Having witnessed Gastown welcome well over 100 new businesses in the past decade, Im always fascinated by how each one joins the fray, specifically in the way it adapts its concept to the neighbourhoods unique, heritage bones.
Newcomers are generally faced with three routes on the aesthetic front when setting up shop here.
First: they can largely lean on the old brick and beams, leaving them very much alone and milk their age for an established, antique feel. Second: they can drywall from top to bottom, muffling almost every whisper of the past in order to tickle our penchant for modernity. Or third: they can do a bit of both.
It has been the latter scenario that has so far played out with the best and most effective results.
Im thinking of restaurants like Salt Tasting Room, Boneta and LAbattoir; places that have largely become emblematic of Gastowns rapid renaissance. What their ilk share, however, is an exclusive premium put on dinner and alcohol service, making it high time for somebody to focus squarely on the day.
Enter the brand-new bakery/cafe, Nelson The Seagull. As you may recall from pre-opening teases in these pages, it comes to us from three young South Africans: Jodie Balfour and brother/sister duo Jonathan and Lee Snelgar. The name is an homage to Dawn & Des Linberghs 1971 South African folk hit, The Seagulls Name Was Nelson (the long success of which was based largely on the songs assumed association with then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela).
Though it just opened two weeks ago, Nelson The Seagull looks as if its been around longer than Mandela languished on Robben Island. Much of the old, mosaic tile flooring has been rescued and polished to a dull, aged sheen.
There is very little of the characteristic Gastown brick to be seen; evidenced only on the rear wall (and cut by four tall windows). The gleaming white walls retain a heritage mantle with moulded, coffered ceilings supported by thick, sharply cut columns. These give the voluminous space more gravitas than most joints dare when satisfying guests on cheques that hover around the $10 mark.
Half of the open-concept space the rear is used for prep and baking.
The public half up front is for getting properly languid on a long, low-slung couch flanked by matching armchairs; laptop work on a roughly hewn wooden communal table thats paired with vintage leather swivel stools; or just watching the Carrall St. goings-on from either of the twin front window tables. Every facet of the room from tables and chairs to plants and sideboards have been meticulously curated with a mind to coolly charm. Think of a Merchant Ivory film set in the 1930s, then imagine the smells of good coffee and better baking.
Nothing was going to keep me from trying it out in its first week, not even a broken leg suffered in a nasty fall while skateboarding.
My wife/nurse returned home the day after it happened with two of their three sandwiches. Mine was dubbed the carnivore: a fatty-edged pastrami number layered with soft, boerenkaas cheese, fresh arugula and a house-made cilantro pesto that had me at first bite ($9). Hers was the herbivore: a stuffed delight of moist avocado slices and wedges of seasoned tomato on artichoke strands spread with delicious hummus ($6). The bread is baked in-house and does not want for flavour, texture or freshness. Top marks.
After that first experience enjoyed at home enhanced by bottles of their own line of brightly tart lemonade ($4) I hobbled in on crutches and repeated the same sandwich to gauge the consistency of its preparation (translation: it was just so bloody marvellous the first time). Again, flawless on par with the porchetta at Meat & Bread and the Reuben at The Red Wagon for tops in town. I reckoned it was the cilantro pesto, so I took a jar of it home (they also do a superb apricot chutney).
The only thing that disappointed was a limp and woefully under-seasoned soup of broccoli and kale that tasted overtly of hot, wet dirt and had no redeeming properties whatsoever.
Still I hobbled out having fallen hard for the simplicity of the offerings and the honesty with which they were being prepared.
Ive since been delivered other bits of goodies while recuperating. These have ranged from tangy lemon cups and tiny chocolate cakes to expertly pulled espresso shots and little free range egg yolks topped with crispy pancetta and settled in nests of fantastic pastry (thank you, dear friends).
The limited menu has so far been a pleasure certainly enough to have me pining for further visits once my surgery is through (sigh).
In the end, however, I suspect the thing that will sell Nelson The Seagull to punters and neighbourhood types wont be the food or the atmosphere, but rather the people behind it.
Jodie Balfour and the Snelgar siblings are the real deal; as keen as one could ever hope young, first-time owner-operators to be. They care enough about what they serve by making it themselves, and the results reward their zeal like you wouldnt believe.
315 Carrall, NelsonTheSeagull.com