Review: The Press Gang Restaurant
5218 Prince Street – 902-423-8816 – Website
Date of Visit: July 4, 2014
I was doing a general reconnaissance of the restaurants near to my hotel in downtown Halifax when I spied this place. The sign on the front advertised it as being an oyster bar as well as a restaurant and, fully intent on having fresh oysters at least once during my trip, I had to investigate further. Unfortunately, the place was not yet open but I was met just inside the door by a person I took to be an owner who advised me, almost apologetically, that service did not start until 5pm. He told me the selection of fresh oysters available that day and I promised to return. I did, that very same evening, and ended up having a terrific meal…
Ambience and Service
Although I arrived bare minutes after The Press Gang opened its doors at 5pm, I discovered that patrons were already arriving ahead of me. The establishment has an upstairs, which I didn’t see, and the downstairs is dark and recessed so I didn’t get a very good sense of the size of the place. What I did see, however, from my table near one of the front windows, was very pleasant. The ceilings are very low, with rough hewn wooden beams, and the walls are stone. There is a lot of dark wood and brass, and the place is very comfortable and inviting. I was greeted immediately upon arrival and asked for my drink order within minutes of being seated. All through my stay the service was exceptional and even some members of the staff not immediately involved in bring me food or drink stopped by and chatted.
I didn’t see an actual Oyster Bar on the premises but that did not prevent me from enjoying a decent selection at my table. There were five varieties available on that particular evening and I sampled three of them, leaving the Malpeque and Beausoleil types for another time. Each variety was served, in addition to the usual lemon and horseradish, with two house-made sauces: A spicy, seafood-cocktail type affair rich with fresh chili that would actually be quite nice with shrimp, and a Mignonette made with ice wine that was interesting but otherwise didn’t really appeal to me. As usual, I eschewed these blandishments in favor of the pure oyster experience…
Sober Island – This type, pictured above, is harvested from Sheet Harbor, Nova Scotia. They were fairly small and the rounded cups are quite shallow. The brininess is quite mellow throughout but the beautifully and firmly textured meat has a nice meaty, umami richness with cucumber highlights. A slight coppery taste near the end was a bit jarring but I otherwise though them great. Rating: 5 out of 5.
Pristine Bay – Also from Nova Scotia, these were quite large with a thick, heavy shell. Both the texture and the taste was quite meaty but what really distinguished them was a very sharp brininess that persisted and persisted until, very abruptly, giving way to a sweet cucumber aftertaste. Rating: 5 out of 5.
Shiny Seas – On previous occasions I noted this PEI variety as having a particularly lovely texture, but that was not so this time around. Possibly this was due to the time of the year (July not one of the best months for oyster) but the taste was not too seriously compromised as is usually the case when oysters spawn. There was a nice briny quality but on the whole the taste was not exciting. Rating: 3 out of 5.
The menu at The Press Gang can very broadly be described as ‘surf and turf’, with no exotic or offbeat items particularly leaping to one’ attention. Rather, it is the inventiveness of the chef at putting together interesting combinations that raises the quality of the food here above the plain old standards. Rather than limit myself to one main course after the oysters, I opted, as I frequently do, for a selection of appetizers…
Honey Braised Pork Belly – This was describe on the menu as being accompanied by pineapple cilantro salsa, chipotle pepper coulis and crispy pickled jalapeno. There wasn’t any cilantro in the salsa that I could detect (which was not a problem as I don’t favor the herb), but there were some red flecks I took to be pepper and the taste was moderately spicy overall. The coulis and the crisped jalapeno slices were interesting enough but the pork belly itself really didn’t need much in the way of enhancement. The balance of meat to unctuously delicious fat was perfect and the texture, more like a low roast than a braise, was excellent. I thought this the best pork belly appetizer I have ever been served. Rating: 5 out of 5.
Pancetta Crab Cakes – The cakes were served with a mango chili sauce, watercress and an arugula puree. While interesting, prettily presented, and generally tasty, they didn’t wow me quite like the Pork Belly appetizer. The flavor was vaguely ‘seafoody’ but I couldn’t particularly detect either crab or pancetta. The cakes were nicely fried to a pleasing golden on the outside, but I found the texture to be a bit too soft and mushy. The mango salsa was okay while the arugula made for a pleasing garnish but added little else. Rating: 3 out of 5.
Pan Seared Sea Scallops – This selection was another exquisite choice. It was described as being served with ‘Asparagus and Meyer Lemon Pesto’ and I rather took this to mean that the scallops would be accompanied by a pesto made from asparagus and lemon. In the event, the dish was something else entirely… Instead the scallops, and gently sautéed asparagus spears were served atop a pool of mild basil pesto, while the Meyer lemon was made into a ‘marmalade’ spooned lightly on top of each scallop. Not only did the combination of tastes compliment each other wonderfully, the scallops were seared to perfection and were, I think, the best I have ever had in a restaurant. Rating: 5 out of 5.
My experience at The Press Gang was of exquisitely prepared food served in a pleasant, comfortable ambience by a very friendly, efficient and helpful staff. Rating: 5 out of 5.