A series of fortunate events found me accompanying my wife on an Air Canada direct flight from Pearson to St. John’s Newfoundland last Saturday afternoon. With some last minute scrambling, I managed to secure a few reservations or otherwise snaggle a table at some of that city’s better restaurants. This was a bit of a dream come true, as I had met some of St. John’s rising star chefs on their visits to Toronto, and even tasted some of their cooking at events like the Terroir Symposium, and had written about their modern takes on traditional Newfoundland cuisine on this website and in freelance pieces for magazines like Chatelaine and Fresh Juice… I just hadn’t actually managed to get to any of them. With three days and nights I managed to fix this glaring omission, and I ate three remarkable meals at, more or less, three levels. (Full disclosure: while I was not a guest of the house in any of the establishments below, I consider Jeremy Bonia and Jeremy Charles to be friends and Todd Perrin a friendly acquaintance.)
Super Fancy Level: Raymond’s
I get why food and travel writers from away gush about Raymond’s, and I’ll do my best to add to that body of work. On the Saturday night my wife and I dined there, co-owners Jeremy Bonia, who manages the front of the house, and Chef Jeremy Charles, were offsite, volunteering their time by cooking at a fundraiser. Two stars of the house might have been gone, but a third was most certainly there: the room. Raymond’s dining room takes up half the ground floor of a 150 year old downtown building (that the Jeremy’s converted from dereliction) that overlooks St. John’s Harbour with a view across to Signal Hill and the Narrows into the Atlantic Ocean. High-ceilinged with enormous picture windows facing out, we watched the harbour darken until it was alight and we traced the movement of ships coming in from the east by the twinkling of their lights. To describe it as romantic verges on understatement. Oh, and the food is really good, too! As is the service impeccable. We leisurely romped through a four course tasting menu, the highlights (for me) were the opening seafood plate and a duck breast perfectly cooked and paired to an older vintage Barolo. Locally sourced, the food was smart, well balanced for flavour and interesting – lovage made it’s way onto two plates. One of the ways, I think, one can separate a great high-end restaurant from a run of the mill one, is how one feels after the meal. Despite what seemed like indulgent gluttony, we both felt full, but not stuffed by the meal’s end. In fact, I was able to happily sip through a local lager at Raymond’s charming bar, at the front of the building, where we caught up with Jeremy and Jeremy after the meal.
Pretty Fancy Level: Mallard Cottage
Lest one mistake Mallard Cottage’s name for some kind folksy marketing ploy, chef Todd Perrin’s restaurant is named after the 200+ year old building it’s housed in. Perrin opened Mallard Cottage last November after a few trials and tribulations including a fire. In these few months, outside of the tourist season, no less, his restaurant’s tables are some of the hardest to come by in the city. Mallard Cottage is divided into to sections. At the front are two cozy wood paneled rooms divided by a fire place, at the back a large wooden raftered room and open kitchen that looks out onto a porch and the restaurant’s vegetable gardens. Ingredients are local or house made, and while the atmosphere is decidedly informal (our menu was written out in pen on paper) the cooking is sophisticated. We went for Sunday brunch (spinach frittata with house made bacon(s) and sausage), in part because of the off-timing of our visit (my wife had to be in St. John’s specifically over certain dates), but also because Mallard Cottage’s location in the old fishing village of Quidi Vidi means that can be reached by breathtaking hike down from Signal Hill along the crashing surf of the Atlantic Ocean. (Of course, we ended up taking the wrong path which led us back to downtown St. John’s, but Mallard Cottage was a five minute cab ride, anyway.)
Not So Fancy Level: The Duke of Duckworth
we asked the two Jeremy’s and Todd Perrin where we ought to go for St. John’s “best fish’n’chips”. All three said The Duke of Duckworth. The Duke is a pub nestled in one of the staired “coves” or pedestrian walkways that link Water Street uphill to Duckworth Street. It’s not much to look at from outside, and maybe a little less from within. As we entered the door into the pub our first vision was of a line of lottery machines. There were football (as in soccer) flags hanging on the ceiling and a row of what looked to be industrial beer taps at the bar. But our impression began to change when we ordered local Quidi Vidi Brewery pints of Iceberg Pilsner, began to transform into hopeful anticipation when we were given our own squeeze bottle of tartar sauce with our malt vinegar, and quickly turned to reverence on the first mouthful of deep fried cod. The fish was fresh, maybe the freshest cod I’ve ever had. The batter was light and crispy and the fry oil pure and light. The flesh of the cod flaked perfectly and was moist on the tongue, and the flavour was clean and just slightly metallic. So good.