A true destination bar and eatery in Downtown Dartmouth

The menu has garlic fingers, and I’m already excited — it’s a Wednesday evening, and I’m at The Watch That Ends the Night. I settle into my window seat and take in the fantastic view of Halifax from King’s Wharf; it’s the hottest night of the year and the unbearable heat of the day is finally burning off. Almost on cue, the jazz trio strikes up as two cold, shiny pink flutes of rosé champagne are dropped off at the table. This is going to be fun.

“I want to be that staple, that institution — where every time you come here, you have a good experience, great service, great food.” Says Mark Gray, owner and executive chef at The Watch. We caught up the previous day when the restaurant was closed, and quiet, about his aspirations, being a first-time business owner, and the new, more sustainable menu.

Gray took over from previous owners Joe and Bethany Gurba, with whom he opened the restaurant in the role of head chef, in November 2017. Prior, Gray racked up culinary awards and accolades, working with the Brooklyn group for eight years — learning from his bosses George and Leo Christakos about the trials and tribulations of running restaurants. “I can’t say enough about George and Leo, who really shaped me into the chef and the person that I am today,” says Gray.

Riley Maggs, Mark Gray, Janie Bogardus

Tonight, though it’s a Wednesday, is not quiet. It’s surprisingly busy, in fact. Gray suggests I order Sober Island oysters. I start with half a dozen. Topped with a small amount of strawberry champagne granita, they are lovely. The granita (like icy slush but made with real flavours) captures the strawberry essence without holding too much sweetness, complementing the briny and salty oysters. A fantastic start.

“It’s a huge blessing to have her on board. She’s killin’ it.” Says Gray of his head chef Janie Bogardus. The menu itself is an indication that Bogardus is having a blast in her new role (she was promoted from sous chef to head chef after the ownership transition in May). Comfort food and even guilty pleasures make an appearance, but with clever twists. “[Bogardus] is super ambitious, super smart, she has taken this role on like you wouldn’t believe,” says Gray.

Bogardus’ version of garlic fingers arrive at the table: homemade naan slathered in ramp butter, topped with melted Cow’s aged cheddar and a heavy dose of freshly chopped parsley. The oniony-yet-garlicky flavour of the ramps is the perfect upgrade for garlic fingers, with the fresh herbs brightening up the heaviness of butter and cheese. I would come back just for these.

Ground beef tacos arrive — one bite in, and I am smiling. I can taste the familiar cumin and chilli flavours in the ground beef. Reminiscent of a taco kit, but served in a house-made white tortilla, topped with lettuce, aged cheddar and salsa verde. Another improvement on a nostalgic dish and I am loving it.

The Watch opened as a cocktail bar, and the reputation they’ve built around their bar program isn’t going anywhere. Tonight I’m trying a strawberry negroni that swaps out gin for white Louisiana rum and uses Luxardo Bitter Bianco and Cocchi Americano, plus muddled strawberries. It’s harmonious, balanced, and utterly satisfying.

The best thing about dining with a partner is getting to try more food. Two main plates arrive, and it’s splitsies all the way. The black olive gnocchi is seared crispy on the outside and remains dreamily light and fluffy on the inside. It offers only a subtle black olive flavour but takes on fantastic colour. The gnocchi is on top of a vibrant green smear of pumpkin seed pesto, and is sautéed with sun-dried tomatoes, tiny mushrooms and roasted shallots, topped with crumbled, salty goat cheese. The brightness of the green pesto, in both flavour and colour, really brings everything together for this dish.

The schnitzel just looks like a big bowl of comfort, and tastes it, too. Atop a generous helping of creamy polenta sits crunchy breaded pork schnitzel, cut in two and stacked — the entire dish swimming in grainy mustard jus — and is topped with crispy shallots and sliced pepperoncini (spicy pickled peppers). The addition of heat and acid is a welcome touch to the extremely rich, round flavours of the rest of the dish. I could eat this every day.

“Joe and Bethany [Gurba] laid such a great foundation for me to start,” says Gray. “To build the space, get the chairs. [Me] not having to do that, and walk into this beautiful space — it was a really easy transition.” He indicates the custom-made mahogany bar, complemented by rich blue, patterned wallpaper; the clean, vinyl-topped tables in blue and woodgrain, and a soft banquette around the perimeter that is a light moss green. Houseplants are nostalgically scattered throughout. The atmosphere really plays on your emotions, setting the stage for both comfort and sophistication — a great match to the food and drink offering here.

Luckily I’ve saved room for the finisher… the s’more sundae. I can spot thick streaks of smoked, salted caramel inside the glass dish that’s filled with house-made chocolate ice cream and topped with torched marshmallow. Spicy, ginger graham crisps stick out of the top. Do I even have to say this was good? It’s a s’more, in sundae form. The head bartender, Riley Maggs, drops off an aged sherry to pair with it and it is spot on — he then happily sticks around to teach us a thing or two about sherries, even bringing over tasters of different styles.

Having toured the tiny kitchen at The Watch just the day before, I now know that Gray isn’t kidding when he says they are pushing themselves to the limit with their relatively small menu. Bogardus is doing something phenomenal in such a small space and using just a household stove. Plus she changes up about 30 percent of the items weekly, to ensure something interesting for the regulars; using local ingredients is a given — both meat and produce — and what’s available seasonally in Nova Scotia shapes the menu.

The nightcap cocktail at The Watch is called Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat His Cereal. The bar team has made cornflake cereal milk — a nod to Momofuku Milk Bar in New York. Gosling’s Black Seal rum, Amaro Averna, Demerara, coffee and cacao bitters, plus egg white — it arrives frothy and tastes like a bitter, boozy cup of chocolate milk. It is excellent followed by a bite of corn flakes, which come on the side. Meme humour is the best way to finish any meal, especially one this playful throughout. If everyone keeps having this much fun, I have no doubt The Watch will turn into the neighbourhood institution that Gray hopes it will be.