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

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