In My Own Backyard

January 25, 2007 § Leave a comment

We went to a recently re-opened diner in Bridgewater last week. It’s legendary for offering excellent diner food at ridiculous prices, but it was closed and up for sale in June, when we moved here, so when I noticed it was open again I was plum excited. Another place to eat! And it’s only 25 minutes away! Shucks, it’s almost like we’s livin’ the suburbs!

So we visited with the intention of reviewing the place. Our waitress was just perfect for the type of place it is, the food was tasty diner fare. But the whole time we were there, the couple who are the new owners were fighting.

He was sitting in the dining room when we got there, going through paper or something, and she emerged from the kitchen, and I couldn’t really tell what the fight was about, but it seems she was on the phone and he didn’t understand what the call was about, and he was furious. “Amway! It was just Amway! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry!” she kept whispering in this keening, placating tone.

Then he stormed off, and she was left sitting nervously at the table braiding and unbraiding her hair. Which was long, lank, and in her face; that is to say, worn in traditional battered-wife style. Her demeanor made me pretty nervous myself, though Richard didn’t notice anything unusual going on.

A few minutes before we left he heard the man snarl from the kitchen “I asked you a question.” but even then didn’t seem to realize why I was gulping down my food as quickly as possible.
The thing is, I know how difficult and stressful opening a new restaurant, or any small business, can be. It taxes any relationship, even strong, healthy ones. But how aggressively abusive can a relationship be before you can’t keep it disguised in a room full of customers? How can she stand not just the abuse, but the humiliation?

It still boggles the mind that a woman in Canada would stand for such treatment. My mother is a very strong woman, so I’ve never seen domestic abuse up-close, and perhaps I oversimplify things. But seriously. She’s an adult. Help is available. A woman is in the most danger from her partner in the weeks following her escape, but is living forever under conditions of known and inevitable danger truly better than living for a few weeks in possible danger?

Review of Baan Thai

January 24, 2007 § 2 Comments

Baan Thai
1569 Dresden Row
Halifax, Nova Scotia • 446 4301

Baan Thai is confirming our suspicions.

We’ve had so many uninspiring meals at traditional restaurants in Metro lately that we’re beginning to think that Halifax’s dining scene will only be resurrected by ethnic restaurants.

We stopped in to Baan Thai one recent Wednesday evening, hoping for something delicious and filling. The restaurant entrance is inside a little shopping complex that houses FID, Casa Dante, and a tanning salon. The dining room features old brick fireplaces and a crisp modernism tempered by colorful photographs of Thai architecture. A Hun Krabok (Thai rod-puppet) surveys the dining room from his perch above a closet, and the waitresses wear traditional Thai dress.

After we’re seated, our waitress brings our water almost immediately, but the service get a bit spotty thereafter. It’s understandable, though, given that only two waitresses are working and the restaurant went from two tables to full in the space of forty minutes. The place was hopping with regulars, including one boy who couldn’t have been more than eight years old, who decisively ordered his chicken satays with extra peanut sauce.

To start, we order the Thai Garden Rolls. When they arrive, we realize that this appetizer is meant to be shared; there’s more than enough for two people on one platter. The rolls are substantial: rice paper wrappers stuffed with carrots, lettuce, mint and cilantro, and served with a syrupy sweet and spicy sauce. They’re wonderful, and even my partner, who usually avoids cilantro, eats them with gusto.

Next up is Mango Salad, which epitomizes the complex nature of Thai cuisine, balancing sweet, spicy, savory and sour flavors. The mango is julienned, and tossed with red onions, red peppers, and a sweet, tangy dressing that brings finishes with a flourish of heat.

“I could eat this every day of my life!” my partner declares, and I can’t disagree. It’s just fabulous.

We’ve ordered three main dishes (using our usual n+1 formula): Red Curry with Chicken, Spicy Shrimp, and Vegetarian Pad Thai. The Red Curry is a mixture of bamboo shoots and chicken in a coconut curry sauce. It’s light on the chicken, and it’s not as complex as I’d like, but it’s still very good.

The Spicy Shrimp is served in a fruity coconut sauce which has more depth than the Red Curry. It’s chock full of onions and peppers, and although the shrimp are slightly overcooked, they’re plentiful. The dish is a little spicy, but the warmth quickly abates. I’m a little disappointed by this, until I realize that it’s all my fault. The menu says that any dish can be spiced as mild or hot as we like— but I didn’t mention our preferences to our waitress. Oops. Next time.

Our final dish, Vegetarian Pad Thai can’t — by definition — be a traditional Pad Thai, as it leaves out the dried shrimp and fish sauce. So we’re expecting to sacrifice a little Thai saltiness and complexity, but it’s still very good. The tofu has been deep-fried so it has a pleasantly spongy mouthfeel. The rice noodles are slippery and smooth, and the bean sprouts, carrots and fried egg provide delicious textural contrast.

For dessert we share lychees with ice cream. The vanilla ice cream is a premium brand, and there are five sweet-and-sour lychees for a nice flavor contrast. It’s a simple dessert, but it makes a soothing ending to a meal with such vibrant flavors.

The only two disappointments had nothing to do with food. First, the restrooms upstairs could do with a refresh, including a lick of paint and better storage solutions.

Our second complaint was with the service, but again, we can’t fault our waitress, who was friendly and attentive before she was overwhelmed by customers. We see it time and time again in Halifax when dining rooms get unexpectedly busy. Restaurants do themselves no favors when they take everyone who comes through the door if it makes service slow to a crawl. It’s not fair to staff, and it’s not fair to customers. It hurts the restaurant’s word-of-mouth advertising.

But we still believe that Baan Thai is just the sort of place that Halifax needs. Thai food is trendy, and with good reason. It’s fresh, it’s flavorful, and it’s created and served by people who take great pride in their culture and cuisine. Baan Thai proves that this trend just might have staying power.

Review of Trinity

January 12, 2007 § 2 Comments

1333 South Park Street
Halifax, Nova Scotia
423 8428

While it may be Bill Spurr’s idea of heaven, it’s not good enough for us. In his column describing his Nova Scotia dining highlights for 2006, Spurr— The Chronicle-Herald‘s Bourgeois Gourmet columnist— proclaimed Trinity Halifax’s best restaurant. Trust us, dear reader, it’s no such thing.

Trinity sits on Park Victoria’s ground floor— a space formerly occupied by Le Bistro and Spice. The dining room is attractive. It’s painted in dark colors and small lamps glint from the tables, and a tree strewn with fairy lights twinkles nearby. The room could easily have been dim, but instead it feels cosy. The high-backed booth we choose contributes to that feeling.

Our server is affable, and he has his patter down very well. He’s been lauded in both The Chronicle-Herald and The Coast, and he’s certainly good at making customers feel welcome.

We start with drinks, then order the Vietnamese Spring Rolls and Sweet Potato Fries with Curry Mayonnaise. They arrive quickly, but only mine is notable. The Sweet Potato Fries are very good— crisp and well-seasoned, and they go down nicely with the mayonnaise, though to call it “curry” is something of a stretch.

The Vietnamese Spring Rolls are solid but not exceptional. They cut tidily into two bites—a welcome quality— and are stuffed with a respectable mixture of snap peas, glass noodles, and carrot, but they lack flavor. And we suspect that the spicy dipping sauce came from a President’s Choice bottle. We expect better.

Before we’re halfway through our appetizers, our server asks if we’re ready for our entrees yet. We’re weren’t, but saying so was a mistake. When our main courses do arrive 15 minutes later, they’ve obviously been under the heat lamp for that long. This doesn’t affect my partner’s Thai Noodle Bowl, but my Crusted Red Snapper— a daily special— is terrible.

The fish is cool, despite its considerable tenure under the lamp. The breading is heavy, soggy, oily; it overwhelms the fish’s delicate nature. The fish itself is overcooked and dry, and the housemade tomato salsa it’s been paired with is wrong for the dish, both discordant and sour. The vegetables— steamed turnip, parsnip and asparagus are well-executed, though, and the Duchess Potato is innocuous.

My partner’s dish is better. The Thai Noodle Bowl hasn’t skimped on the peanuts or the shrimp, and they’re the brawniest jumbo shrimp I’ve seen in ages. The rice noodles are nicely cooked, and the peppers and water chestnuts add nice texture. My only quibble is that the peanut sauce is a bit too sweet, inhibiting any Thai-style contrast of flavors.

More disappointment follows. Although the room still isn’t busy, our service begins to suffer. Our server goes so far as to pause and return our dinner forks when he clears away our entrees. Apparently we don’t deserve new silverware for dessert.

The menu boasts that all sweets are made in-house by executive chef Tony Hiltz, which is a good sign. Frozen desserts are served in restaurants all over Metro— but not in the good ones. My partner orders the French Apple Tart, and I have the Mile-High Coconut Pie. The tart is flaky, with pleasant cinnamon flavor, but that’s the height of its charm. The apples are mushy and it seems like the chef forgot the salt. My coconut pie is certainly mile-high, but it’s goopy and gelatinous, with no discernible coconut flavor. They’re utterly forgettable desserts.

So, for those keeping score at home, we ordered six items, but only two were good. After tax and tip, we paid $98, and that’s just not right. Trinity embodies what’s wrong with the dining scene in Halifax and Nova Scotia: they assume we’ll settle for less. The room is pretty enough, and the service is good, but a restaurant lives and dies on the food coming from the kitchen.

Trinity is in a central location that caters to tourists in summer, and we don’t want them to think this is all that Atlantic Canada’s largest city has to offer. And when an influential critic at the province’s largest newspaper repeatedly sings the praises of a mediocre restaurant, what message does that send?

We deserve better— and we know that Trinity can do better.

—for Infomonkey

In which I question my carefully-held world views

January 7, 2007 § Leave a comment

I like to have at least one fiction and nonfiction book going all the time, and so I read a lot of histories, I suppose because people interest me on a more basic level than sciences or self-help. I like speculating about the many-generations-removed ancestors of people I see on the street— Whose grandfather fought the Crusades? Whose grandmother was Inka aristocracy? Whose uncle helped draft the Míng Code?— and so on, because even when they’re not recorded, our family trees go back and back and back.

And while nonfiction can paint a broader picture and provide vital context to events and personalities, for me at least, it can’t demonstrate the character of a period as fiction can. I really felt the impossibility of the Congolese plight after I read The Poisonwood Bible. Despite the terrific effort of my World History teacher, the machinations of Claudian Dynasty seemed hazy till I read I, Claudius, and I knew nothing about twentieth-century South Africa before apartheid before I read Cry, The Beloved Country.

I know that this feeling of familiarity is wrong-headed. It’s the nature (and definition) of fiction to be untrue, to exaggerate and distort, because drama and conflict make good reading. Maybe the novel is written in the first person. Maybe a bit of revisionism helps the author drive his point home. Whatever the case, I do realize fiction is fiction, and can’t be trusted— or treated— as fact. But doesn’t the same hold true for nonfiction?

A human is still relaying human events, and however hard the scholar tries, her biases and opinions do color her prose, inadvertently or not, through word choice or omission or deliberate distortion. So how true are nonfiction histories? How true should we expect them to be? And since human history is made up of billions of individuals’ subjective experiences, is there an objective truth to be had?

So, if we can never see the whole picture or understand the entire truth, is good historical fiction less worthy of study than historical nonfiction? History seems much richer, much more human when explored through narrative, or through the lens of one person’s eyes. In the manner of Herodotus, really. Which is what my World History teacher was getting at, I think.

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