Review of Vinnie’s Pasta Bar

December 28, 2006 § Leave a comment

5361 Ingis Street
Halifax, Nova Scotia
425 4435
Open on weekends.

We believe that reservations are vital to help restaurants plan their evenings. And yet we’ve been caught wandering through downtown Halifax twice recently, looking for a place where we could eat without the courtesy of reservations.

We stopped into Vinnie’s Pasta Bar thinking it might have an empty table, as nearby construction on Inglis made driving — and parking — a challenge. Only two tables were occupied when we arrived, but customers arrived steadily, and Vinnie’s was soon bustling.

The small dining room— barely a dozen tables— is decorated in Tuscan style, with warm salmon walls and a terra cotta-tiled floor. The effect is simple but cozy, like a modest trattoria. We quickly leave the chill of wind and rain behind, and settle in. Our server, Chris, is friendly and helpful, and not afraid of conversation, even with a rapidly-filling dining room.

We opt for a cheap Chilean red and local microbrew, wishing for a better wine selection. A dozen bottles would do, really.

A small, rustic loaf of bread is delivered on a board, and we slice off chunks happily. It’s warm and freshly-baked, but it’s frozen bread dough— just like my mom used to make. My partner finds that it needs more salt, but it tastes like home to me.

Then our starters arrive. They’re truly wonderful. My partner has the Farmhouse Soup, and after he adds a little salt, the flavours bloom. It’s a thick, rich broth, loaded with oven-roasted vegetables. A hearty start; this is the kind of soup that warms your insides, and could make a meal. I have the Calamari, and it’s better than what I’ve been served in the city’s priciest restaurants. The abundant rings of calamari are coated in panko (thin Japanese bread crumbs), flash fried, and served with a tangy chili sauce. They’re pillowy, crunchy and delicious.

Squid has to be flash fried and quickly delivered to be edible, I find— no one likes that cold, rubbery mouthfeel that comes when it’s overcooked or too long out of the pan. Calamari is a bellwether that helps me determine how well the kitchen and waitstaff communicate. Judging from Vinnie’s calamari, the team works together very well indeed.

My partner has also ordered a spinach salad that features tender young leaves, fresh sliced mushrooms and eggs, and heaping of mozzarella. The creamy bacon dressing is tasty, but the fresh ingredients bring the most joy. I also have a bowl of the soup of the day: Butternut Squash. This isn’t like the thick, sweet squash soup populating most menus today, although those are fine in small portions. It’s much lighter, and the squash isn’t entirely pureed. The flavor is rich but light, and wholly satisfying.

Unfortunately, when our entrees arrive, our stratospheric expectations return to Earth, and I wonder if we simply didn’t order the kitchen’s best dishes. While there’s nothing actually wrong with my partner’s Meat Lasagna, it’s just good. A talented home chef might do as well. There’s no tang from the lasagna’s tomato sauce, no deep scent of herbs or spices.

My Chicken and Mushroom Penne simply isn’t very good. The sauce, which promised to be “rich and creamy”, is neither; in fact, it’s little more than milk with a hint of salt. I can’t detect either the earthiness of mushroom or the richness of cream. The chunks of chicken breast, on the other hand, are over-salted. I suspect they’re the preseasoned breasts you can buy, frozen, in bulk.

There’s nothing terribly wrong with these dishes, but we soon started talking about ways the kitchen might improve them, perhaps by adding a creamy Béchamel layer, some sliced eggs, and a richer tomato sauce to the Lasagna. The Chicken and Mushroom Penne could be improved by using flavorful Cremini mushrooms, and by allowing the noodles to release a little starch to thicken the sauce.

Vinnie’s is so close to having it right. It offers incredible value for your dining dollar, and with a little tweaking, our entrees would pop with flavor. They’re already doing the hard things so well: helpful staff, fresh bread, great appetizers. And on these merits alone, we’re more than happy to go back to try Vinnie’s again.

—for Infomonkey

Review of Salvatore’s Pizzaiolo

December 20, 2006 § 1 Comment

5541 Young Street
Halifax, Nova Scotia
455-1133

You know what you’re in for the moment you walk through the doors at Salvatore’s. The place smells like a Neapolitan pizzaiolo. Smoke, garlic, olives, cheese, olive oil, and some more smoke. It’s heavenly, in small doses.

The restaurant is in the Hydrostone Market. There’s a mural of van Gogh’s The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, at Night on one wall, about ten tables, and a takeout window above a case of cheesecakes. The staff look like they might once have been art students, and they’re helpful, but not chatty. They’ve got work to do; they take pizza seriously here.

There are rules about what you can order on your pizza— but they’re for your own good, really. Salvatore’s will only add three toppings to its orginal pizza, but it offers a selection of specialties.

Salvatore’s has been around for more than 15 years now, and it’s as good today as it was when Salvatore ran it himself. The pizza is thin-crusted and smoky, and the toppings on offer here are unusual. There’s a four-tier pricing system for toppings, ranging from Spanish onions and roasted garlic at the low end to sun-dried tomatoes at the high end.

To help you build the perfect pizza, Salvatore’s also suggests a few combinations: Roasted Garlic with Sauteed Mushrooms, for example, and Pizza Tutta Carne with pepperoni, homemade meatballs and Spanish salami.

A number of sensational specialty pizzas are certainly tempting. Clam Pie Marinato is a pie topped with mozzarella, marinated clams, garlic and parsley, a zesty combination redolent of the Italian Riviera. Pizza Miguel is a dense pizza layered with Spanish onions and fresh mushrooms and smothered in smoked mozzarella. Pizza alla Siciliana is a thick-crusted pie prepared with imported Italian tomatoes… the flavors are more vibrant than any domestic tomato. And Salvatore’s offers the only true Pizza con Quattro Formaggi in Metro: four cheeses, fresh herbs, no tomatoes in sight.

But our favorite pizza from Salvatore’s is a build-your own. We like to contrast fresh, milky ricotta with briny kalamata olive and earthy mushrooms on an Original. The resulting pizza is crispy, salty, smooth and fragrant.

There are other items on offer here. Pizza is the best bet, but there are hero sandwiches with salami, pepperoni or both, or Sal’s tuna melt. There’s a daily soup, Greek and Garden Salads are available, too, as well as a delicious, garlicky Caesar salad. For dessert, gelato and sorbetto from Dio Mio, or try one of Michelle’s cheesecakes, or— best of all— a Sicilian Cannoli.

This is pizza in the great Italian tradition… pizza unlike any other available in the Maritimes.

— for

Recipe for Merry Christmas Cookies

December 8, 2006 § Leave a comment

My mother clipped this recipe out of Parade magazine sometime in the mid-70s. They’re not fancy (although you could dress them up), but they’re sturdy, tasty, and they don’t get (too) tough through many re-rolls.

We never used the frosting “paint” on these cookies; my mother reserved that treat for the gingerbread ones (that I wouldn’t touch). And hanging delicious cookies on a Christmas Tree seemed as ludicrous to me as a kid as it does today.

I’m posting them here partly because my computer finds the recipe delicious, too, and eats it every year.

Ingredients

1/2 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg
2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2-1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla or lemon extract [Ed. or almond extract, if you’ve got an unholy love for it, as I do.]
1-2 tablespoons milk or water
(I have also added 1 teaspoon nutmeg to this recipe for many years )

Combine softened butter with sugar; beat until fluffy. Beat in egg until creamy. Stir dry ingredient together; beat in. Add vanilla or lemon extract and enough milk or water to make dough pliable. Gather dough into ball (may be wrap and refrigerated or frozen to store).

To bake, roll or press out about 1/2 inch thick. Cut into desired shapes. Shape dough trimmings between fingers to make strips; place these on cut outs for decorative accents. Decorate with colored sugars or jimmies before baking if preferred to frosting. Bake 375 degrees until firm and golden, about 10-12 minutes. Decorate with frosting.

Frosting “Paint”
Sift 1 cup confectioner’s sugar; stir in 1 tablespoon water or lemon juice. Tint with a few drops of food coloring or fruit juice. Force through pastry tube to form line. To “paint” on frosting add another teaspoon of liquid, spread on cooled cookies with a small art brush. Finish with decorative sugars [Ed. But FOR THE LOVE OF GOD don’t get any on the pan if you plan to remove the cookies from it. Ever.]

To make hanger for Christmas tree:
Cut a hole near the top of each cookie with the point of a knife or a straw, or make a loop of dough and press this firmly to the top of the unbaked dough to secure then bake together. Or loop colored string and press ends into dough at the top of each cookie before baking. Bake string side down in pan to secure.

Enjoy!

Mini-Review of Tarek’s Cafe

December 8, 2006 § Leave a comment

Tarek’s Cafe
3045 Robie St. [Near the ATV studios]
Halifax, NS

Tarek’s is the kind of inexpensive restaurant every neighborhood — and every city — should have. The staff are friendly and efficient, the steady turnover makes for some great people-watching, the menu is a touch eclectic, and the food is terrific.

Its location on Robie Street doesn’t seem ideal at first. Tarek’s is located in a little strip mall along with a Subway, a drycleaner, and a Money Mart. If you decide to eat in, you can sit at one of eight or nine tables, or at a short counter. It’s a friendly, colorful room, though, and the menu is expansive.

Tarek is Syrian, so much of the food has a Middle Eastern bent, but local specialties abound, too. There’s always a soup of the day, the usual submarine sandwiches, and friends tell us that the fishcakes are delicious. But frankly, we’re usually here for the falafel. Well, all the Middle Eastern food, actually. But falafel first and foremost.

It’s a crime that Ray’s in Scotia Square always wins Best Falafel in The Coast’s Best of Food Reader’s Poll every single year. We prefer Tarek’s. Dense, crusty (but not too crusty) balls of chickpeas and cracked wheat, seasoned lightly with parsley, cumin, and a complex blend of spices; these are the falafel you should try if you’ve never eaten them before. It’s a high benchmark to which all other fast food should aspire.

The tender, two-bite grape leaves are stuffed with a flavorful rice mixture, as are the cabbage rolls. The tahini sauce that accompanies everything is just tangy enough, and the hummus is the best we’ve ever had — earthy, rich and smooth as silk. Tarek’s is a great place to be vegetarian, because you have so much to try, and every vegetable in the place is crunchy and fresh.

There’s always a pasta and a selection of salads: a lemony tabbouleh, heavy on the parsley, as it should be; a broccoli salad flecked with red pepper; two types of Greek salad (“authentic” and “traditional”), savoury rice and vegetables, to mention just a few. All are all worthy sides to the that leave you feeling virtuous and satisfied. We also find ourselves craving the chicken kebabs, and finding an excuse to visit the north end during lunch hour.

As a former restauranteur, it’s also a pleasure to see how well Tarek’s is run. The counter staff work with such economy of motion and efficiency, they make short-order cooking seem graceful. Complex orders are finished fast, and they look like they have fun doing it.

And it’s a good thing the staff work together so well, because this place is always busy. Just by coincidence, my partner and I usually stop in, starving, at odd times— maybe 10:45 am or 3:30 pm— and the small eating area is often three-quarters full. It’s a broad mix: art college and engineering students, young families, businessmen and women, manual laborers, and journalists from ATV, which is just up the street.

But Tarek’s greatest boon is the family atmosphere. Everyone seems to know each other, and they’d like to get to know you, too. The counter staff banter with each other and the regulars, and they genuinely care that everyone who comes in has a filling, delicious meal.

Tarek’s depends on word-of-mouth advertising from their loyal customers, and their customers are happy to provide it. Because Tarek’s is a neighborhood restaurant of the very best kind.

— for Infomonkey

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