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Dec 15, 2006 10:31 PM

Halifax: Gio

I made my first visit today for lunch at Gio, Chef Ray Bear's home in the Prince George Hotel. Make no mistake though: Gio is not a hotel restaurant in the usual sense of the word. There is the more traditional restaurant, Terraces, that serves that function at the Prince George. Gio is something entirely different: a modern, sexy, high-style kind of place with food and service that is at the top end of offerings in Halifax, but with prices that are comparable to most other places that offer nowhere near the experience.

I have experienced Chef Ray's cuisine at a number of special events but have not had a full sit-down meal until today. I was with a group of 8, and the concensus was that everything served was absolutely top-notch. I can comment on several dishes: the chowder is an absolute work of art, loaded with seafood in a rich, creamy base that was extremely flavorful, with a small scallop in the shell along with several mussels serving as decoration as much as content. It is perhaps the best chowder I have ever had. I tried the fish cakes as my main, which arrived on a long, narrow plate with a pile of sweet potato frites. The fish cakes were, again, loaded with fish; in fact, if there was any criticism, it might be that there was almost too much fish and not enough potato to bind them together. But again, the flavor just exploded in your mouth with every bite. A tiger prawn pasta got outstanding reviews, and the open-face buttermilk chicken sandwich was deemed the best chicken the person ever tasted.

Gio offers an outstanding wine list, with several excellent selections available by the glass or half-bottle. Service was very good, with a friendly, attentive server, and simultaneous delivery of eight plates to the table by three staffers. Prices, while not cheap, are in line with places like Seven and Bish, and for my money, Gio exceeds both in quality and the experience. As to whether it surpasses my favorite restaurant in Halifax, Da Maurizio, is difficult to say, as they are very different in style. DaM offers a more traditional, opulent, rich style of dining, while Gio is more fusion-based, more modern, more creative, and super-styled. I need to go back for dinner, but right now, if I was given the choice to take my favorite lady out for the evening, Gio would be my choice.

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  1. I would have to agree with a lot of what Greg B posted. Gio is not a typical hotel restaurant. I've visited 5 times now and have had varying experiences. On the first couple of occasions I dropped in with friends for drinks and appetizers. Each time service was excellent. As for the food I recall having the seafood taster, kobe beef (read wagyu) shortribs, and tuna fries. The flavours were creative with some of the most creative presentations/platings I've seen in Halifax.

    On my return for the "full-meal deal" I had the 24-hour sasparilla pork which was great-tasting with moist belly, crisp crackling, and rich bacon. The one slight was that it was far too small of a portion for the price paid. That said, a friend had the lamb which came, perfectly cooked, as a full rack for ~$30 which is a steal in this market. Once again, service was excellent. An example of this came when a friend looked longingly at the chowder and mentioned aloud to the server that she wasn't hungry enough for a bowl and main course. To his credit, our server returned with a much smaller portion (still crammed with fish) on the house. If only all servers in Halifax were this good (he was tipped accordingly). Excellent food, skillfully cooked and presented.

    My second visit was much less impressive. I ordered the duck three ways and received a nicely roasted breast, a miniscule piece of foie gras, and an uncrisp confit. The duck was swimming in a light and rather bland sauce with near-tasteless apple jelly (via agar... clearly something he picked up while working with Susur Lee). For desert, a chocolate creme brulee with blood orange was the highlight of the meal. Very rich with a nice citrus bite from the blood orange.

    While I was very impressed with his earlier efforts, my last visit has left me somewhat uncertain. I'm can only hope Chef Bear continues to improve and challenge Halifax diners with well-cooked and inspired dinners.

    1. Agreed Gio is in the top-tier of Halifax restaurants. Da is still the best. Fiasco is very good. Of the others at that price level, Seven is hit and miss (although if you are a pretty person, I think the service and attention is exponentially better), the Press Gang is the worst, Bish isn't very good (although its been a while since I tried it), and Onyx dissapointing (see notes at bottom).

      As far as Gio, it successfully combines style with great service (the head waiter, Sean, is one of the best waiters in the city) and comfort - the booths are great. They also have a great cocktail list -- and for a confirmed oenophile like myself to mention a cocktail list is saying something. They also have a good, fairly priced wine list.

      The only drawback and criticism I had of my experience at Gio was suprisingly the food which was focused more on style than taste. I fear, Ray (whose food I have had many times before and loved) got a little too carried away in trying to create dishes a la Ferran Adria and Susur Lee...thinking more about the science of food than the taste. Hopefully, in the two months since I have been there he has gotten back to tasting his food than playing with it. Knowing Ray, I suspect he has. Desserts there rock, as their pastry chef, whom I worked with at a previous restaurant is the best in the city. Overall, I would recommend Gio but would proceed with slight caution and will certainly be asking for server recommendations next time round. In reference to Susur (King West in Toronto), I ate my first meal there over the XMAS holidays. An enjoyable experience, mostly because my wife and I were celebrating an evening out and it would have been almost impossible for us not to have a good time. Interesting concept of working with strongest flavours and richest food first and ending with lightest and dessert. Made for odd progession of wine, as we started with big reds and worked our way down. Service was surprisingly amateur -- snotty french host, followed by a decent but originally dismissive waiter (until halfway through meal when he determined we knew more about wine and food than he did), and unfortunately food runners that couldn't relate what was on the plate. One was obviously nervous, and two others were unable to effectively communicate in English, which wouldn't be a problem accept the dishes were so detailed not having someone there able to discribe them made it difficult to get the full experience. The wine list while lengthy was only okay, as the by the glass selections while pricey weren't the best, the Pauillac by the glass while nicely structured was a bit green (perhaps a vintage issue -- 2002) and the Amarone we ordered was faulted (tca) and the restaurant refused to admit it as such, so we ordered another one in its place. The rest of the wine list was fine but for a restaurant that offers alot of exotic spicing, I was surprised there weren't more in aromatic whites, there was no NZ Sauvignon, few ripe styles of Pinot (such as Santa Barb. County) or good Aussie (Yarra etc.)

      Back to Halifax, one of the more dissapointing experiences I have had recently in Halifax was Onyx. Awful distracting lighting, a bizarre open kitchen concept that doesn't work, bizarre menu (although the sample platters looked interesting)and worse off unacceptable quality of food for the price. The sauces were miserable. My conclusion was they were thickened with way too much corn syrup (as they were bizarrely textured and way too sweet). My wife who has allergies to food dyes swelled up after this meal.

      5 Replies
      1. re: WINEWOLF

        I would generally agree with WineWolf's comments but also add Fid to the list of great restaurants in Halifax. I've yet to have a disappointing meal/experience there and have always been treated well by Monica and Dennis.

        As for some of the restaurants mentioned I would second the unfortunate performace of Bish and add underwhelming meals at Chives. I've been to Bish three times for work-related events and have never had a good meal. As for Chives, I've found their food to be generally lacking in flavour. One exception was a curried seafood chowder I had there three years ago which was excellent. Speaking of Onyx I can't say I've ever had a meal there but have enjoyed the space for after-work drinks and appetizers which have always been good. Their sample platters are a great value (particularly on Wednesday's when most app's [caviar excluded] are half off). I can't think of a place in Halifax where you can get 4 oysters, pate, some smoked salmon, stuffed mushrooms, a tasting of cheese and some baked mussels for $9 or a comparable appetizer/app plate.

        Lastly, as for Susur it is, hands down, my favourite restaurant anywhere. I've been twice now and can recite the tasting menus I had verbatim. A friend was there just after Christmas and confirmed your comments about the food and, unfortunately, about the service. I would like to return soon and check out the dessert tasting.

        1. re: WINEWOLF

          To Winewolf or other posters re Halifax Gio:

          Ex-Haligonian now living in California returning to Halifax end-of-September. It's been six months since this thread started -- has Gio gotten any better (or stabilized)? Has anyone else improved? DaMaurzio's has alway been a favourite (that was ten years ago...) but now I'm looking for something new -- but "quality" new, not "trendy" new.

          I am also willing to entertain suggestions for high-quality restos within a 100km radius!


          PS: I love well-prepared seafood but I'm not crazy about chowder...

          1. re: teebodo

            As it happens I was at Gio a couple of weeks ago for dinner. I thought it was wonderful. For an appetizer I had "warm sushi" which looked like typical sushi rolls but featured cooked ingredients, which I really enjoyed; I had seared tuna for a main which was excellent; and I even splurged on dessert, having something called Scoop, which was a variety of sorbets, meringues, and some skewered roasted pineapple.

            I really enjoyed it. Yet, for the money, I found myself wondering if I wouldn't have been more satisfied with something from Fiasco, with some of Chef Martin's wonderful sauces. I was in a saucy kind of mood that night, I guess.

            1. re: Greg B

              Fiasco's -- I should check it out. Thanks for the update!

              1. re: teebodo

                If you are willing to drive about an hour out of the city. I would recommend Fleur de Sel in Lunenburg. I think Martin Ruiz Salvadors Franco-Spanish cuisine is the best food in the province. Service is also excellent. The owners pay the expenses for waiters living in Halifax to drive to there on a nightly basis to ensure the quality of the staff. That's impressive.

        2. Susur's was very good for food, but I think the quality front of house didn't meet the back. Loved the restaurant atmosphere...a good example of how to create an inviting atmosphere without going overboard on expense. I would gladly repeat the experience for the food and Susur himself was lovely.

          I have also had a great experience at Onyx sitting at the bar with the sampler platters but sitting at the back near the kitchen the atmosphere doesn't work and the sauces were inexcusable. Too bad, because the bar can be good and I like what they are trying to with wine flights etc.

          Also, went to Mosaic recently and qualified approval based on a few apps/tapas and a couple glasses of wine. Steak tartare was great and good selection by the glass (including a great little Greek white made from Moschofilero grape) and good red (Trapiche Broquel Malbec). Only real problem was the wine glasses...great for margaritas...bad for tasting wine.

          1. I had visited Gio's a few times. The first visit was O.K. The second time for lunch I hosted a staff dinner. The food was good for the price and the service was fun. I decided to return with my family on New Years Day, Wow what a disappointment! The fish was old, (sole) I traded it with my husband, and the salad was not at all what I had at the lunch visit. the Sea bass was over cooked. Overall the experience was terrible we waited so long for the dessert, that the children were almost crying. I think the room is beautiful, but it just does not deliver what it promises. Bethk

            1 Reply
            1. re: Bethk

              New Year's Day? You went out to a fine dining restaurant on New Year's Day? You never worked as a waitress, did you......

            2. Hey Chowers, I'm going ot be in town next month and am just about to make a reservation for a Friday night dinner for myself and girlfriend, I'm thinking Gio, has it held up or come around after cooling off a bit? other choice would be Fid...any advice much appreciated...

              2 Replies
              1. re: Recyclor

                I would chose Fid over Gio any day of the year. Though the service and the atmosphere at GIO are top notch, the food is all sizzle no steak. Someone should honestly tell the kitchen that they should taste the food before they send it out. Often foams and coulis are tasteless and bland.
                At FID, you can always expect to flavours of the food to stand out. Halibut is not over powered by fussy sauces, scallops are cooked perfectly and desserts are fresh.
                As for Fiasco...if you're a fan of powdered stocks and sauces, be my guest.

                1. re: boynamedsous

                  I beg to differ. Fid has a devoted following but has been consistently disappointing in my experience. Fiasco has never failed to impress. As for powdered stocks and sauces, I cannot say. What I do know is that they turn out some of the most flavorful sauces I have ever tasted. And it is a very elegant room, perfect for a romantic dinner. I have been to Gio a couple of other times since my initial review and it has remained impressive, though I have not been there since Ray Bear left. Of the three places we are discussing I would rank them Fiasco, Gio, and Fid in that order.