photo Darryl James

First impressions do count, whether you’re meeting or eating. Generally, upon entering a new restaurant, I can size it up and get a pretty good idea of what the dining experience will be like relatively quickly. In the case of my visit to O’Carroll’s, let’s just say it’s a good thing I’ve been here before, because the first thing we have to do on this visit is walk through a cloud of cigarette smoke on the front step of the restaurant (smoking by-law be damned, apparently)—and the offenders turn out to be the bartender and a server.

Once we pass through the cloud of carcinogens, we turn right and choose a table in the Irish pub side; to the left is the intimate, upscale dining room. The bartender is taking care of tables on our side, while her partner-in-crime handles the left.

There’s a small pub menu, but all of the dining room offerings are available in the pub if one desires; it’s a funky Irish-international menu, with traditional offerings sitting next to Thai curries.

We’re feeling both pub food-ish and traditional, so we start with onion hoops ($6.95) and an order of potato chips ($4.95). The potatoes are sliced thin and then deep-fried, served hot. Both appetizers come in straw baskets and each has its own dipping sauce: a roasted garlic sauce for the chips and a creamy horseradish sauce for the rings. The horseradish strikes a nice balance of heat— between interesting and hot-spicy—enough to liven up the fried offerings, but not so hot as to be overwhelming. The dips are interchangeably great for both chips and rings, and these large portions quickly satisfy our grease craving.

Unfortunately, O’Carroll’s usually excellent service appears to be having an off-night. I notice the bartender is paying attention to the few other guests, but we’re almost completely ignored. There are no quality checks, and no offer of a second refill on our drinks.

Our mains finally arrive, fish cakes ($7.50), and steak and kidney pie ($9.25). The fish cakes are made with finnan haddie, the salted and lightly smoked haddock named after a Scottish town. Fried golden-brown and crisp, they’re a fishcake lover’s delight. Not so the leek sauce they sit upon—it has split and is now a curdled pool of ick factor. Fries (of the previously frozen sort) sit on the side.

The steak and kidney pie is unusually presented as a stew between two slices of puff pastry, rather than an enclosed pie. Somewhat disconcertingly, there’s a piece of really tough beef mixed with very tender meat and I wonder how it got there. But overall, it’s a thick, rich gravy and quite enjoyable. Nice roasted potatoes and a lightly sauteed vegetable medley are alongside.

Save for the leek sauce, this is very good food for the money. Another night, another server, and we might have stayed around after dinner to enjoy the live entertainment and a few pints.

As it is, we decide to go back for lunch, again on the pub side, to give the restaurant a second chance. We have the seafood chowder ($6.95) and the lobster bisque ($9.95), both fine representations of what these soups should be—redolent with flavour, thick and creamy but not cloying. Happily, we also have a different server, and the reputed excellent service appears to have returned to O’Carroll’s.

O’Carroll’s 1860 Upper Water Street 423-4405Pub 11am-close Restaurant 5pm-close

Find all of Liz Fetham’s reviews on the web—creamy, but not cloying:

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