Halifax is home to dozens of Chinese restaurants, but few that we’d recommend.
Frankly, consensus is hard to come by, with some food lovers swearing by The Great Wall, and others holding China Classic in the highest esteem. Others still appreciate King Wah, a tiny place with a handful tables, that still quotes an old review of mine on the menu, 15 years after the fact.
We prefer Cheelin, in the Brewery Market, for serving impeccably fresh ingredients, and cooking most dishes to order. We also like Cheelin for what it doesn’t add. One unfortunate problem with being a migraineur is that it comes with a heightened sensitivity to MSG that other patrons might not notice. We simply can’t enjoy the restaurants favored by The Coast readers, or recommended by Nova Scotia’s three or four restaurant critics, such as they are.
We believe that Cheelin is virtuous and worthy in letting the food speak for itself, and now we can recommend North China Restaurant for that very same reason. The dining room is located at 1252 Hollis Street, in the space deserted by the Hamachi Steak House. It sits next to the Trident Café, just a hop, skip, and a jump from the Nova Scotia Westin.
The menu is broad enough to interest diners who are tired of the same old Szechuan and Cantonese fare, but many dishes are familiar, so patrons don’t have to throw all caution to the wind.
We found choosing difficult. Dishes like green onion shredded duck and Tonpo-style stewed pork leg aren’t often seen in eastern Canada, and wait staff are delighted when customers are curious. They understand every dish, and can answer any questions you might have. We order a few staid dishes, and a few new ones so we could see where the kitchen wanted to take us.
The vegetable spring roll is just as you'd expect, cooked to a crisp, and filled with veggies and glass noodles. But the thin dipping sauce was unexpected, almost Vietnamese in style, with sweet, tart and fragrant flavors raising our level of satisfaction.
Chicken-corn soup was something of a surprise, and that's why it's getting more attention here than it might deserve. The small bowl could easily serve two, with the first few spoonfuls suggesting sweet, creamy simplicity that might seem boring. But there was more here than meets the eye, with soft egg, tender strips of chicken, and chewy rice adding unexpected textures. When the waitress brought a generous bowl of condiment —comprised of oil, chillies, sesame seeds, soya, and szechuan peppercorns — a healthy dollop transformed our soup into a rich, spicy, colorful appetizer. Without that enhancement, I'm not sure I'd order it again.
The main courses ranged from good to excellent, and portions are more than generous. Fried noodles with vegetables is a simple dish, but when it's cooked in a scorching wok, it gains smoky overtones, and who doesn't love Asian noodles? Chinese comfort food, well done.
Sauteed shredded duck in hot sauce an ambitious dish. Crunchy veggies, savory slices of duck, and crisp pieces of skin are just the beginning. Cooked in a rich, oily sauce that has elements of fire, smoke, and something hauntingly like citrus — perhaps from Szechuan peppercorns. It's a strong dish, though less oil would have made it even better.
With a nod to Canadian food guidelines, we scanned the veggie section, but it's North China Restaurant's weakest. We finally settled on mixed vegetables, sauteed in a sweetish brown sauce, perhaps a little better than you'd get in other Chinese restaurants in the HRM. Some might complain about canned baby corn and water chestnuts, but it is winter, after all. With few a more fresh veggies, this could be a nice mild offering to offset the spicier fare.
Quick-fried fish with nuts is brilliant: Fresh haddock is perfectly cooked, in a savory, spicy sauce that still intrigues me, days later. The peanuts — not a garnish, but integral to the dish — contribute an earthiness the light fish and sauce lack, and it all comes together admirably. Such a fine offering in a city where seafood can be overcooked and dry.
We've returned to North China Restaurant twice for Dim Sum, and we're equally impressed. It's the city's best, with everything you might expect in a small city, and a few surprises like chicken feet (which we only expect to see in places like Toronto and Vancouver). Again, we made ample use of the condiment our waitress brought to add to our enjoyment, and we'd happily try everything again, including a decent sticky rice, delicious green onion pancakes, and crunchy, spicy shrimp. (Although the spicy shrimp wasn't very spicy, we still enjoyed it).
North China is doing so many things well. Service is friendly and attentive, though not formal, and little touches abound to lift it out of the ordinary. One note worth mentioning is that wait staff don't present a bill to the table; customers pay just before leaving.
We think you should visit North China Restaurant soon, before the word gets out. And we recommend that you bring a few friends, so you can sample a wide variety of Chinese dishes that will surely satisfy.
North China Restaurant
1252 Hollis Street