A few weeks ago, I boarded a plane for a weekend getaway to St. John’s, Newfoundland, curated by Chef Jason Lynch of Le Caveau Restaurant with a coterie of chefs, friends and chowhounds, thirteen-strong. I’m going to dispense of the word foodie and replace it with something that more aptly describes the kind of person you want to surround yourself with for an eating adventure such as this–not a glutton per se, more like a very enthusiastic eater–someone who would never shirk from a dish, would be willing to try anything at least once and would steal the pork cracklin’ right off your plate with glee. My kind of people.
The clouds parted on the descent in a prop plane, and the stormy white caps of the gray–blue waters of the North Atlantic revealed themselves. Followed by a swift trip into town, I checked in at the historic Roses Heritage Inn, my digs for a couple of days at the foot of Signal Hill. Crisp air and my first snow of the season, my cohorts and I stepped out on Water Street only to be beckoned in by friends for a welcome drink at Raymonds, complete with a tour of their exclusive wine cellar with charcuterie hanging over head.
Newfoundlanders in general are exceptional hosts. Generous, charismatic and comedic wordsmiths, and possessing an unsurpassed pride in place; you could walk into any of the ensuing restaurants and expect the very same for yourself.
Steeped in region and climate, Newfoundland cuisine has historically been based on everything being caught (land & sea), picked, salted, dried, cured, pickled and preserved out of pure necessity. In recent years, this approach has been experiencing a renaissance across the menus of St. John’s at the hands of some very talented chefs who consistently place on national and international ‘best of’ lists. Expect fresh seafood, wild game and all the foraged goods.
This was a weekend of adventurous eating balanced with some fine moments in the great outdoors. Our crew managed to tackle a slew of restaurants in about 48 hours–Seto Kitchen + Bar, Mallard Cottage (twice), The Merchant Tavern, The Adelaide Oyster House and Raymonds Restaurant–trying things most of which I had never had before–seal, arctic hare, every part of the cod including tongues, moose every which way (braised for breakfast, bacon-wrapped tenderloin, carpaccio, moose heart tartare) and cod sound, affectionately known as Newfoundland nachos. Entire communities were once sustained by this iconic fish and, in the spirit of nothing being wasted, you’re essentially eating the air bladder of the fish that controls its buoyancy. I managed to have it twice–served up as chicharrón with Acadian Sturgeon caviar and crème fraiche at Raymonds and cured, breaded & fried with pickled onions at Mallard Cottage.
Anywhere you are in downtown St. John’s, you are just steps away from a view of the harbour. I spent time walking and exploring, admiring the colourful jelly bean row houses, and not even once worrying about the weather, thus making the case for year-round regional travel. Speaking of balance, I managed to fit in a couple of runs and a hike up the iconic Signal Hill National Historic Site to Cabot Tower, where on December 12, 1901, Marconi received the first wireless transmission across the Atlantic Ocean. It’s well worth the walk solely for the view of the city alone, but at the top it was like Raymonds was sending a signal to my belly to get back down the hill for a tasting menu. And, no tour of St. John’s is complete without a healthy round through the many late night drinking spots heaving with live music and revellers.
Keep in mind I only touched down for just over 48 hours, it would require many more days to pack in every restaurant I wanted to hit. Don’t let the season stop you from exploring the best part of what our region has to offer… embrace it. Breathe it. Hike it. Eat it. This is simply one roadmap for a weekend of delicious fun.
Where to Stay & Eat
Twenty well-appointed rooms with all the amenities spread across two stately, historic Victorian houses with a made-to-order breakfast room on the top floor overlooking the Narrows, the entrance to the St. John’s harbour.
Hot tip: Be sure to also check out the great coffee shop a few houses down–Coffee Matters.
The first pit stop on the trip for appetizers and cocktails; Seto just opened and was already shortlisted for the enRoute best new restaurant list.
Hot tip: Try the Sesame and chili crusted albacore tuna with kimchi, peanuts, charred green onion vinaigrette, crispy Brussels sprouts & candied orange.
Fire cracklin’, pork cracklin’…. just five minutes away from the heart of St. John’s in Quidi Vidi Village, housed in an 18th century cottage and designated as one of the oldest wooden buildings in North America, is Chef Todd Perrin and Sommelier Stephen Lee’s Mallard Cottage. It’s like the best kitchen party and cozy cottage weekend all rolled into one. I was lucky to get there twice, once for an epic family-style meal on the first evening with dish after decadent dish from porchetta to leg of lamb that Chef Todd summed up so appropriately in situ–Your next dish is gout. We’ve been raising a little gout out back. And again for brunch which they are known for, served Wednesday through Sunday.
Hot tip: The Cake Table. If you’re a dessert fiend, then this is THE place for you. I would strongly recommend following Chef Perrin’s Instagram (@mallardcottagechef), so that daily table hits your feed, and trust me, it’s even better in person.
A boisterous restaurant featuring a robust raw bar and small funky plates like Kung Pao cod cheeks and crispy fish tacos served on metallic cross & bones china. I strongly recommend ordering platters of East Vs West coast of Canada oysters.
An interesting little tidbit on oysters: There is an engrained oyster culture in Newfoundland and yet they don’t produce any themselves–often what you are eating is from the Maritime brethren–Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Newfoundland simply does not have the climate or merroir to grow oysters with its rocky shorelines and cold, salty waters.
There’s a reason this restaurant consistently places as the top restaurant in Canada over and over again. Owned by Executive Chef Jeremy Charles and Restaurant Manager/Sommelier Jeremy Bonia (The Jeremys), they are both great culinary ambassadors for Newfoundland, often traveling the global circuit to participate in culinary events. The space is all class and panache with its massive windows, lush carpets, silvery silk wallpaper and bright chandeliers that both capture and reflect back that gray-blue harbour view.
For Dinner: They shine with their seasonal five or seven-course tasting menus with optional wine pairings. We agreed upon a five-courses, they surprised us with seven, and then surprised themselves with twelve by the time we finished. Not to mention, a delicate moose heart tartare from Jeremy Bonia delivered tableside all suited up for service, still quivering from his first kill. #newfoundlandhospitality
Another winning spot from The Jeremys, and kind of like Raymonds kissing cousin, The Merchant Tavern is an homage to the merchants who would supplied fishermen with the tools they needed for their livelihood for hundreds of years; those known for eating, drinking and making merry after a hard day’s work. Housed in a classic bank building, the room exudes elegance with its high ceilings, open kitchen, large inviting bar and the warm tones of the leather banquettes in the private dining room in the old bank vault.
For Brunch: Order the Shirred eggs with braised Newfoundland moose, tomato, chili, parmesan & toast–and if you can handle dessert as well–there’s homemade soft-serve ice cream with salted caramel.