- JESSICA EMIN
Mappatura, 5883 Spring Garden Road, $12/$22
Carbonara is a dish that so many restaurants make, but so few seem to nail. From cream sauces that claim to be carbonara to sauces with scrambled egg to thin, watery undercooked sauce, this supposedly simple dish can also easily be botched.
Mappatura chef and co-owner Terry Vassallo says it's all about the eggs: "If we had to buy eggs from Sobeys we wouldn't make carbonara." He and his wife Simone Mombourquette, the front of house manager and host extraordinaire, visit the Warehouse Market on Isleville Street weekly to purchase local eggs with rich yolks, like those from Holdanca Farms. A good carbonara is made with a sauce that is a silky fusion of egg yolk, aged cheese and pork fat added to a warm pan, with hot drained noodles whose success relies much on the fine balance of temperature and the watchful eye of the cook. ("At the sight of a curdle we dump it out," says Vassallo.) A few seconds too long, or one notch too high on the burner can be pivotal.
Turning a fork in this glossy pasta, you can almost hear the saucy noodles as they slither together, every millimetre coated in a yolky lacquer. Each bite is perfectly seasoned, cracked pepper punctuates with earthy spice and the green onions on top add zip.
Onion ring burger
Extreme Pizza, 5970 Spring Garden Road, $7
Some food is situational, and we dare you to find a better burger delivered to your door at 3am than this one. (The McDouble aside—it's in a whole category of its own for steadfast deliciousness.) The onion ring burger has all the staples of a works burger—a thin patty, steamy sesame bun, American cheese, mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, bacon—but adds a few fun extras like vinegary hot sauce and an onion ring. When everyone else is picking up the phone for pizza during a late night with friends, go for the ORB. There is a time for a fancy burger, or a dry-aged local beef burger (see page 12) and then there's a time—perhaps while watching stand-up comedy after a few puffs of Great White from NSLC Cannabis—for a hot, tasty mess like this one.
Marinated mussels and beans on sourdough
Bar Kismet, 2733 Agricola Street, $13
Does your mouth water at the mere thought of dill pickle or salt-and-vinegar chips? If so, this might be a new favourite for you—an elevated dish for the person who stands at the refrigerator door, eating sauerkraut or preserved beans out of the jar. A mound of steamed, shelled mussels marinated in wine, a mix of vinegars, chilis and mussel cooking broth, mixed with tender gigante beans, sits atop a slice of garlicky grilled bread. There's just the right amount of delicious juice to begin soaking into the slice without making a soggy mess. The dish has a mouth-puckering acidity balanced by the rich tender mussels and buttery beans. A weighty white or orange wine from Kismet's list will make a perfect partner.
"Coming out of the winter I was really craving foods that were cold and refreshing, but not necessarily raw," says chef and co-owner Annie Brace-Lavoie on her inspiration for the dish. "Dishes that were substantial but felt bright, and didn't bog you down."
Dhaba Express, 8 Oland Crescent, $15
So saucy, so spicy. This is the sort of dish that makes you feel like you're buzzing on a different frequency. Warm spice and chilis mingle and build until your ears are warm, and your heart too. Touches of citrus and vinegar in the sauce are refreshing; the chicken is juicy. The way to eat this dish is with a mango lassi on the side—the sweet fragrant and tangy mango and yogurt drink entices you to keep eating and cools you down. A vehicle like a garlic and cilantro tandoori naan or saffron rice is a good idea too, for sopping up all the wet goodness.
Shredded potato salad
Qiu Brothers Dumplings, 1335 Barrington Street, $5
Vinegar lovers, rejoice! Simplicity wins big points once again with this habit-forming side dish. Shredded potato salad is quite literally just that, a plate piled high (think a bonfire of julienned potato and carrot) with super skinny starchy strips, soaked in oil and vinegar, speckled with chilis and garlic. Would and could eat this forever, but luckily there's a slew of top-notch dumplings to stop that from happening. —Allison Saunders
- JESSICA EMIN
Pork belly and jalapeno
Red Asian Fusion, 5169 South Street, $18
"The dish starts with heating the wok with some vegetable oil, we throw the pork belly in with some soy sauce, dash of sugar, hoisin sauce...finally we throw in some freshly peeled garlic and the jalapeno to finish the dish," says Gigi Yu, of co-owner and chef Jacky Yu's plate. The Szechuan-style main is as sweet and salty as it is spicy, but somehow no flavour overpowers the other—they're all bold and punchy, competing for attention. The pork belly pieces are thin, crispy and sticky. The pork fat is pleasantly tender. Slices of jalapeno that have been lightly caramelized on the outside but retain a green freshness bring great heat, and every few bites a salty, fermented black bean makes an appearance. The sauce and oil make this dish great with rice, which soaks it all up.
"We believe what makes the dish so good is the balanced mix of spices and flavour," says Yu. "It's even better when paired with beer."
- JESSICA EMIN
LF Bakery, 2063 Gottingen Street, $3.75
Amidst the Technicolor frosting and marshmallow filling of Gottingen Street, a sugar-dusted fried-dough option has quietly emerged that supersedes the rest. Made daily using a light brioche dough, LF's traditional beignets are a perfect baked good. Bakery manager Ludovic Eveno has a few guesses why: "They are less sweet, made in small batches, we only use fresh ingredients, we make our own filling—jam, dulce de lèche, house-made Nutella," he says. That ability to be sweet without being too cloying is what makes these fluffy little flavour explosions crave-worthy, understated delicacies. They're at their best when the filling offers a pop of tartness (see raspberry, black currant and apricot) and they don't give a hoot how they look on your Instagram. —AS
Wontons in spicy sauce
9 + nine Chinese Cuisine, 480 Parkland Drive, $12
There's something about the tingle. The mouth-watering, lip-searing tingle of a really solid spicy dish. And this is one of them. The pork-filled dumplings at the heart of this plate would likely be great on their own, but it's the singeing "spicy sauce" that puts them over the edge, simultaneously leaving you wanting a drink and also more. A mix of light and dark soy sauce, sugar, sesame paste, star anise oil and chili oil makes the magic happen for this dish, one you'll want to share for sure. Be warned that a day-two reheat is double the pleasure (and double the fire) and that the rogue dried chilis are best if avoided. The gifts that Parkland Drive has given us are plentiful, and that's largely thanks to this little, nearly always jam-packed restaurant.
- JESSICA EMIN
The Boss pizza
Yeah Yeahs Pizza, 66 Ochterloney Street, $23 ($5/slice)
You could go for a fancy pizza or a take-out pizza, but it's great when you can have the best of both worlds. The pies Yeah Yeahs pumps out bridge that gap. Here, you get the quality of your favourite sit-down pizza joint with an unfussy atmosphere and prices that compete with late-night greasy slice spots. The best is The Boss—tomato sauce, mozzarella, feta, roasted poblano peppers, white onion and chorizo sausage. It's like if The Works was going on a date and put on its best shirt and shoes. Owners Josh Nordin and Dean Petty tested countless sauces, meats, flours and recipes before arriving at what they have today.
The dough is a 24-hour (sometimes longer) process, including time proofing in and out of the fridge before it actually gets inside the oven. "Controlling and understanding the temperatures makes all the difference," says Nordin. The result is a crispy, thin New York-style slice with a bubbly crust.
The Boss wins over pepperoni or cheese because it just has more going on, but not too much. The sauce is deep, the feta makes the cheese mixture more exciting and savoury, the poblanos have delicious char and more complex flavour than a simple green pepper, chorizo brings the kick and white onion brightens the whole pie up.
- JESSICA EMIN
Le French Fix Pâtisserie, 5233 Prince Street, $5.25
Not too big, not too small, not too sweet, just right. The chocolate bar—a staple on the dessert and pastry menu at Le French Fix—is an experience in pastry expertise and seven years of recipe refining. A brick of velvety smooth chocolate mousse under a reflective blanket of chocolate glaze is the soft contrast to a crunchy thin base of caramel pecan and almond cacao cake. This gluten-free dessert “will always be the same—same quality of product and same look” like the ones pastry chef Geoffrey Chevallier admires in Paris shop windows. He aims for consistency for his clientele. This dessert is your excuse to take an afternoon to yourself.
- JESSICA EMIN
Water & Bone, 5687 Charles Street, $17
Ramen is a bit of a heavy vibe in the summer, hot broth and all, but this is summer ramen, all fresh and cold and full of zip, sans broth. Rare slices of tuna, cold-poached clams in their shells, cold-marinated scallop, pickled cucumber, lemon, bonito, pickled shallot, narutomaki and marinated egg with a perfectly jammy yolk all top cold ramen noodles, tossed in tosazu. The noodles in their sauce are bright, citrusy, tangy and refreshing. And although it's a large portion, this meal comes off fresh, elegant and light.
- JESSICA EMIN
Cafe Good Luck, 145 Portland Street, $12
Brunch decisions can be disappointing. You want the heavy, protein-rich breakfast, but you go for something lighter and feel unsatisfied, or you go for the hearty choice and feel sluggish and bogged down.
The breakfast salad, with layers of Off Beet Farm's mixed greens, Japanese salad turnips, peas, ramp pesto, creamy dressing, a soft egg and chilled confit potatoes (with an option to add bacon or toast) doesn't make you take sides. Chef and owner Emma Adamski says the dish—inspired by what Good Luck staff were making themselves for lunch, using what was already on the line—is the kind of meal she feels like eating most days.
Small details can take a salad from boring to delicious. The breakfast salad boasts amazing dressing that coats every leaf, crunchy veggies, nice egg yolk, house-made bread and the flavourful pesto garnish. "The dressing is a buttermilk herb—think ranch, but not—that I toss with the greens using my hands to make sure there is just enough," says Adamski. "Each phase of eating the salad provides a new opportunity for dunking, swirling or combining different flavours and textures."
This dish is fresh and light, but fun and indulgent, too. No need for a nap after this, you can keep the wheels on your day.
Stillwell, 1672 Barrington Street. $9
There is no better burger in this city. Some others come close, but end up being either far more expensive, less tasty or less local. This burger is easy to describe: A bun with a thin smashed beef patty, soft local fior di latte cheese and mushroom Duxelles. It isn't hiding behind 15 condiments and toppings.
"Everything that distracts from the 'burger' ideal has been stripped away, and the parts that are left have been concentrated," says chef Graeme Ruppel. "The same quantity of flavour comes across in just a couple bites, as opposed to spread out through a larger burger." Like the Duxelles, a finely chopped mushroom and vegetable mixture with seasoning and cream that's cooked down to nearly a paste, then spread onto the patty.
The meat in this burger is incredibly tender, funky and flavourful. "We use Getaway Farm ground beef, which is grass-fed and dry-aged for three weeks to get the deepest flavour I've found in Nova Scotia beef," Ruppel says. The dry-ageing process reduces water content and concentrates flavour. He also doesn't mix anything into his ground beef and works it as little possible, for a patty that's "loosely shaped, seasoned on the outside and pressed onto the griddle and left until a good crust forms on the first side," says Ruppel. "We use a drywalling spatula to scrape the patty up, turn it over and dress it."
The Diner burger has been on the menu since Stillwell opened, and when that beautiful little tin pan with a parchment bag comes to you, it's a heavenly place to be.
- JESSICA EMIN
Field Guide, 2076 Gottingen Street, $6.50
Have you ever had bao? Think of a flour taco if it was left to rise because the filling wanted a nice warm dough cloud to rest on. You're going to want to order two of these, then bite through the soft steamed dough into shiitake and button mushrooms sauteed with sweet-salty miso glaze and tart, house-made vegetarian kimchi.
"Instead of using fish sauce, I used fermented pineapple juice to reduce waste and get that funk without using fish products," says chef Natalie Rosen, who repurposes pineapple juice from the bar. The bao buns, traditionally mixed with pork fat, are made with butter to keep them vegetarian-friendly. Three bites of drippy-kimchi-juice, harissa mayo-laden meatless perfection.
- JESSICA EMIN
Tuna roll and hand roll
Kitsune Food Co., 5710 Young Street, $6
Ami Goto, the chef and owner at Kitsune, attributes the quality of her sushi to the small operation—she makes or cuts every piece of sushi, maki and sashimi that comes out of her kitchen. If you want sushi that’s deep-fried, or stuffed with fruit and cream cheese, this is not the spot for you. Here, the rice and fish are the stars.
The tuna roll, especially if you ask for it in a cone-shaped hand roll, is simply delicious. Your teeth break through the papery, crispy nori into the bouncy rice and clean bright fish.
The freshness of the fish is paramount. “I only want enough for that day,” says Goto. Her rice is also made 10 to 15 times a day, in small batches. This is no-fuss, no-nonsense, great sushi with no unnecessary bells and whistles, served and prepared by the owner who really gives a damn about the details. With only four seats in the space it’s best to show up close to opening and maybe fly solo, or order take out.
- JESSICA EMIN
Marinated cucumber salad
El Chino, 2398 Robie Street, $8
"It's delicious, it's refreshing, it's addictive," says chef Heman Lee, summing up his marinated cukes with a perfect simplicity reminiscent of the dish itself. It might not look like there's much going on in this bowl, but these paper-thin tendrils of crisp cucumber soak up every bit of spicy, acidic kick the garlicky, chili-infused vinegary sauce has to offer, all the while retaining their palate-cleansing crunch. A perfect sidekick to a fattier menu item, like the pork belly bao.
Highwayman, 1673 Barrington Street, $12
A staple on its Spanish "classic snacks" menu, croquetas are dumpling-sized quenelles covered in housemade bread crumbs and filled with a gooey interior of béchamel sauce and egg yolk, whipped with flavours that rotate: Cauliflower, jamon, chorizo, mushroom. As if the buttery interior wasn't opulent enough, it's served with garlic aioli. This incredible snack is an ideal way to begin an evening of grazing on tapas, and pairs well with a bright, zippy cocktail, like the Highwayman's Green Cobbler, a mix of gin, green chartreuse, fino sherry, cucumber, lemon and soda.
Steamed ginger pork buns
Kee Heong Cantonese Bakery & Dim Sum, 1532 Granville Street, $3.50
A downtown lunch or early dinner option that's delicious, fast and doesn't break the bank. The steamed dumpling-style buns come in sets of four, packed with pork and bright, assertive ginger flavour. A few orders of these buns, with a warm tea (and perhaps a sweet pastry for afterwards), is delightful.
Song's Korean Restaurant, 6249 Quinpool Road, $16
There's nothing better than a dish that's suitable for any time of day, and bibimbap is that—a perfect brunch, lunch or dinner option that'll fill you up without weighing you down. And better than just any bibimbap is one served in a sizzling stone bowl, its rice actively getting crispier with each squeeze of gochujang, each mouthful of yolk-soaked steamed veg. Well-worn Quinpool stalwart Song's—a skinny restaurant tucked into the strip of businesses—is one of the Korean standouts in town, and a cool option for this hot dish.
Chicken shawarma plate
Ray's Lebanese Cuisine, 75 Akerley Boulevard and 120 Susie Lake Crescent, $12
I don't know what's more comforting: The heaping chicken shawarma plate, or Ray's friendly greeting and smile when you walk up to his counter. This is a Halifax institution and rightfully so, with service that matches the food. If you don't have time to cook a meal, pull off at Ray's on your way home for this well balanced plate of layered flavours that you can eat in or take home. The chicken is tender and coated in warm spice, the creamy baba ghanoush bright and lemony, the tabouli fresh and simple.
With all the components dancing on this plate, the textures and sauces, no two bites are alike—bold garlic sauce and chicken is followed by tangy pickled turnip. Mix it all up. These flavours are meant to live together.