Fleur de Sel Commands Market Attention with French-inspired Cuisine in Lunenburg, N.S.


“We’ve been around for 10 years now, but the idea that someone could come to Lunenburg and eat veal sweetbreads blew people away [at the time we opened],” says Martin Ruiz Salvador, chef and co-owner of Fleur de Sel, who runs the restaurant with his wife, Sylvie, who manages the front-of-house. “They couldn’t believe that this [high-end] restaurant was in town. There really aren’t any other restaurants doing what we’re doing.”

Martin and Sylvie, both natives of Halifax, opened Fleur de Sel (named for the gourmet salt “harvested by hand along the coasts of France and Spain”) in June 2004 after returning home from three years abroad. Martin had apprenticed at Dublin’s Michelin-starred Commons Restaurant before honing his French cooking skills in the culinary mecca of Lyon, France, while Sylvie worked as a server at a bouchon called La Plage.

When the couple returned to Nova Scotia, they set up shop on Montague Street in the historic downtown area. “We both wanted to open our own place,” says Martin. “We chose Lunenburg because of how nice a town it is, and it’s the second busiest tourist spot in the province.” Given the town’s small population, and influx of tourists in the summer months, Fleur de Sel is only open from April to October for dinner and Sunday brunch.

Fleur de Sel’s menu constantly evolves based on what’s in season, melding Martin’s classical French training with local ingredients. Main courses include handmade salt cod gnocchi, peas and carrots, and dill and parsley emulsion ($36); as well as P.E.I. beef tenderloin, confit of beef shank, swiss chard, Yukon gold potato purée and veal jus ($42).

“There’s such a buzz over [local food], but that’s basically what we’ve been doing since day one,” says Martin. Nearby, the Annapolis Valley and New Germany offer an abundance of produce, while local fisheries keep the restaurant stocked with fresh seafood. Fleur de Sel’s Bomba Rice dish ($29) for example, uses scallops from Adams & Knickle, a nearby 116-year-old fishery.

Even the drink options have a local focus. One wine list is devoted to Nova Scotia wines, (the other is devoted to international wines) and, Fleur de Sel’s cocktail menu features spirits from Lunenburg’s Ironworks Distillery, which is where cranberry liqueur, blueberry liqueur, apple brandy and pear eau du vie are made using local fruit. The cocktails are rounded out with simple spirits and fresh herbs. For example, the Pink Fog Martin contains gin, cranberry liqueur, fennel and nutmeg syrup, lemon juice, cinnamon and dill ($12).

The 36-seat restaurant, with an additional 22 seats in a garden patio, is housed in a former sea captain’s wooden house built in 1840. There’s also a luxury suite upstairs, which Martin and Sylvie rent out for romantic overnight packages. The co-owners worked with original architecture of the building when designing the restaurant, bearing in mind their location. This was especially important since Lunenburg is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its British colonial wooden architecture.

Fleur de Sel’s interior is both intimate and elegant, with high ceilings, intricate woodwork, pale blue/grey walls, modern light fixtures and white linens. “It’s a fine-dining atmosphere, but it’s more light and elegant than formal,” says Sylvie.

When it comes to her customer-service approach, knowledge and elegance are important to Sylvie. “Personality is a big part of ‘place,’ and I try to allow each server’s individual personality to come through,” she says. 

Fleur de Sel’s top-notch food and superb service have earned it numerous awards and accolades, including the CAA/AAA Four Diamond Award (2007-2013) and the Taste of Nova Scotia Restaurant of the Year (2008 and 2011) and The Chronicle Herald Restaurant of the Year (2008) honours as well as a spot on EnRoute magazine’s list of Top 10 New Restaurants in Canada (2005).

But, the acclaim hasn’t slowed the couple down. During the winter, the co-owners host events, such as winemakers’ dinners as well as New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day parties. “They’re special events for our local customers, just to keep things moving and keep in touch,” says Sylvie. And, the pair also owns another restaurant down the street from Fleur de Sel; the Salt Shaker Deli opened six years ago and serves soups, salads, sandwiches and pizza. Its specialties include Lobster Mac & Cheese ($18). Meanwhile, the biggest challenge for the co-owners is staffing. “It’s hard to hold onto [staff] when you’re not open year-round,” says Sylvie. It also causes a bit of a financial drain at the start of every season. “There’s training costs in the beginning when you’re a bit slower and you’ve got labour [costs] through the roof,” adds Sylvie. “It’s refreshing, because we get a new injection of fresh talent almost every year, but it’s also a challenge, because it takes so many weeks, months to train and build [the team].”

Aside from that (and Martin calls this a good challenge), Nova Scotia’s growing season is short, so much of the produce comes in all at once. “It’s a matter of trying to use it all,” says Martin. To that end, last fall Martin did a stage at the Cultured Pickle in Berkeley, Calif., to gain knowledge about vegetable fermentation. He learned how to preserve fruits and vegetables without the use of heat or vinegar, keeping the natural flavours of the produce. “We have been experimenting with that … to make produce last a bit longer,” says Sylvie.

Overall, running approximately 70 covers on weekend nights at a small fine-dining restaurant in the East Coast takes some finesse. “[It’s about] keeping everything tight — labour and food costs, especially. [It helps that we’re] here all of the time and are owner-operated — Martin cooks, and I am on the floor as much as possible,” says Sylvie. “There is a balance between how much business you want to do versus the cost of doing business. Bigger is not always better.”

There may be challenges, but attracting a steady stream of customers in a small town isn’t one
of them, as good word-of-mouth and a solid reputation are winning acclaim at Fleur de Sel.  As local writer Richard Levangie wrote in a review of the establishment on his blog: “This restaurant would be noteworthy if it opened in Halifax or Montreal. That it thrives in a small town with barely 2,500 souls is simply a wonderful fact of life.”

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