Spring is in the air, and a young chef’s fancy turns to new dishes to celebrate the season. At Bella’s Café & Bistro in Amherst, NS, planning is well under way for fresh, tasty fare to enhance the menu.
By donalee Moulton
“When spring arrives, customers look for something new,” says Rick Sangster, chef and manager of Bella’s Café. “They want lighter, healthier food. Customers are less into desserts and more into salads.”
The emphasis, he adds, is on reflecting the season itself. “You don’t want turnip on the menu. That’s a winter vegetable.”
In spring, the nine-year-old eatery, about a two-hour drive from Halifax and only three kilometres from the New Brunswick border, draws a local crowd familiar with the restaurant and partial to their menu favourites. Tourists are also starting to arrive, many being introduced to what Bella’s has to offer for the first time.
“We want to provide an exceptional dining experience,” says Sangster. “We run the gamut from elegant entrées to comfort food.”
Springtime recipes rely, to the greatest extent possible, on local food and boast a uniquely Nova Scotia flavour. The open-face lobster avocado on rye with tomato basil soup, for example, features seafood caught off the East Coast and vegetables from nearby farmers. “You have to incorporate healthy into perennial favourites like a soup and salad,” says Sangster.
The chef, who has been with the 38-seat restaurant for four years, creates dishes with ingredients that are easily available, but adds a twist. Peppers, for instance, are plentiful in spring. Rather than simply adding green, red or yellow peppers to a dish, however, Sangster will make his own sweet pepper relish.
In a smaller community like Amherst, with a population of roughly 10,000, it is also important for a restaurant to set trends, rather than just follow them. Bella’s Café is known for its paninis, a menu item it introduced to the town. The chicken panini – with pesto mayo, pan seared peppers and onion, and a feta spinach mix – is a perennial crowd pleaser, and will stay on the menu throughout the year. “It’s not about creating a totally different menu from scratch,” explains Sangster. “It’s about offering customers new food choices will ensuring tried-and-true dishes remain available. This is easier on the kitchen and makes for happier customers.”
Sangster doesn’t leave the selection of new menu items to happenstance. He tries them on customers first as daily specials. This gives him an opportunity to identify what selections sell best. “We’re taking the guesswork out of developing our spring menu,” says Sangster.
Bella’s Café & Bistro’s top tips
Think like a chain. Chain restaurants epitomize efficiency. They change their menu often enough to attract new customers but ensure old-faithfuls are still available for repeat customers.
Track what’s selling. Don’t offer a special just once. Offer it several times over the course of a month to gauge response. The more popular items are candidates for the spring menu.
Rethink how ingredients could be used. If a dish isn’t selling well, look at how the ingredients could be used to create a new menu item or a weekly special. This keeps costs down and customers happy.