• 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.

Pasta Plus at Terrace on the Square

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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

Bianca’s survives and thrives

Bianca’sBianca's Logo
171 Water Street
St. John’s
Ph. 726-9016

Darwin once said, “It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.” He was talking about life forms but the same can be applied to businesses, be it a newspaper coping with the challenges of new media, or a restaurant riding the roller coaster of boom, recession, shifting food and dining styles, food costs, and customer apathy.

Bianca’s has survived in the St. John’s downtown dining scene for over 20 years. It’s not the same restaurant it was in the beginning. It has subtly changed. The cuisine reveals more thoughtful preparation and presentation. Service is as good as ever but is not as overbearing. Generally, Bianca’s is now a restaurant that takes the essentials seriously but does not take itself too seriously.

Over the years Bianca’s has had talented, skilled chefs. It still does. Chefs Jeff Renouf, and longtime stalwart, Kent Tilley now guide the culinary program at the restaurant. Wine selection is overseen by Bianca and Nick Tsanov. Very few restaurants in the city give wine the prominence it is given at Bianca’s.

Bianca's Bar

Bianca’s Bar


The main dining room has seen colour and décor changes over the years and I like the current darker tones. Bianca’s lounge looks no different but one recent development I’m excited about is the addition of live music on weekends. Steve Edwards (piano) and Steve Randell (bass) are producing a weekend show called Music and Friends.

Steve Edwards

Steve Edwards

A couple of weeks ago Carolann Fowler performed incredible covers of Adele and Sarah McLachlan songs and you would have been wowed by Justin Nurse belting out his version of Billy Joel’s Piano Man.

In the Sex and the City movie Miranda asks the girlfriends why they stopped drinking Cosmopolitans. Carrie Bradshaw replies, “Because everyone else started.” Seven or eight years ago everyone was drinking Cosmos. Mainly because Sarah Jessica Parker’s character, Carrie, drank them on the TV version of the wildly popular Sex and the City.

Perfect
Back then most Cosmopolitans were completely shagged up. Too much

Cosmopolitan

Cosmopolitan

cranberry juice and cheap triple sec. A great Cosmo should contain a hint of cranberry juice. If the drink is just pink that’s fine. If all other ingredients (citrus vodka, triple sec, fresh lime juice) are of good quality, then you will have the perfect Cosmo.

I was served such a Cosmo at Bianca’s, which I sipped and nursed while waiting for our starters. Dean Martin sang Arrivederci Roma in the background. In a way that seemed right because the King of Cool loved a good cocktail. Although, I think Dino may have had more to do with my decision to order the veal chop and gnocchi.

An amuse bouche of clean flavours comprised of ceviche scallop on crostini, Parmesan and red pepper Caesar mayo revved up our digestive engines. Scallops always seemed, to me, the best seafood for the ceviche method because the difference between a raw scallop and a properly cooked one is slim. There’s much less risk of toughening the bivalves when citrus is used to denature them.

Scallops with Jerusalem artichoke puree

Scallops with Jerusalem artichoke puree


Quite tender

More scallops were ordered as a starter. A rectangular plate contained a chorus line of three, dressed with orange segments, apple wood bacon and Jerusalem artichoke purée. Despite roasted tops and faintly charred edges, they were quite tender. The mild, peppery and somewhat nutty taste of the root vegetable did not overpower. All the zip needed came from the citrus and bacon. I loathe rubbery scallops wrapped in bacon, but done separately, as Bianca’s demonstrated, the combo is more than agreeable.

Pork belly confit

Pork belly confit


Pork belly confit sounds totally indecent, but I knew as soon as I saw it on Bianca’s menu I had to have it. Slow cooked pork and pig fat is too powerful a temptation. The four inch long slab of belly, topped with cabbage slaw, sat in BBQ sauce. It was a succulent, rich storehouse of woodsy, sweet, smoky flavour.

I’ve never met a Bianca’s soup I didn’t like. The simple curried asparagus was intense but, happily, not too spicy. It was important to have our taste buds intact for main courses. But first, a surprise intermezzo nibble on a spoon had to be tasted.

Shrimp intermezzo nibble

Shrimp intermezzo nibble


Shrimp
Ceramic spoons (one for each of us) contained a small amount of honeydew melon and mint sorbet along with a large shrimp – looking like it was doing a back flip out of the sorbet. A drizzle of Sambuca filled any remaining gaps in the bowl of the spoon. Personally, I liked all the elements of this treat but found the Sambuca a tad forceful. My guests thought the Sambuca was just right. I felt one or two drops of Pernod would have sufficed.
Salmon in maple butter

Salmon in maple butter

Atlantic salmon enhanced with maple butter is a wonderful marriage of two classic Canadian ingredients. Beginning with a colorful base of citrus and fennel purée the dish rose in layers of roasted garlic fingerling potatoes and salmon fillet. The fingerling halves were seasoned with herbs that matched the salmon and maple flavours beautifully.

Grilled halibut with mussels

Grilled halibut with mussels


The special of grilled halibut provided a bowl filled with carrot, mussels on the shell, broccolini and micro sea beans risotto and buttery sauce. Taking pride of place, reigning like a monarch over all was a thick, snow white piece of halibut sporting crosshatch grill marks, as if to signify its superior status. This dish was a triumph; from the moist, fresh fish to the carefully chosen accompaniments, not a false note was struck.

Veal chop with gnocchi

Veal chop with gnocchi



Veal

A veal chop should be fat and juicy and that’s what Bianca’s delivered. The meat was slightly firm but gave way quickly to my knife and revealed rivulets of juice running down its fibers. Underneath and around it was a brigade of rich, pillowy soft gnocchi, covered, like the chop, in Marsala sauce. The woodsy, wine based sauce was an ideal accompaniment. Both veal and gnocchi love the seasoning provided by a robust sauce.
Lemon Napoleon

Lemon Napoleon

The lemony finish of our meal was Bianca’s lemon Napoleon. Five crispy thin wafers were stacked on top of each other with lemon curd in between. A regal crown of white and golden brown meringue gave the simple construction all the gilding it needed. I thought it was the ideal light, refreshing dessert.

Rating:
* * * *

Price:
Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip – $265.00 (approx.)

Sound level:
Moderate

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