• Welcome

    Karl is an award winning food writer and restaurant critic for the St. John's daily, The Telegram. His Dining Out column is one of The Weekend Telegram's most popular features. Karl Wells is also host/producer of the very popular Rogers TV show, One Chef One Critic and a restaurant panellist with enRoute magazine. Karl has written for enRoute, Cuisine Canada Blog, Newfoundland Quarterly and other publications. He is a senior judge with Gold Medal Plates and a Canadian Culinary Championship judge.

Legros and Motti

Note: Since this review was written Chef Maurizio Modica has become Legros and Motti’s Executive Chef.

Legros and Motti's atrium area

Legros and Motti’s atrium area

Legros and Motti.
127 Harbour Drive
Ph. (709) 726-6884

Legros and Motti is stunning. It is without doubt one of the biggest and best looking restaurants in Eastern Canada. Legros and Motti is the kind of money-was-no-object Xanadu dining hall that would fit in comfortably in London, Toronto or New York’s Meat Packing District.

I’m told the planning of this new waterfront colossus began more than two years ago. It’s obvious. Owners Rob Moore, Wayne Moore and Leo Power left no detail to chance with this cathedral of gourmandization. (Their names are also linked with The Keg and the coming Jack Astor’s chain restaurants at the same location.)

Given that the restaurant is located on the St. John’s waterfront I suppose it’s appropriate that it has the ambience of a converted warehouse. Over the years our harbour has been home to all manner of large echoing structures including a south side fish plant and a seal processing plant (Job Brothers).

The western half of Legros and Motti contains an atrium of some height. When you enter your eyes are drawn to the ceiling from which hangs a network of bare light bulbs attached to a labyrinth of pipes. Below, at ground level, is seating of various kinds: communal benches, scalloped, padded circular booths for six along the north wall of windows, and stand-alone tables.

View from mezzanine of bar area

View from mezzanine of bar area


Bar
A long bar, where additional patrons can be seated, runs the length of the west wall. The shelving behind the bar is framed on either side by very high wine coolers. I assume the coolers are automated to carry wine bottles within reach of bar staff. The space above the bar bears one of the largest flat screens you’ll see. It was split into six different channel feeds, five sports and one featuring music videos.

A marble fireplace of about 15 ft. height (including its elaborate mantelpiece) dominates the south side of the atrium. We were seated on the mezzanine level above, directly east of the atrium’s mostly empty aloft space. (Stairs and elevator provide access.) I counted even more wine bottles on the mezzanine – stacked as high as the eye could see – again on the restaurant’s west wall. I could wax on about the look of Legros and Motti but I have much else to tell you.

The majordomo of Legros and Motti is General Manager, Barb Henshaw. Henshaw has worked on the mainland, namely Vancouver, for large catering and food service operators with multiple restaurants. She is also in charge of Legros and Motti’s more than ample wine list of approximately 85 wines. I particularly liked the simple, straightforward descriptions of the various wine groupings like: “crisp, clean, light and lean,” “full-bodied, rich and round,” and the cheeky, “second mortgage wines.”

Legros and Motti is billed as being two restaurants in one, an Italian trattoria and a French bistro. Although you will see the odd wine from places like California, Washington and Spain on the list, most of the wines offered, as you might expect, are either Italian or French. All but one of the so called “second mortgage wines” (Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Château de Beaucastel, 2009, Rhône, $211) is an Italian red. The dearest is Solaia Toscana IGT, Antinori, 2007 at $291.

Chef
Legros and Motti Executive Chef, Matt MacDonald (formerly sous chef at award winning Bacalao), has also been engaged with the project for over two years. He told me part of his job during that period was to source the best quality ingredients, wherever they might be found.

Legros and Motti olive oil

Legros and Motti olive oil

A delicious example is the verdant, spicy olive oil that bears the Legros and Motti label on bottles and three litre tins. It is made for the restaurant in Umbria, Italy.

A small loaf of hot bread and Legros and Motti olive oil for dipping cued the start of dinner. Although they make their own pasta at the restaurant, the bread is made for Legros and Motti by Ace Bakery. Ace makes a good artisanal style product. Our bread was aromatic with chewy crust and soft, substantial white centre. Ideal.

Creamy polenta

Creamy polenta


Polenta has been a staple for many Italians since ancient Roman times. I like porridge, grits and cream of wheat so I was keen to try the creamy polenta (essentially boiled cornmeal). It was served with a “truffled wild mushroom ragoût.” The mushrooms (a wild field mushroom mix with truffle paste and herbs) had been sautéed until very dark and rich tasting. The mild flavoured, pale yellow polenta was the perfect counterpoint.
Mini crab bites

Mini crab bites


Legros and Motti’s crab bites with mustard aioli were a tour de force. I taste a lot of crab cakes over the course of a year but these smaller cakes reset the bar. Four or five of the cakes came with aioli described as “spicy mustard aioli”. The aioli was mild, not spicy. The cakes, covered in a crisp shell of golden fried crumbs, broke open into a wonderful display of sweet white crabmeat with traditional binding ingredients: seasonings, possibly egg, dairy and so forth.
Meatball sliders

Meatball sliders


Meatballs
Meatballs are back, apparently. From New York’s Rocco Dispirito’s mama’s meatball’s made famous a few years ago, to the meatball creations of Newfoundlander Rod Bowers at Toronto’s Hey Meatball restaurants, meatballs are in. Legros and Motti serve an excellent appetizer of meatball sliders with tomato sauce. The balls are homemade, as is the sauce. Melted fiordilatte (cow’s milk mozzarella) adds extra unction.
Pan roasted veal chop

Pan roasted veal chop


The milk-fed veal chop (broiled, grilled or valdostana) is standard fare at every classic American Italian restaurant. Legros and Motti does a pan roasted version seasoned with a little sage and juniper. It came with fingerling potatoes and broccolini. The chop was exquisite: ultra-tender and mild with sage and juniper deftly added to great effect.
Slow braised short ribs

Slow braised short ribs


Another very competent execution of a classic dish was the slow braised short ribs. Succulent, almost black ribs, napped with braised onion and jus rested on an overwhelming mound of pancetta mashed potato. Next to the potato was a generous sized ramekin filled with turnip gratin. No hungry meat lover could turn down this full-on plate of homemade vittles.

Cannoli
Adam Stuckey is Legros and Motti’s pastry chef. While the restaurant’s main menu heavily favours Italian dishes as opposed to French, Stuckey’s dessert card is more balanced. We tried the cannoli from the Italian side. Executive Chef MacDonald sourced made-to-order cannoli pastry shells on the mainland.

Cannoli

Cannoli


Stuckey fills them with a mixture of mascarpone, ricotta, icing sugar and vanilla. It may sound weird but I was desperate to try cannoli after I first saw The Godfather. Eventually I did, many times, and the best I ever had was in Little Italy in New York. Next time I’ll try Legros and Motti’s 10 layer chocolate cake.

Legros and Motti is an extraordinary restaurant on many levels, including service. I was hugely impressed by the obviously well-trained staff. However, they need to find their groove. A little less intrusion and better timing would help. We were interrupted too often to be asked, “How is everything? How does it taste?” Initially our mains arrived within 10 minutes of being served our appetizers. We had no choice but to send them back until we were ready for them.

No doubt individuals will soon find their groove. Meanwhile Legros and Motti, the restaurant, is well on the way to finding its groove, and making its mark.

Rating:
* * *
Price:
Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip – $180.00 (approx.)

Sound level:
High

* Fair * * Good * * * Excellent * * * * Exceptional

Pasta Plus at Terrace on the Square

IMG_5297
Pasta Plus Café
8 Rowan St.
Churchill Square
Ph. (709) 722-0942

I’ll start with a bit of news. As of March 31, 2014 St. John’s is down to one, just one Pasta Plus Café. The Avalon Mall location closed at the end of March, leaving only the Churchill Square restaurant (on the lower floor of the indoor mall, Terrace on the Square, on Rowan Street). Restaurateur Mike Murphy recently purchased the Churchill Square restaurant. I like what he’s done with the place.

Before Murphy completed some long overdue DIY on the restaurant it felt like a pokey, claustrophobic bistro that wasn’t quite ready to be taken seriously. It used to consist of two distinct sections, a cold outer area and cosy inner sanctum. Now it’s a single, spacious room, which works much better. It has energy and actual sightlines. The feeling of being entombed gone forever.

Pasta Plus Café has mainly booth seating, with another five or six stand-alone tables. I’d say approximately 35 to 40 diners can be seated there comfortably. Lighting is incandescent – from pendant style fixtures above each table – and low, but bright enough. Curiously a string of Christmas lights also twinkled from a garland of artificial evergreen decorating the top of the room’s wainscoting.

Steamed mussels with melted garlic and herb butter

Steamed mussels with melted garlic and herb butter


Openers
Guest and I started with quite different appetizers. I began with one pound of white wine steamed cultured mussels. I cannot imagine wild, rock clinging mussels tasting any better than the pristine beauties I was served at Pasta Plus Café. They were plump, full of colour and with just the right bite. My mussels were so good I was tempted to order another pound. Ideally with fries, like the French moules-frites (although I don’t think they do fries at Pasta Plus Café).

“Lentils are friendly – the Miss Congeniality of the bean world,” said the late author and cook, Laurie Colwin. Greg Malone told me they’re good for your heart. I told guest this when I was asking him to order the curried green lentil and spinach soup so I could write about it. Turns out he was in a curry kind of mood anyway. The soup had lots of lentils, some spinach, potato and plenty of spicy heat and tang. The background broth was only slightly bland. (Perhaps a good veggie stock made from roasted vegetables might have done the trick.)

Pea soup and fish cakes

Pea soup and fish cakes


They make good fish cakes at Pasta Plus Café. I enjoyed two crispy golden cakes with a dark oniony relish. The ratio of flaked fish to potato seemed about 50/50. Fortunately the fish was salt cod and you can’t beat traditional salt fish as an ingredient. The salt brings out the excellent fish flavour which permeates the potato binding. Salt also played a beneficial role in a bowl of delicious pea soup (with generous chunks of salt meat and carrot) that accompanied the cakes.
Bacon and tomato quiche with strawberry and spinach salad

Bacon and tomato quiche with strawberry and spinach salad


Quiche
Pasta Plus Café does a daily quiche. Frankly, you don’t find quiche much in restaurants anymore. I suppose it’s considered a cliché, old hat. I disagree. There’s nothing nicer than a simply made quiche accompanied by a salad. That’s what you get at Pasta Plus Café. On one of the days I visited the perfectly cooked pie was filled with egg, cream, tomatoes, bacon and cheddar cheese. The salad had spinach, strawberries and mandarin orange en vinaigrette. If that’s not a balanced lunch then what is?

I’m afraid the chicken curry ordered by guest was more of a miss than a hit. First it was lacking in presentation. A square plate was sectioned into quadrants: rice, black beans, chutney and small bowl of pulled chicken in curry sauce. The colours (even in the curry) were subdued. Unfortunately, the flavours (with the exception of a darn good date and apple chutney) were also muted. Did I mention the rice was dry? It’s possible, with fresh, bright curry spices to work magic, but there was no magic here.

New Oleans signature pasta

New Oleans signature pasta


Pasta
My choice of New Orleans pasta, billed as the restaurant’s “signature dish”, was better. It was prepared the way I like most pasta dishes, with simplicity. The sauce for the fettuccine was basically oil, herbs, hot pepper and garlic. Mixed through the pasta was sliced mushroom and sliced chicken. I declined the grated parmesan offered. The fettuccine was slightly al dente, of good quality but not hand made.
Coconut snowball

Coconut snowball


If there’s one thing that brings out childlike excitement in me, and a smile from ear to ear, it’s the combination of vanilla ice cream and coconut. I’ve loved it all my life but rarely treat myself to it. How could I resist Pasta Plus Café’s coconut covered snowball? Impossible. A ball of vanilla ice cream thoroughly coated with a mix of toasted and untoasted coconut was served with chocolate sauce and some kind of whipped topping product. I was quite content with the top quality ice cream and coconut. No, I think I was actually euphoric.

Pasta Plus Café in Churchill Square is doing a good job. Prices are fair, service is prompt and an effort is being made to prepare as many dishes as possible from scratch. They also make their own cheesecakes.

Our server told us they’d really like to be busier for dinner. Why not give Pasta Plus Café a try.

Rating:
* *

Price:
Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip – $90.00 (approx.)

Sound level:
Moderate

* Fair * * Good * * * Excellent * * * * Exceptional

Cafe Wedgwood is on a roll

Cafe Wedgwood

Cafe Wedgwood


Café Wedgwood
17 Elizabeth Ave.
Ph. 726-1860

Congratulations are in order. It’s been just over five years since Chef Peter Wedgwood opened Café Wedgwood and Catering on Elizabeth Avenue. Passing the crucial five year threshold is considered a milestone of success in the restaurant business. Conventional wisdom tells us that if an eatery can make it to the five year point it should have a bright future.

On a couple of lunchtime visits recently it was obvious that things were going swimmingly for Wedgwood. The restaurant was filled with happy diners and bubbly chitchat – the kind where we humans become so engrossed in a conversation that we don’t notice much, if anything, going on about us.

Café Wedgwood is a large, bright spot with lots of energy. Add good food, good service, lots of hard work (and maybe good timing and a little luck) and you have the formula for Wedgwood’s success.

The words “and catering” in the business’s official name are not to be sniffed at. Wedgwood is one of the best and busiest caterers in town. This summer and fall will no doubt see him catering many weddings. I’ve attended events catered by him and he does a great job. Of course, it was the “restaurant” vittles that I was interested in lately.

Tomato and avocado soup

Tomato and avocado soup


Fab soup

I tasted Café Wedgwood’s tomato and avocado soup many years ago and found it dull. Perhaps some part of the recipe had been overlooked back then, or maybe the ingredients weren’t ripe enough. Who knows? Anyhow, I tried it again last week and it was fabulous. (Of course, it’s also possible the recipe was improved.) Whatever the reason for it being better, I can now say that it is a beautifully smooth, colourful and rich tasting bisque. The menu states that it “goes great with a grilled cheese sandwich.” By gum, I bet it does.

Mad about wings? Me too. Not for one reason but for many. I love wing meat. It’s tastier. So is the tight, crackling skin. I also like chewing and sucking on the bones – for the flavour, for those strands of meat that cling, and for the cartilaginous bits at the ends of the bones. Textures, lots of textures.

Dry spiced wings

Dry spiced wings


Café Wedgwood has wings on its appetizer list. You can order them with all sorts of spices and sauces. But, as much as the honey garlic, sweet chilli and BBQ sauced wings appealed to me, I thought it best to avoid the possibility that my new shirt might get splashed by airborne projectiles of sticky, red dressing. The dry spiced wings satisfied my craving just fine, spicy enough and not too salty.

Satisfying

The only thing better than a salad of fresh baby spinach, sliced ripe strawberries, dried cranberries, almonds, and cucumber is one with thick slices of juicy chicken on it. Café Wedgwood’s house dressing of roasted red pepper vinaigrette tied everything together for a very satisfying main course.
Chicken and sausage gumbo

Chicken and sausage gumbo


Mention chicken, sausage and tomato and I’m on board. Add the word gumbo and there’s no way I’m not going to try it. A classic Louisiana gumbo is a stew served (usually over rice) in a bowl with some liquid shoring the perimeter. Café Wedgwood’s chicken and sausage gumbo was like a casserole in that the ingredients were more tightly bound together. It was served over a mound of rice but had little excess liquid.

What’s more important is that the gumbo was delicious. There are no hard and fast rules about its preparation. Chicken thighs were used and braised to the point of willing tenderness. Tomatoes, sweet peppers, onions and mushrooms added loads of flavour dimension, and chorizo sausage gave the gumbo some kick. Grated cheese and sour cream on top surprised. I’m not sure I can get on board with dairy in gumbo.

Cajun chicken linguine

Cajun chicken linguini


Pasta pride
A restaurant that prides itself on serving home style cuisine must offer a few pasta choices. (Remember mom’s mac and cheese?) We ordered the Cajun chicken linguini. Pieces of moist, boneless chicken were mixed through al dente pasta along with sweet peppers, onions and mushrooms. Permeating and exciting the entire dish were Cajun flavours (garlic, red pepper, oregano, etc.) delivered in a judiciously rich sauce.
Pan fried cod and chips

Pan fried cod and chips


If Café Wedgwood’s pan-fried cod and chips were an image on a TV screen I’d want to adjust the brightness and contrast. That’s because the chips were too dark and the fish too light. Appearances aside, apart from the smoky edge on the fries, it was a good tasting effort. The fish did, in fact, melt in the mouth. Scrunchions and lashings of salt and vinegar added to the party.
Chocolate banana bread pudding

Chocolate banana bread pudding


Chocolate banana bread pudding (excluding coconut cream pie) has to be the most comforting of the comfort food desserts. Of course, it must to be done correctly with the right amounts of banana and chocolate. I once tasted a version that contained far too much dark, bitter chocolate and it was a complete turn-off.

Café Wedgwood’s pud achieved perfect harmony. It was soft, eggy, and buttery rich. Banana and chocolate enhanced but did not take away from the effect of the main bread ingredient. Never underestimate the wondrous qualities of properly made bread.

And never underestimate the qualities of an unassuming café in a neighbourhood strip mall.

Rating:
* * *

Price:
Lunch for two with tax and tip – $70.00 (approx.)

Sound level:

Moderate

* Fair * * Good * * * Excellent * * * * Exceptional