By Kristi Alexandra
Tucked away in Crescent Beach, the Seahorse Grill is the perfect spot to eat if you’re in the mood for fine dining with a laid-back West Coast atmosphere.
The neighbourhood bistro has been a staple at the corner of Sullivan Street and McBride Avenue–so close to the ocean, you can practically hear the waves break as you savour your mussels avec pomme frites or the melt-in-your-mouth braised beef short ribs.
From all descriptions, you could call the menu eclectic–but if you’ve followed executive chef John Kavanagh’s career, you might be able to glean where the inspiration for his dishes comes from.
“This place is an extension of our travels,” says Kavanagh, who co-owns the restaurant with his wife and general manager, Francina.
“Being raised in the French style of food, then moving to Australia and then moving to Holland, you’re seeing a variation of all those menus. When we came back, I wanted to make it a little bit of a melting pot, but I wanted to make everything from scratch. It’s all handmade.”
Find dishes such as mussels ($21), done two ways: with carrots, leeks and wine in roasted garlic broth, or with goat cheese, tomato and chorizo sausage.
Since you’re by the seashore, you’ll, of course, find fresh oysters on the menu, but the eatery doesn’t shy away from hearty, European-inspired dishes such as pork schnitzel ($24.95), complete with spaetzle, red cabbage and lemon, as well as liver & onions ($26.95) with mashed potatoes, peas, caramelized onions, and a red wine demi glaze; and the classic lobster pot pie ($28.95), baked with puff pastery, baby mix greens and a citrus vinaigrette.
Boasting no more than 30 seats, the bistro’s intimate seaside setting lends well to enjoying its global tastes with a pacific northwest twist. You’ll find your tastebuds welcoming a healthy combination of Kavanagh’s European training and the local, west coast ingredients that inspire the menu.
“I like to do seasonal and use what you can,” Kavanagh says, “I like to be unique with some ingredients. When people are like, ‘What’s that?’ I can say, ‘That’s sea asparagus from right here on the west coast, we harvest it from the ocean floor.’”
The creative spontaneity that drives Kavanaghs cooking is what has customers and vendors alike on their toes.
“I have [a vendor] who, anytime he gets something weird, he calls me up right away, and I’m like, ‘yeah, let’s get 10 pounds of that,’ and I’ll play with it and come up with something fun.”
For the spot’s regulars, that means knowing they’ll be surprised with five new features per night, depending on the season and which local ingredients the chef has snagged this time.
“That will keep your customer intrigued,” Kavanagh says, “your customer doesn’t get comfortable with you, and you keep educating them and they come back.”
And indeed, they have, the restaurateur says. There are some customers who’ve followed Kavanagh from his first gig at New Westminster’s Des Gitans in the 80s, to his stint as chef at White Rock’s Wolfie’s, and now to the Seahorse Grill, which Jeff and Francina opened in 2005.
“The philosophy I’m trying to push is that the customer is dialed into me and then I’m dialed into them,” he says.
Together, the couple also runs the faster-paced Hooked Fish Bar, a dine-in/take-out eatery right on the main Cresent Beach boardwalk.
And if running two restaurants in the “Hamptons of the Lower Mainland” didn’t make them busy enough, you can also find Chef Kavanagh on Delta TV’s “BC & Beyond Cuisine,” where he’s dreamed up dishes and shared recipes onscreen for four seasons.
“When you’ve been cooking for so many years, you have to keep yourself fresh,” he says.
And as chef Kavanagh keeps his cooking fresh, so, too, should the diners. “A lot of people who come here don’t know who we are, but when they come here they’re so surprised,” he tells WestCoastFood.
“Come to the beach, parking is free, come down and try some different food.”
Seahorse Grill is at 12147 Sullivan Street in Surrey.