Rock solid cuisine in Newfoundland

29 Jun 2011

The Toronto Star - View Source Article

By Shelley Cameron-McCarron

 

ST. JOHN’S, NEWFOUNDLAND — I came to St. John’s to eat. And sitting here in Bacalao Restaurant, a modern bistro in a century-old home in one of North America’s oldest cities, I can’t help but congratulate myself as I bite into a sophisticated crispy fritter of salt cod and potato.

“We call it the Bacalao fritter. So, it’s a fancy fish cake, seasoned with garlic and Newfoundland savoury,” explains owner Andrea Maunder.

Tonight’s tasting menu is all about nouvelle Newfoundland cuisine. Tender medallions of Labrador caribou; cod pod cod fresh from Fogo Island; and an upscale Jiggs Dinner, rolled in a cabbage leaf, steamed and served with a pot-liquor shooter.

Familiar flavours all, but in new presentations, what I quickly learn is Bacalao’s stock in trade. Tucking into dish after dish, it’s clear this is a culinary experience not found elsewhere.

St. John’s, the lively port known for music and saucy good humour, is emerging as a destination for foodies as passionate, innovative, and in some cases newly proud locals put Newfoundland cuisine on the world map.

Take Bacalao, already turning heads for its hyper-local cuisine. The restaurant opened four years ago and was the first on the scene to promote local. From the art on the walls to the Quidi Vidi beer on tap, everything is sourced as local as possible. “We’ve always been proud of Newfoundland tradition in home cooking, but nobody was doing that,” says Maunder, who moved back to her hometown with husband, and chef, Toronto-born Mike Barsky.

They hit at the right time.

“We’re on a growth curve,” says Nancy Brace, executive director of the Restaurant Association of Newfoundland.

Once, many Newfoundlanders scoffed at the thought of others wanting to try the food served in the homes, she says. “Oh, I got nothing fancy for you,” might once have been the refrain in a province that has relied on sustenance from the sea, game from the land, and native berries such as bakeapples, partridgeberries and blueberries. But there’s a new attitude blowing through town.

“Things have changed dramatically,” Brace says. “Visitors are astounded by the calibre and quality of food here. It’s really exciting to finally see our food be considered a class of food and to have people from all over the world come to eat Newfoundland food.”

The next day I sit at the downstairs bar of Chinched Bistro on Queen Street watching co-owner Michelle LeBlanc infuse a cocktail with partridgeberry preserves—a delicious Newfoundland take on the cosmo. She tells me instructors at the Culinary Institute of Canada are encouraging students to take their training in Newfoundland, such is the foodie renaissance.

Chinched — it means to stow away, to be stuffed, in the Newfoundland Dictionary — is another new star. Like Bacalao, its focus is on local. LeBlanc bakes her in-demand house bread using Quidi Vidi’s Eric Red beer (it contains no sugar or fat), and snack menu offerings like salt cod hush puppies wow.

It’s a far cry from the dining scene of just a decade ago.

“Ten years ago there wouldn’t be any gourmet artisan chocolate shops in St. John’s. They wouldn’t have made it,” says Brent Smith, chief chocolate officer at the Newfoundland Chocolate Company on downtown Duckworth Street.

Newfoundland humour is decidedly at play in the melt-in-your-mouth chocolates, hand-turned in the shop. Take “The Danny,” (“rich, but a little salty”), a truffle created after beloved former premier Danny Williams announced his surprise resignation.

That such a niche specialty exists and thrives is a sign of the shift that’s hit the Newfoundland capital once hard done by the collapse of the cod fishery, says Smith.

Offshore oil has spurred economic development. Perhaps most exciting is how revitalization is championing local culture. From bistro to brewery, I’m regaled with history in every dish. And if it’s the food (reason enough) that’s brought me, it’s the people I truly savour.

Like dentist Hilary Rodrigues who started Newfoundland’s first winery in Markland after discovering the region’s homemade partridgeberry wines. He wondered why no one did it commercially. The reaction? “Who would buy Newfoundland wine?”

Turns out plenty. Today, Rodrigues and his son Lionel use the bounty of the land to make kosher, sulphite-free, natural fruit wine, brandy, vodka and liqueur.

At Quidi Vidi Brewery, the two engineers who converted a former fish plant into a brewery surrounded by granite cliffs, bobbing boats, sea otters, eagles and seals, are crafting beer with glacial waters from 25,000-year-old icebergs. They’ve named their beers after Newfoundland history. Iceberg beer was a natural fit. “This is the only place in the world where icebergs drift along our shores,” says co-owner Dave Rees.

My last evening I reserve for Raymond’s, the highly anticipated, elegant waterfront restaurant long-time friends Jeremy Charles (the chef) and Jeremy Bonia (the sommelier) opened in November 2010. With 16-foot ceilings, dangling chandeliers, and floor-to-ceiling window views of Water Street and St. John’s perfectly sheltered harbour, it stuns.

Over dinner with tourism veteran Kathi Stacy of Carbonnear I ask about the foodie nirvana sweeping the city. “For a long time, Newfoundlanders were kind of afraid in some ways to express themselves. We always knew who we are and we’re proud of Newfoundland. But now we want to put ourselves out there as a destination. We want to show you who we are as a people.”

As we speak, our server Joel brings the amuse-bouche, a moose-ravioli flavoured soup, and later steelhead trout from Bay d’Espoir so fresh it could almost jump off my plate. It’s all outstanding, from the made-in-house pasta to house-made lemon cream cheese ice cream.

“Ten to 15 years ago, you had two options for dinner,” says Smith of the Newfoundland Chocolate Company. “Now you can go out for a first-class meal any night of the week. There is so much pride in the place.”

Shelley Cameron-McCarron is a freelance writer based in Nova Scotia.

JUST THE FACTS

DOING: Start your trip by driving or hiking up iconic Signal Hill. The city skyline stretches before with inspiring views of the waterfront, The Rooms (the provincial art gallery, archives and museum), the famous jellybean rowhouses and the Atlantic Ocean as far as the eye can see. It’s a view that never gets old.

SLEEPING: With its connections to the Titanic (a grand staircase carved from English White Oak, supplied by the same craftsman and built during the same time period, 1909-11), a newly opened spa, and century-old architectural charm, the five-star Ryan Mansion is lux lodging. It’s hosted Prince Charles and Camilla—the Royal Suite rents for $585 a night. Other options start from around $200 and deliver plasma TVs, L’Occitane en provence bath amenities, and en suites with heated carpera marble floors. Ryan Mansion Boutique Hotel & Spa, (709) 753-7926, www.ryanmansion.com

STROLLING: Walking the waterfront is de rigueur in St. John’s, North America’s easternmost city. Poke into shops, grab a tea or coffee and unwind. The streets are crooked and off-kilter, with hidden laneways, running from hill to sea. The city is made for exploring.

DINING AND DRINKING: Bacalao Restaurant, 65 Lemarchant Rd., St. John’s, (709) 579-6565, www.bacalaocuisine.ca

Newfoundland Chocolate Company, 166 Duckworth St., St. John’s, (709) 579-0099, www.newfoundlandchocolatecompany.com

Chinched Bistro, 7 Queen St., St. John’s, (709) 722-3100, chinchedbistro@bellaliant.com

Rodrigues Winery, Markland, (709) 759-3003, www.rodrigueswinery.com

Quidi Vidi Brewery, 35 Barrows Rd., Quidi Vidi, St. John’s, (709) 738-4040, www.quidividibrewery.ca

Raymond’s, 95 Water St., St. John’s, (709) 579-5800, www.raymondsrestaurant.com