Behind the bar at Shuck, Chef Luis Clavel quickly tosses shallots, spices, and red wine vinegar into a bowl. Then he lifts a bulky metal cylinder covered with warning stickers onto the bar. “Liquid nitrogen,” he grins.
As the liquid nitrogen hits the ingredients, a cold fog boils out of the bowl and across the bar. He uses tweezers to pull out a pink chunk of ice that will melt when it’s placed on a raw scallop, creating a mignonette sauce. “Awesome, right?” he says.
Clavel is well known to Halifax diners. The NSCC- and French-trained chef made his way through the local dining industry at McKelvies, Salty’s, Seasons at the Atlantica Hotel, and now Cut Steakhouse and Shuck Seafood and Raw Bar, which share a kitchen.
In addition to 17 years in kitchens, Clavel competed in Iron Chef Canada, cooked at the prestigious James Beard House in New York, and won Nova Scotia Chef of the Year in 2008 and 2009.
Shuck, owned by RCR Hospitality Group (which also runs Halifax restaurants like Bistro Le Coq and Cut), isn’t your stereotypical Maritime seafood spot. It opened at the end of April in the space that formerly housed the Grill at Cut.
Raw and lightly cooked seafood is the house specialty.
“We’re really using a delicate touch to let the product shine through, so lots of different oysters, ceviche, and sashimi,” says general manager and sommelier Melissa Carey. “I think we’re providing a niche that hasn’t really been captured yet in Halifax.”
Because much of the food at Shuck is served raw or lightly cooked, Clavel is strict about serving fresh seafood. His supplier, Halifax’s Afishionado, visits almost daily. A majority of the fish on the menu is certified Ocean Wise, a program that classifies fish as having been caught or farmed using sustainable practices.
“To me it is so important to be able to know the farmer who grew my product, what it eats, how it was raised, how it’s caught,” Clavel says. “We try to really promote that with our guests. It’s not that there are so many people who know what sustainability is but we’re doing it because the quality of the product is way better. It reflects on flavour, texture, everything about it.”
Everything about the eatery is geared toward elevating the raw ingredients and the dining experience.
When diners enter the restaurant they pass the raw bar, filled with an array of fish and molluscs on ice.
Next to it stands a three-tiered tray of live herbs ready to be snipped to add flavour or garnish. Clavel puts the trays on the patio each morning to catch the sun, and then returns them to the bar before opening to add of a splash of colour.
The raw bar card on a guest’s table is the first introduction to the menu. The goal is to create an interactive dining experience between server, chef, and diner.
Clavel’s favourite part of the raw bar is the Chef’s Choice: a dozen oysters with globally flavoured accompaniments like sea asparagus chimichurri, chipotle fennel hot sauce, or yuzu ginger sauce. Shuck features 10 different oyster varieties each day.
“We try to educate the guests as far a flavour profile as far as the salt, the brine the characteristics of the oyster flavour, the meat itself,” he says.
Oyster species vary in size, so Clavel asks diners about their prior experience. He might start oyster virgins off with a small cocktail oyster, and serve steak oysters to someone with a more experienced palate.
After the raw bar, a main menu of eclectic options awaits diners: lobster chilli fries, the Japanese-inspired salmon dashi bowl, and the Korean-inspired lobster bibimbap. Shuck does offer fish and chips, but it’s anything but traditional.
The coating is light and crispy, featuring seven fresh ingredients and Sambro-caught haddock. “Rather than giving you batter and fish we give you fish and less batter,” says Clavel. The melt in your moth tender fish is laced with hints of umami.
Guests dining from the raw bar or the main menu are encouraged to choose wines based on the seafood they order, and staff are always ready with a recommendation.
The wine list is heavy on whites to augment the seafood and offers an affordable price range.
“We try to get some interesting wines that are produced in areas where seafood is the main source of nutrition,” she says. “They have salinity because of oyster shells in the soil or they’re grown closer to the coast.”
In addition to the global offerings from Portugal and Italy, Carey presents Nova Scotian wines including Blomindon, Lightfoot & Wolfville, and Benjamin Bridge.
“We really have some very talented wine makers who are young, driven, and have worked in some prime wine regions and brought back that knowledge and drive,” Carey says.
Shuck’s bar taps are all Nova Scotian too, featuring Benjamin Bridge’s Nova 7 wine alongside craft beers from Uncle Leo’s, Boxing Rock, Hell Bay, and Spindrift.
Fun, seafood friendly options like a margarita and a mojito dot the compact cocktail menu, which also features a molecular cocktail Clavel created. Chef Luis’ Hibiscus Lemonade incorporates Bombay Sapphire gin, St-Germain Elderflower liqueur with housemade sparkling hibiscus-vanilla syrup, and sous vide orange.
The décor at Shuck includes many traditional maritime touches like raw wood walls, tea towels in lieu of napkins, and thick ropes suspending lights over the bar area. A large golden mermaid hangs above the 50-seat dining area.
Carey says she hopes to add 50 seats in the next week or so when the patio opens. “We still have to put our string lights up, but it already looks so beautiful,” she says while gesturing to the wicker chairs and couches gathered around low tables.
“We’re very proud of what we do, that’s for sure,” says Clavel. “Out of all of the restaurants I’ve worked at, all of the things I’ve been involved with, this is probably the most inspiring opportunity that I’ve had in Nova Scotia. And it’s a lot of fun.”