the first signs of the advent of variety and a certain degree of culinary adventurism in Moncton. The beer taps offer craft-brew imports, and Tide & Boar recently started brewing its own downstairs.

Courtesy Tide & Boar

Also popular at Tide & Boar: the burger made with house-ground brisket, on brioche bun

But really, it’s mostly about the food: the parmesan-encrusted haddock, the house-cured meats, the sushi-grade tuna and sticky rice, and the sundae with house-made frozen banana yogurt, peanut brittle, chocolate sauce and fresh whipped cream.

Manuka is just as exciting. Chef Pluymackers was born in France, raised in Belgium, and has lived and cooked in Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Scotland. Even when she married André Leger, a Monctonian, the move to Moncton was not a certainty. “We were driving around looking for places to live. She said, ‘I don’t really like Moncton, but that house is really nice,’ ” Leger tells me after dinner, as his wife works the rush. The house (which is now painted a bright yellow) was actually a defunct café, and it got Pluymackers thinking Moncton might just be workable.

She has cooked for many different sorts of people, but cooking the sort of food that keeps life challenging and interesting for a chef can be difficult in a town accustomed to more familiar fare. Pluymackers tries to find the line between adventuresome and weird, while staying on the right side of it. The goal is to nudge the line ever so gently, one tuft of microgreens and one drizzle of balsamic reduction at a time.

Courtesy Camille Pluymackers / Manuka

Matcha cakes at Manuka

Manuka’s menu changes three times a week. The restaurant buys its meat and produce from Really Local Harvest which – in a sign of just how new all this is – sells mostly to local schools.

But new ingredients and techniques alone won’t draw the locals. The food has to taste delicious. And the pork loin that follows the dates is ample evidence that Pluymackers has that covered. It’s very easy to cross over to the dry side when cooking pork, especially when you’re catering to people used to grocery store cuts and the fear of undercooking that goes with them. But this is properly done, moist to the point of rarity – but not too scary, served under a local mushroom sauce, with local vegetables and, maybe one more nudge of that line, a house-made sheet of sesame brittle. Like other Moncton chefs, Pluymackers is getting diners to look forward to a bigger world of innovation using familiar food as a starting point.

If you hang a left on St. George as you walk from lunch at Tide & Boar to supper at Manuka, cross the train tracks and pass the 19-year-old vegetarian place called Calactus that I’m sure used to be the hub for Monctonians who wanted more before there was more, you’ll find the Laundromat Espresso Bar, a different sort of portent of things to come, and in its own way, just as exciting.

Laundromat Espresso Bar is the kind of thing that happens at liminal moments in cities’ modern histories when low real estate prices produced by years of commercial lassitude bump up against the first entrepreneurial inklings that the number of people who like cool things has hit a critical mass – enough to convince a bank to lend you money to make a cool thing.

This cool thing is an old, disused laundromat that’s been turned into a bar that both makes a thoroughly decent café au lait and offers a beer selection that would satisfy any big-city beer fan. I sat in one of the mismatched easy chairs that are the emblems of these sorts of places wherever they pop up sipping my coffee and watching the backs of the embryonic hipsters on their stools at the old laminate counter-bar, and realized I had never run into such a perfect 50-50 hybrid café/beer bar anywhere in my travels. Why these two hangout drinks don’t share space more often is now a mystery I think needs solving.

Meanwhile, here are plenty of beer bars, old and new (the most popular is the 19-year-old Pumphouse just off Main Street on Orange Lane), and Magnetic Hill Winery just out of town near the old standby tourist attraction Magnetic Hill (put your car in neutral and it seems to roll uphill. Whaaaat?!). It makes a rhubarb wine you’ll swear is a Gewürztraminer.

Courtesy Magnetic Hill Winery

Janet Everett, co-owner of Magnetic Hill Winery (left), with a guest overlooking Moncton

There’s also Hynes Diner, founded 1939, that’s one of the last of its noble kind anywhere in North America. But if you like watching things happen – and the scenes where the kind-of-cute David Naughton turned into something much sexier were always my favourite part of American Werewolf in London – Moncton may be a place you’ll want to start dropping in on every couple of years.

Published Thursday, October 20th 2016

Header image credit: Courtesy Camille Pluymackers / Manuka

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