Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Mary's Place and Mary's Place II

A few weeks ago, I took my first trip out of town since last February when I'd flown to Berkeley via San Francisco. People had warned me that veganism is old hat to many Bay area eating establishments and that I would find myself delightedly overwhelmed with choices when I ventured out.

In recent years, I've seen an increase in vegan options being made available in my tiny city's eateries. Most of this has been the result of new Middle Eastern or Asian restaurants opening and of the establishment of a vegan-friendly vegetarian juice bar/bistro called Nirvana (whose Facebook page is frequently speckled with enthusiastic promises of free hugs to patrons by its young yoga-fiend staff). 

I'd visited Halifax last year and had fallen in love with Heartwood (which I visited again last month. I made it out to the Wooden Monkey again this year for their Daiya smothered organic blue corn chip nachos, too. I'd hoped to venture out and visit 2-3 other places, but my trip ended up shorter than anticipated so I decided to stop in someplace that had come highly recommended through members of the Nova Scotia Vegan Association. That place was Mary's Place at 2752 Robie St in Halifax's north end.


The word "unobtrusive" comes to mind to describe Mary's Place. From the outside, it looks like any other little diner in an area of the city much less prone to drawing tourists. I almost missed it during my wanderings since I'd forgotten to jot down its street number. I stepped into what was, in effect, a quirky little diner with the low drone of a television from its cash register area competing with the Middle Eastern music spilling out from the kitchen, sometimes with sporadic sing-a-long thrown in for good measure by the wait staff while cleaning tables.

At 3 pm in the afternoon, I was one of five customers chowing down.
I was greeted almost immediately with a glass of water as I sat down to look around. Mary's Place is by no means a vegan restaurant and its menu was loaded with everything from a greasy all-day breakfast offering to hamburgers and meat kabobs. However, I'd come for what I'd been told was the wide variety of vegan options on the menu which I'd been promised had some of the best Syrian food in the city.

A few items on the board.

Chatty diners. (Nice 'stache!)
One of the neatest aspects of its menu involves a section of 21 vegan dishes from which you can pick any three to assemble a plate. The choices ranged from tabouli, foul salad (i.e. fava beans), stuffed grape leaves and veggie kafta to stewed tomato okra, lentil soup and veggie chili. I ordered the the fattoush, veggie kafta and baba ghanoush, It came with flat bread, a dollop of hummus, pickled turnip and some complimentary coffee -- all for around $8.50 plus tax and tip. The fattoush was really tasty and the baba ghanoush was some of the best I've ever had. The veggie kafta was a little bland -- sort of like mushy falafel without the seasoning, which was no surprise given that it's mostly bulgar (with red and green pepper, garlic and herbs). It went pretty well with the hummus and pickled turnip, though. One thing is for certain: It was a whole heap of relatively healthy and very yummy food -- and cheap!

I liked it so much, in fact, that when my host Mike and I met up for a cup of coffee at Humani-T Cafe to discuss where to go for dinner my last night in the city, I suggested that we try out its newer second location, Mary's Place Café II at 5982 Spring Garden Rd, so that I could compare and contrast the two.

We showed up at Mary's Place Café II sometime after 7 pm on a Tuesday. In a popular location closer to a few of Halifax's university campuses, this spot definitely had a completely different vibe to it than the original Mary's Place on Robie. It was larger and much, much brighter. It was also licensed. To be honest, I can't for the love of Zeus remember whether there was alcohol of any sort mentioned on the menu at the Robie St location, but it was prominently advertised here on each table. Also, from eyeballing the menu, it seemed more expansive. It also seemed more expensive. The combo dish I'd gotten earlier on Robie St had cost me $8.50 and although I didn't jot it down (hey, I'm no professional restaurant reviewer!) I think the same deal here was for around $10.00 and minus the coffee.

Our enthusiastic and helpful server answered our questions quite patiently and took our orders. Mike and I both opted for a starter dish on the appetizers section of the menu that offered tabouli, falafel, stuffed grape leaves, baba ghanoush, hummus, tahini sauce, garlic sauce and flat bread. The presentation was somewhat more involved than it had been at the original Mary's.

Seriously more involved than it had been at the original Mary's! Sadly, though, my friend and I both agreed that although the sesame seed encrusted heart-shaped falafel added a nice (if corny) touch, they were sort of dry and bready and not what either of us had expected. I regret not having tried the falafel at the other location so that I could have compared the two.

To round things out, we ordered a side of toasted potatoes in garlic sauce that ended up leaving us with waaay too much food for us to finish off. At $5 a huge basket though (some of the ones in the photo below had already migrated to our bellies), they're a scrumptious carb-laden treat to get if you're just looking to split some munchies over a beer.

Will I return to either place when I go back to Halifax? Probably. Mary's Place on Robie St is the sort of spot to which I'd drag an old friend to sit down for a cozy late lunch and conversation over coffee.  Although the service at the second location was awesome and the food was pretty good, the bright lights and student-oriented vibe didn't appeal to me as much. I probably wouldn't squeeze Mary's Place II into a brief visit, but it would be the sort of spot I wouldn't rule out visiting again if I actually lived in the city.

I have to admit, though, that as someone with limited vegan options in my small city that the thought of having either of these places here is definitely appealing. I miss Halifax already.

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