• 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.

Bacalao at the top of its game

Bacalao interior
Bacalao
65 Le Marchant Rd.
St. John’s
Ph. 579-6565

Andrea Maunder and yours truly

Andrea Maunder and yours truly

I’ve known Andrea Maunder, Bacalao’s owner and resident pastry chef since I asked her to be a regular contributor on my Rogers TV show, One Chef One Critic. She’s a friend, but that does not give Bacalao an advantage when I review it.

My editor, regular readers and Maunder (sometimes to her chagrin) know I do not pull any punches for Bacalao, or any restaurant, despite friendships, preferential treatment or offers of complimentary dishes or drinks, rare as they are.

So, why this preamble? It’s because what follows is a very different assessment of Bacalao from those I have given on three previous occasions. And, I want to underline that everything I am about to say comes from a true place – as scrupulously objective a place as possible.

We (spouse and I) dined at Bacalao last Saturday. Our friend Bill came with us. The front three dining rooms were full and we were about to pretty much fill the fourth room at the rear of the restaurant, across from a bustling kitchen.

Bacalao exteriorBy the time we were seated it was clear to me that an intangible quality I’d never felt before at Bacalao was present. It was what some might call the buzz of a hot restaurant. But why, after seven years, was I feeling this incredible buzz, vibe, or whatever you want to call it? Over the course of the evening I would eventually discover the answer.

Drinks
First, drinks were ordered: bakeapple mojito, glass of house

Maunder's bakeapple mojito

Maunder’s bakeapple mojito

sauvignon blanc and a bottle of Chateau Smith cabernet sauvignon from Washington for the table. The mojito, in a sugar rimmed highball glass and dressed with lime wedge, was golden, light and pétillant. A handful of bakeapples floated on top, like perfect orange coloured clouds reigning over a golden sunset.

The mojito was made with Newfoundlanders rum, bakeapple and mint syrup, club soda and a dash of bitters. Despite the syrup, most of the sweetness came from the sugary rim and I liked that. The taste of the premium quality rum was at the fore, with the berry flavour occupying a firm but lessor spot in the background.

Chateau smithOur wine was new to me. I ordered the Chateau Smith from Charles Smith Wines because I like cabernet sauvignon and because I know that there are some very good wineries in the state of Washington. The Chateau Smith cab was deep, smooth and fruity. I tasted lots of cherry, chocolate and a whisper of vanilla. We all agreed it was a commendable vino.

Maunder is the definition of a hands-on owner but, in my view, her great contribution is in selecting wines and spirits for Bacalao. Her martinis and cocktails are fun and inventive and Bacalao’s wine list features over one hundred highly drinkable wines. A separate specialty wine list contains approximately 25 more choices.

Cured Atlantic salmon with eggplant puree

Cured Atlantic salmon with eggplant puree


Starters
Bacalao is still offering a menu with a range of seafood, meats and wild game. The emphasis on regional products is stronger than ever. Our amuse bouche of cured Atlantic salmon was served on ceramic spoons. A thin round of crostini leaned against the small curl of salmon, underneath which was a soupçon of eggplant purée. The fish snuggled up to the perky, slightly smoky purée for a reason. Together they were the perfect duo, each making the other taste miles better. Poor crostini was rendered surplus to requirements.

Crab and avocado salad

Crab and avocado salad

Newfoundland snow crab was featured in the appetizer special. The rectangular plate had a busy arrangement of green and crab on one side, and a simple quenelle of tomato flavoured mousse on the other. The green was a chiffonade of romaine on which sat half a pitted avocado filled with crab meat. Cascading downward over all was a creamy, herb scented lemonette. This was a fresh, well-crafted and thoughtfully scented plate.
Basques style calamari

Basques style calamari


Basques style calamari was cut to resemble cooked udon noodles. Then it was flash cooked on a pan and served with a combination of chilies, tomato, onion and bell pepper. I’ve seldom tasted calamari prepared so well. It was unusually tender and the red mixture accompaniment could not have complemented better.

Seal meat appetizer

Seal meat appetizer

It’s seal flipper time in Newfoundland and Bacalao answered the call by preparing mini seal flipper pies. A small ramekin contained a stew of seal meat and diced root vegetables covered with a biscuit of pastry. The seal meat had been braised in red wine, rosemary, nutmeg, garlic and allspice for 12 to 14 hours.

I’ve been eating seal meat since I was a young child. Bacalao’s appetizer tasted exactly right to me. The seal carried no wuffy aroma or taste. It had been properly defatted, and tasted like the clean, robust wild game that it is.

Monkfish and salmon

Monkfish and salmon


Mains
The catch of the day entrée celebrated two delicious but different fish: monkfish and Atlantic salmon. The living species are a contrast in appearance and their flesh contrasts as well. A few precious slices of pan seared monkfish sat on a square of baked polenta. A cutlet of pan seared salmon fillet almost seemed to be afloat on a serving of butternut purée.

In between and surrounding the pieces of fish was a slice of roasted fennel, green beans and cooked tomato. A thin trail of red wine sauce also decorated the plate. Both servings of seafood, being either robust in texture (monkfish) or flavour (salmon) held up well with the hardy wine sauce. This was a formidable dish. Honourable mention goes to the exquisitely crispy skin covering the salmon.

Local duck duo

Local duck duo


Duck fanciers will be pleased when they taste Bacalao’s local duck duo. The duck (I’m not sure what type) was raised by a farmer in the Grand Falls-Windsor area. It’s a wonderful product. Such duck deserves special treatment by cooks and that’s what it got. There was the succulent breast and a portion of rich, tender duck leg confit galette.

An accompaniment of butternut squash spätzle with peas and sweet and sour apple spice braised red cabbage provided contrasting texture and accent. The finishing touch was an excellent aromatic Asian inspired red curry sauce made viscous and even better with coconut milk.

Bacalao's lamb entrée

Bacalao’s lamb entrée


Lamb was the substitute game of the day that evening. I wasn’t complaining. The dish presented a delicate rack of New Zealand’s finest along with a tender slice of local lamb shoulder. There was even some flavourful local pulled lamb meat in the Newfoundland mushroom risotto underneath. A sauce of international lamb juices painted the remainder of the plate. It was yet another brilliantly executed dish that honoured the ingredients, the diner and the kitchen that prepared it.

The answer
Creating a popular or hot restaurant requires assembling certain ingredients and making sure they all work together in a harmonious way. It’s like putting the pieces of a difficult puzzle together. Unless that last piece fits snugly, the end result is diminished.

Bacalao's Ivan Kyutukchiev

Bacalao’s Ivan Kyutukchiev

Andrea Maunder has worked tirelessly to make Bacalao a remarkable restaurant, one that perfectly fit her vision as an eatery that would celebrate our local ingredients and our cuisine in a new, sophisticated way. But there was one element lacking. A cohesive, highly talented and thoroughly skilled kitchen brigade that could realize her vision.

To her credit she has completed the puzzle and it is marvelous. How did she do it? By promoting Ivan Kyutukchiev to be Bacalao’s Executive Chef, the general in her kitchen. Kyutukchiev is one of the most gifted chefs I know. Bacalao will be good for him and he will be good for Bacalao. See for yourself while you can still get a dinner reservation. You will be amazed.

Know as well that, as of today, Bacalao receives a four star rating from me.

Rating:
* * * *

Price:
Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip – $190.00 (approx.)

Sound level:
Moderate

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

Kosher comfort

Jewish deli art two
Some hits and misses at second Jewish deli pop-up

Pop-up restaurants are yesterday’s news in most cities. When St. John’s chefs finally clued in only a few were interested enough to do one. Several cooks from Raymonds did a pop-up last year at a Duckworth Street venue, Todd Perrin did sort of one at Mallard Cottage before it officially opened, and chefs have gotten together with Roary MacPherson at the Sheraton to do what they’ve called pop-ups as fundraisers for various causes. More power to all of them for trying.

Jonathan Richler

Jonathan Richler

Then there’s the group who can’t say no to smoking brisket for profit. Jonathan Richler, an avid foodie, along with a few of his buddies – trained cooks Adam Blanchard of Five Brothers Cheese and David Williams of Get Stuffed – have pulled off their second Jewish deli pop-up. (Thanks partly to Chinched which rented them space.)

I’ve known Richler for over 10 years. He’s a Jew with a passionate interest in Jewish history and culture. I’ve interviewed him several times about everything from Jewish religious holidays to Jewish cuisine. Being me, my ears always pricked up when Jonathan would describe a traditional recipe for juicy baked chicken, or some other Jewish dish.

Logical fit
Richler has scads of energy, he loves people and likes to have fun. Add to that his interest in food and educating people about Jewish culture, andKatz's poster a Jewish deli pop-up seems a logical fit. After all, the Jewish deli has made a wondrous contribution to world cuisine since the first one opened (Katz’s according to author Ted Merwin in Pastrami on Rye) on New York’s Lower East Side in 1888.

Delis aren’t as popular as they used to be. During their heyday I ate dozens of times at Ben’s, Schwartz’s, and Dunn’s in Montreal. I still crave Ben’s thinly sliced smoked meat on rye (not to mention the cheesecake) but, sadly, it’s something I’ll never taste again. Ben’s is gone and most others are a pale imitation of what they used to be. Last year I ate at the Carnegie Deli in New York. It, like New York, is still awesome.

Doing a reasonable interpretation of Jewish deli food in St. John’s is a tall order. On the basics Richler and company did a good job. A few items were not quite up to par, and there was one surprising fail. Perhaps the overwhelming turnout for the pop-up caused pressure that resulted in the lapses.

Time
We were seated at 4 p.m. at the one day restaurant that would disappear like Brigadoon at 9:30 or so that night (Sun., May 18). If the deli ever pops again you’ll need to set aside 2 1/2 hours for dining in. It’s not produced in deli time, but then such rare experiences should be savoured not rushed. A less expensive take-out option (with less food) was also available – $30 as opposed to $40 for dine-in.

cherry coke clip artPop-ups don’t sell booze so we were offered standard non-alcoholic beverages with one drink slightly altered. It was deli cherry Coke, made by adding a little cherry syrup. That’s what I ordered.

A plate of appetite starters for two included chopped liver, dried chanterelles and potato knishes, pickled red pepper, pickled fennel, Israeli pickles, and matzo crackers. The chopped liver was food processor smooth and had lots of oniony flavour. I didn’t taste or spot any bits of the oft employed hard cooked eggs though.
SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES
Give me a pile of chopped liver on a matzo cracker that I can wash down with cherry Coke (or was that cherry Pepsi?) and I’m happy. The pickles and pickled veggies were brilliant but the knishes were not.

Indelicate pastry
I like flakey, tender pastry and, if not flakey, it must at least be tender. Fillings should also be substantial. Here we had indelicate pastry with scant filling. What I could taste of the filling did have potential. The earthy, dried chanterelles had been rehydrated and blended with potato. Mt. Scio savoury in the knishes was a nice idea, and (quite correctly) the pungent herb was used sparingly.
SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES
Here’s the thing about matzo ball (dumpling) soup. Three balls is acceptable in a rich, schmaltzy broth. (Schmaltz is chicken fat and is essential in good Jewish cooking.) If you only have two balls per bowl they should be extra big balls. Like golf balls. Or, you should add some vegetables or noodles, or both.

Our plain broth had excellent, smoke tinged flavour but was not schmaltzy. In fact, it was so lean you could freeze it and skate on it. The savoury flecked matzo balls were lonely, small and dense. Large, light and airy is preferable. An old Jewish proverb says, “Worries go down better with soup.” But the soup must have substance, or your worries will catch in your throat.

Jewish Deli smoked meat sandwich

Jewish Deli smoked meat sandwich

The smoked meat in my smoked meat on rye was good. It was also black and crisp at the edges. Like all proper deli smoked meat sandwiches it was fatty. (Jewish cuisine is meant to build you up.) But it could have been moister. Several slices were dry.

The surprising fail I mentioned earlier referred to the fries that came with my sandwich. The menu talked about pickled turnip and potato fries. Pickled turnips I knew, but as fries?

UFO’s
Anyway, it didn’t matter because all of the fries were UFO’s, unidentifiable frying objects. (Wait, is that one sweet potato? Is that undercooked turnip?) It was mostly a mass of black, scrawny, tasteless dreck. I asked David Williams about them. I held out hope for some logical explanation. He said he’d get back to me but didn’t.

Jewish deli chicken schnitzel on bagel

Jewish deli chicken schnitzel on bagel


By far the best savoury (and I don’t mean the herb) plate of the day was the chicken schnitzel on bagel with coleslaw, potato salad and pink pickled egg. The modestly creamy coleslaw was crunchy and fresh tasting. I enjoyed the addition of a few strands of salt meat on top. A little meat always makes vegetables taste more interesting.
Jewish clip art two
The so-called German potato salad was too bland for German salad. Where was that yin-yang of the sugar and vinegar? The pink pickled egg made up for the low seasoning of the salad. I’ve now resolved to eat more pickled eggs and pickled things in general. (I remember when a friend operated a pub on Cochrane St. One highlight of my visits was treating myself to a pickled egg from the large Warren’s jar on the bar. Do bars have pickled eggs anymore?)

Star sandwich
A Georgetown bagel with egg washed, breaded and crispy fried chicken breast meat between it was the star of the plate. I think Georgetown bagels are made too small (have you noticed?) but at least they taste right. The bagel, the chicken and the schmaltz mayo were close to perfection.

Jewish deli chocolate rugelach

Jewish deli chocolate rugelach

I was more impressed by the scoop of vanilla ice cream than by the chocolate rugelach underneath it. Most likely the ice cream was from Chinched but the maker was not identified. The rugelach was a tad dry. Nevertheless, the chocolate, vanilla and pastry together made a good team.

One heavenly blintz filled with cottage cheese and napped with blueberry sauce ended our meal. It was extraordinary, and, as full as my belly was, I could have eaten several more. The pancake was light, the sauce bright and the milky, slightly sharp, chewy cheese was the ultimate counterpoint to the soft pancake and sweet berry condiment.

Jewish deli cheese blintz

Jewish deli cheese blintz


Jewish pop-up deli, the second, was good. Let’s hope number three will be better.

Rating:
* *
Price:
Lunch for two with one cherry Coke and tip – $96.00

Sound level:
High

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

Jewish Deli menu, 2014

Happy hummus, happy diner

Hummus Hut exterior
Happy Hummus Hut
208 Duckworth St.
St. John’s
Ph. (709) 579-5746

The Happy Hummus Hut on Duckworth is an eatery, as the moniker might suggest, that caters to those looking for vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free dining.

I’m an omnivore. I eat everything; but I do have a special fondness for vegetables. I love their rainbow colours, textures and unique flavours. Legions of health conscious souls among us, course correcting toward a low meat diet, are thrilled we now have several restaurants specializing in vegetarian delights.

Happy Hummus Hut just happened to be the diner closest to where we’d parked the car. My eye caught the sign. I wondered, how happy is this hummus hut? I assume sunshine yellow must be the happy colour. Hummus Hut’s walls were ablaze. We didn’t mind as it was good to be reminded of what sunshine yellow looks like – even when it’s out of a tin. Local artwork and photos lent supplementary hues, primary and otherwise, to the overall mix at Hummus Hut.

Inside the Happy Hummus Hut

Inside the Happy Hummus Hut


Counter
The lion’s share of space was claimed by a wraparound counter sectioning off a kitchen/reception/cashier area, featuring two dedicated stations for preparing gluten free options. On the wall above this multi-purpose zone were three menu boards. Orders were placed for appetizers and mains.

Next we were directed to a dining section at the back and up one level. (Mind the step!) A collection of empty food jars and other sundries corralled a group of portable tables and folding chairs. I’d say there was room for 20 people. We sat and waited for my cucumber infused H2O and guest’s vanilla flavoured herbal tea, with crafty hand filled twist top bag.

I don’t recall whether background music was provided but I do remember the owner, Hlynn Kenny, humming several tunes as she prepared pesto platters and the like. She was, we noticed, very cheerful and offered a warm welcome to all who entered, asking if it was their first visit et cetera. One of the drawbacks in appropriating the word “happy” for your business is that you must appear to be happy all the time, even if you’re not. Grumpy Hummus Hut doesn’t cut it.

Cucumber infused water

Cucumber infused water

Infusion
The cucumber infusion gave plain water a piercing vitality, matched by the rich, round flavours of the tea. It was a good start, followed by surprisingly thin but fabulous carrot, apple and ginger soup. The broth offered a robust condensation of all three principal flavours – the kind of punchiness to be found in a well-made consommé.
Chickpea salad and rice paper rolls with nut pesto, carrots and beans

Chickpea salad and rice paper rolls with nut pesto, carrots and beans


Chickpea salad without dressing is rather nondescript. In this case the day was saved by a chirpy roasted red pepper dressing. It bestowed some real umph to the mixture of peas, grated carrot and red pepper.
Carrot apple soup and hummus flatbread sandwich

Carrot apple soup and hummus flatbread sandwich


A daily hummus is offered at Hummus Hut and on our day it was roasted garlic zucchini hummus. Of the various methods of delivery (flatbread, wrap, and rice paper roll) I chose the flatbread sandwich. Concealed between the slices were: carrot, red pepper, cucumber, mushroom slices, and hummus. Making things absolutely spot on was the dressing, made slightly edgy with the addition hot sauce.

I love the texture of dampened rice paper. It made a sensational wrapping for the rolls containing nut pesto, carrots and green beans. Guest was served two, but generously offered one to me. It was a nutty, crunchy, textural triumph. As for flavour? When you add nut pesto or nut butter to carrots, green beans and rice paper the result is irresistible.

Chocolate hummus with apples and crackers

Chocolate hummus with apples and crackers


Sweets
We each finished with something sweet. It was simply impossible to ignore one of the desserts, chocolate hummus. Who knew? An orb of dark chocolate hummus, a visual twin of chocolate ice cream, was presented in a ramekin on a plate filled with apple wedges and crackers (made from seeds).

The hummus had the taste of partly sweet chocolate and the texture of smooth hummus. It was good but so heavy I couldn’t finish it. Truth is, I was served enough to satisfy four people. Scaling back on the single portion size would be a capital idea.

Rice paper roll filled with spiced pumpkin fudge

Rice paper roll filled with spiced pumpkin fudge


Serving size was not an issue with Hummus Hut’s rice paper roll filled with fudgy spiced pumpkin, although its sweetness was at the very edge of what’s acceptable to the average palate. Still, it had all the flavour of the fulsome squash which to some extent compensated for the dessert’s lacklustre presentation, one modest sized roll being leaned on by a bold white and red apple wedge that seemed to be saying, I’m the star of this show!

If it’s fresh, clean, vibrant gluten free, vegetarian, or vegan cooking you’re after then Happy Hummus Hut gets my vote. Cheery greetings and coffee shop atmosphere suit as well.

Rating:
* * *

Price:
Lunch for two with tax and tip – $47.00 (approx.)

Sound level:

Moderate

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