Food as art and entertainment makes St. John's, N.L., a dining destination
By Sue Bailey, The Canadian Press
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New Year's Eve at Raymonds restaurant in St. John's, N.L., will feature a luxurious 12-course tasting menu of seafood and wild game crafted by celebrated chef Jeremy Charles.
Each dish is based on a walk-in-the-woods theme and will showcase flavours from throughout the island, paired with wines from around the world.
A bell-ringing $325 per person, including the wine, tax and tip.
A more typical dinner for two at Raymonds — think cornish hen with foie gras jus or pan roasted cod with Jerusalem artichoke puree — will top $300 with appetizer and dessert, depending on which wine you choose from a 42-page list. Bottles range from about $40 to more than $2,000.
It's still a surprise to many people from out of town that fine dining of this calibre not only exists but thrives on the Rock. And while Raymonds is the jewel in this city's culinary crown, it's in fine company with a growing list of restaurants that increasingly delights globe-trotting food lovers.
The offshore oil boom has brought new visitors, executives and wealth to a province famous for its kitchen parties and culture of hospitality.
"Europe, Scandinavia, Japan. People are coming up from all over," said Charles, a soft-spoken and unassuming wizard in chef's whites.
Raymonds, named for his grandfather and the father of restaurant manager and sommelier Jeremy Bonia, was chosen Canada's best new restaurant last year by Air Canada's enRoute inflight magazine.
"I think we take a fairly simple approach with ingredients," Charles said. "We try to forage and source all local Newfoundland ingredients and, if not, Canadian."
Those basic elements include the freshest seafood, moose, rabbit, duck and lamb — grazed in summer on salt grass islands in the North Atlantic — that he infuses with French, Italian or whatever modern twists inspire him.
Charles refined many of those techniques during the decade he spent away, cooking for the Molson and Bronfman families at a remote fly fishing camp in Quebec, and working as a private chef in Chicago and Los Angeles.
"Not everyone's expecting to see such food, I guess, in St. John's. But it's great to be a part of this whole food movement and I think we really have come a long way in the past few years," he said.
"A lot of people are pushing themselves to put out wonderful products and we're so proud of what we have here. We're so excited to share what we have with the rest of Canada and the world."
St. John's-based food writer and critic Karl Wells said Raymonds is worth every dollar for those who can afford it, and it seems there are many who can. Reservations in high season are recommended weeks in advance.
"It wasn't that long ago that I wrote a column being critical of a particular restaurant here that was charging $40 for an entree. Well, I mean, that sounds kind of silly now," Wells said.
Word is spreading about the quality and quantity of Newfoundland eateries, in a range of prices and tastes from Mexican to Indian to the Japanese fusion of Basho Restaurant and Lounge.
The excellence of down-home pub food has been honoured too. The Duke of Duckworth in St. John's, best known for its fish and chips and its recurring role on the hit CBC-TV show "Republic of Doyle," was ranked 10th on this year's Vacay.ca list of Canada's top 50 restaurants.
And there's no shortage of places to find modern twists on traditional favourites such as Jiggs dinner (boiled salt beef with carrot, cabbage, turnip, pease pudding and potato), figgy duff raisin pudding and desserts made with indigenous blueberries, partridge berries and bakeapples.
Award-winning creations also abound at the Newfoundland Chocolate Company.
Wells traces the local food revolution in part to the rise of celebrity chefs and their myriad cooking shows. That media-driven foodie craze has generated a wave of new and ambitious chefs now making their mark in culinary competitions and at the helms of their own restaurants.
Wells laughed as he recalled arriving in Vancouver four years ago as a judge for the Gold Medal Plates national championships. It was tough to convince some people that Newfoundland has more to offer than fried foods and fish and chips, he said.
"It's not that way anymore. Two years ago, Jeremy Charles was our gold medalist here and he went out and won the silver medal nationally. He damn near won the gold, and that really made a huge difference."
Wells credits long-standing St. John's restaurants such as Bianca's and The Cellar, where many chefs got their start, for first pushing the boundaries of fine dining. Easier flight access to London and New York City, along with the popularity of international cruises, has influenced the appetites of many Newfoundlanders, he said.
That growing demand for good food has made it easier to get fresh micro greens, herbs and other ingredients, said chef Mike Gillan of the recently opened St. John's restaurant Saltwater.
"I think overall the experience of eating has changed. People did it at one time strictly for nourishment and now they really go for it for entertainment. That's where we become as much performers as we are chefs."
Dave Snow, president of Wildland Tours, said some of the best food is found outside St. John's. He has offered snow crab feasts in season at Battle Harbour in Labrador, and raves about Nellie Cunningham's fresh breads and pies, available May to October, at the Clode Sound Motel and Restaurant in Charlottetown, N.L.
"You don't see as much wealth out there," Snow said. "But rural Newfoundland is where our heart and soul come from, for a lot of us anyway."