• 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.

Black Sea Dining in St. John’s

Franklin Hotel and Black Sea Restaurant and Bar

Black Sea Restaurant and Bar

The Franklin Hotel

193 Water Street

Ph. (709) 754-9028

Black Sea Restaurant serves Bulgarian inspired cuisine. Chefs and owners Gregory Bersinski and Tony Velinov were born and bred in Bulgaria. Bulgaria shares a border with Romania in the north, Serbia in the west, Greece and Turkey in the south. Its eastern boundary joins the Black Sea. Now you know why Bersinski and Velinov’s latest venture is called Black Sea Restaurant and Bar.

Bersinski and Velinov have many years of experience in the restaurant trade and it shows in their new eatery at the Franklin Hotel. Gregory Bersinski was one of the chefs who helped put Bianca’s on the map. Afterward he – and later Velinov – were involved with the Vault and both currently have an interest in Bistro Sofia.

Velinov told me, “We wanted to open a second restaurant that was a little step up from Bistro Sofia but still casual. Not so much in the food but in the atmosphere. The bistro is a classic bistro but Black Sea is somewhat closer to fine dining.”

Home

The space in the Franklin has been home to the original Gypsy Tea Room and Duck on Water. The Gypsy was a great success but Duck on Water never did take to Water, so to speak. I enjoyed Duck on Water but I suspect John Franklin didn’t enjoy being a restaurateur. (I’ve met few who seem to love it.)

The last time I spoke with John Franklin he told me he wanted to remove the wall separating the restaurant from the bar. That happened, and now Franklin has removed himself from the business. He has negotiated a deal whereby Bersinski and Velinov will own and run the business: hotel, bar and restaurant. Essentially, Franklin, as owner of the building, becomes landlord.

Inside Black Sea showing bar and portion of dining area

Inside Black Sea showing bar and portion of dining area

Having the word black in its name suits Black Sea. From the black awning and façade to the black tablecloths, partly black wall space, and dark furnishings it presents itself in the manner of basic black elegance. Think couture as opposed to dark, depressing rags. There are splashes of colour. One section of wall is burgundy, another fuchsia, and another brick – actual brick. Several paintings create additional visual interest.

Service

Our server was welcoming, attentive and, like the décor, attired in black. It may have been inexperience but Black Sea’s service was a little uneven. At one point the wrong dish was brought to our table and when asked a question about whether what was on a dish was couscous (it was Israeli couscous) she could not answer the question. Servers in restaurants should be able to answer questions about the menu.

Chefs, like all of us, need vacation time and while Tony Velinov and Vanya Velinova handled our meals beautifully, Black Sea’s undisputed premier savoury chef, Gregory Bersinski, was away when we visited.

While Black Sea’s drinks menu offered many classic cocktails a few were obviously

Balkan Triangle

Balkan Triangle

themed to the restaurant. There was Bulgarian Sunrise (Jagermeister, orange juice and grenadine) and Balkan Triangle (peach schnapps, spiced rum and orange juice). I tried the Balkan Triangle, a drink with definite summertime appeal. Fruity flavours and rum always make a good match.

Bouillabaisse

Bouillabaisse

Fish soup

Bouillabaisse or a reasonable approximation of same is not difficult to make, but only a handful of St. John’s restaurants seem able to produce a good one. Now Black Sea can be added to the good list. A successful Mediterranean style fish soup or stew must have a bold, flavourful broth tasting of the sea (real fish stock), saffron, olive oil, tomatoes, pepper, sea salt, parsley, onions and garlic. Black Sea’s was spot on and also contained mussels and very fresh cod.

Monastery bean soup with sausage

Monastery bean soup with sausage

Deft touch was evident in the second soup too. Monastery bean soup with sausage had the slow cooked layers of taste and substance you’d expect in a fall or wintertime soup like this. It reminded me of a light – albeit liquidy – cassoulet. The sliced sausage appeared to be peppery chorizo and gave the soup a hefty lift.

 

Mediterranean salad

Mediterranean salad

In between my soup and main I tasted Black Sea’s Mediterranean salad. It was a raspberry scented mixture of arugula and pine nuts topped with a handful (tangle?) of Lebanese string goat cheese. String goat cheese is pretty run-of-the-mill as cheeses go but I like it for its look and mouth feel. The mass of fine cheese threads combined with crisp arugula and pine nuts creates a good display of textures.

Kavarma by Black Sea

Kavarma by Black Sea

Tradition

Kavarma is a traditional Bulgarian dish of braised meat or pork cooked slowly in a little liquid along with onions, herbs, tomatoes and sometimes root vegetables. Black Sea’s was mostly full of large cubes of beef with onions, tomatoes and mushrooms. I was impressed with how well the beef had been cooked. It was so tender and the liquid in the bowl mirrored and trumped the beef flavour of the actual beef. The Kavarma was served with a few pieces of warm, fragrant flat bread that I used to sop up more liquid.

Blackened salmon

Blackened salmon

Black Sea’s blackened salmon (somehow you knew Black Sea would have to have blackened salmon) was the only clear misstep of the evening. The piece of fillet, wearing its black cloak, rested on a bed of the aforementioned Israeli couscous mixed with grilled corn. A few grilled asparagus spears were laid across the fish. It can be a challenge to make blackened anything look good so the effort was appreciated.

The real challenge here is to make sure that during the blackening or cooking you do not overcook the fish. I’ll accept that with this method there’s a fine line between cooked and overcooked, but, in this instance, the line was substantially crossed. I did enjoy the Israeli couscous and corn combination.

Napoleon

Napoleon

Desserts

Velinov and Velinova are true masters in the field of chocolate making and pastry. I knew their desserts would not disappoint. The Napoleon was a sandwich of absolutely smooth Belgian chocolate mousse sandwiched between and oozing outside the borders of layers of caramelized puff pastry. I wanted to pick it up and lick the sides the way I did with ice cream sandwiches when I was a kid. The slight fine dining vibe Velinov wanted (and has successfully achieved) is likely what restrained me.

Baklava is a dessert that some believe originated in the very general area of Bulgaria. It’s an irresistible marriage of ingredients and textures that most of us humans love: buttery phyllo pastry, nuts, honey, and more honey. Black Sea’s baklava is made in a simpler fashion than ones I’ve tasted.

BaklavaRather than layers and layers of honey coated phyllo painstakingly arranged atop one another along with the other ingredients, this version is more like a large spring roll where the phyllo is used to wrap pistachios, pecans and honey into a munchy package. It was good and not as intensely sweet as most. Black Sea usually serves its baklava with a scoop of vanilla ice cream but we opted to forego that particular enhancement. Speaking of enhancement, there is no doubt that Black Sea Restaurant and Bar has improved the St. John’s restaurant scene.

Rating:

***  

Price:

Dinner for two with wine and gratuity – $160.00 (approx.)

Sound level:

Moderate

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

 

My 20 pet peeves about restaurants

Pet Peeves Six

Last week I was surfing the internet and saw that a few prominent restaurant critics recently published columns featuring their 10, and in one case, 20 pet peeves about restaurant service. Twenty peeves about service alone seemed like an overload of criticism to me. If I were a server I’d feel my comrades and I had been set upon. Service is only one aspect of restaurant dining, a very important aspect, but just one. We all have our pet peeves about restaurants, as with much in life. I’d reckon your list would talk about more than service. I’ve visited a lot of restaurants in Newfoundland and Labrador and many outside of this province. After some reflection I have drawn up my own list of 20 pet peeves.

Cold welcome1. The indifferent or cold welcome
If an individual, couple or group have selected one out of dozens of restaurants in which to spend their time and money a smiling face with a warm, friendly greeting is not too much to expect upon arrival. The last thing you want in these first minutes is an indifferent or grumpy host mumbling nothing more than, “Do you have a reservation?”

2. Pretentiousness
Restaurants that put on airs may be fun for some people but not me. For example, why do some servers act like they are either a. the owner or b. the chef? When a server says something like, “This evening I have some beautiful lamb shank that I’m braising; and I’m doing that with a very creamy risotto,” it sounds insincere. We know who will really be doing the braising. I applaud servers who know such details but, please, don’t go over the top.

Dark restaurant3. Dark as pitch restaurants
I’ve dined with friends who have 20/20 vision and even they could not read the menu in some restaurants because it was too dark. The problem is compounded when the printing is too small or faded. I’m all for creating mood with low lighting but the tables themselves need enough lighting to ensure patrons can read.

4. War and Peace specials

Many restaurants make servers memorize and then recite a list of specials that seems as long as a novel by Tolstoy. It’s simply impossible to recall everything described. Why do this? If the specials go beyond a few choices they should be written down on paper and handed to diners.

menu graphic5. Menu mistakes
Apart from words being misspelled sometimes menus contain inaccurate descriptions of dishes. Don’t say the half duck has wild rice stuffing if there’s no wild rice in the stuffing. Don’t say the vegetables and fruit are fresh and then serve processed or frozen produce.

6. Menu ignorance
Sometimes when a menu does not contain a lot of detail about a dish a customer will ask the server to fill in the blanks. I once asked a server about a seafood dish and received the following reply. “I hate fish, so I don’t know.” Servers should be able to answer most menu queries without bothering the kitchen.

7. Excellent choice!
When a customer says, “I’ll have the steak and frites,” or whatever, why do so many servers respond with, “Excellent choice!” Whether a server thinks a dish is excellent or not is irrelevant, and unless he or she says it to everyone at the table the impression left is that the other diners made a feeble choice.

8. Stagnant menus
Have you noticed that some restaurants have not changed the menu in many years? A restaurant that sticks with the same menu for more than two or three years risks chefs becoming bored and cooking by rote. Eventually the customer will also become bored, or notice the food doesn’t taste as good anymore, and leave.

mise en place9. Sloppy mise en place
Mise en place is a term chefs use to describe all of the cleaning, peeling, cutting, and measuring that must be done before the actual cooking begins. If vegetables are to be sautéed and served in a timely manner, they must be ready for the pan. Once I was served a dish of peppers with a piece of green pepper still bearing a sales sticker. That’s unacceptable. I often see vegetables cut without uniformity, and have been served produce that appeared not to have been properly washed.

10. Cold plates
When a hot meal is ordered it should arrive at the table hot. This is only possible when the food is served on a plate that has been warmed through. When hot food is served on a cold plate the plate draws the heat from the food. Unless he or she isn’t shy about complaining, the customer
must then settle for tepid carrots as opposed to hot.

overcooked fish11. Overcooking
Seafood and meat being overcooked seems to be a perennial problem. I know it’s seen as accommodating the Newfoundland palate. (God forbid there should be any juice running out of it.) Or is that just an excuse for bad cooking? At any rate, it’s time chefs realized that undercooked food can be put back in the oven while overcooked food is simply ruined.

Attitude two12. Chefs with attitude
If a customer wants a cut of meat or a vegetable cooked to a certain doneness, and can be accommodated without too much trouble, then chefs should fulfil the request. Recently I was served potato in a high end US restaurant that was so undercooked I could hardly get my knife through it. I complained to the server who informed the maître d’. I was told the chef serves his potato “al dente”. I said that in my opinion the potato was raw. They took it back to the kitchen and ages later my potato returned, still raw. Clearly the chef was sending a message. Put up or shut up. I’m not inclined to return to that restaurant.

13. Mishandled complaints
I was once served a dish with shellfish that had gone off badly. It smelled rotten. When I wanted to send it back the server said, “Well, I could take it back but you should know that our chef likes to use lots of spices. Perhaps it’s just that you are not familiar with these spices.” I was flabbergasted. When a customer makes a complaint about being served rotting food it’s wise to take it away immediately. Don’t add insult to injury by suggesting he or she may have an uneducated palate.

yuk14. Poorly tended restrooms
For the most part I’ve found restaurant washrooms to be either meticulously maintained or utterly disgusting. In the middle of a meal there is nothing more off putting than to walk into a restroom with, well, I don’t need to paint you a picture. Shame on restaurants that neglect washroom cleanliness.

15. Removing dishes too soon
A restaurant dinner service is like putting on a play. It’s theatre. Preparation, teamwork and timing are everything. Maintaining the right pace when working a table is important. Picking the perfect moment to serve or remove a plate maintains the equilibrium of the table. The best service is seamless service, where the diner hardly notices the movement of wait staff. Too often I see servers whipping away plates from under people’s noses as soon as they are chewing the last morsel from the plate. No consideration is given to the people at the table who may still be eating. Customers should not be made to feel they are being rushed, period.

frozen dessert16. Commercially made desserts
Way too many restaurants have abandoned homemade desserts. I’m sick of frozen molten chocolate lava cake, frozen cheesecake, carrot cake and all the other mass produced desserts being presented in restaurants these days. I’d settle for just one honestly made lemon meringue pie. All chefs can make some kind of dessert even if they have not specialized in pastry. Surely, having one homemade dessert available is not asking for too much.

17. No decaf coffee

I prefer to drink decaf coffee in the evening these days. When I’m at a restaurant for dinner getting decaf is anything but a sure thing. Servers often say, “I can put a pot on for you but it will take 10 minutes.” Fine, no problem there. It’s when they say, “Sorry we don’t serve decaf,” that I shake my head in disbelief. With so many people drinking decaf coffee these days not providing it makes no sense. (I believe this is more of a problem in Newfoundland than elsewhere.)

tea bag18. Poorly made tea
Finding a good cup of tea in a restaurant is almost impossible. A bag is often dropped in a cup or stainless pot that’s then filled with hot water from a coffee machine. Unless the water is actually boiling, and the cup or pot has been warmed, the tea will taste like warm dishwater. Yuck. Additionally, if the tea bag is put in a cup, too often nothing is provided in which to place the bag after the tea has steeped.

19. Chefs visiting the table
I’ve never liked the practice of the “chef” visiting tables at the end of service. It’s an awkward business, even when the chef is a good conversationalist or a friend. Invariably they ask, “How was the meal?” And invariably I tell them that it was great. That’s because they don’t want to hear criticism in a restaurant filled with customers. They want praise, only praise. It’s an uncomfortable little dance in which I’d rather not participate.

cash only20. Cash only restaurants
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve steered clear of restaurants that don’t accept credit or debit cards. I never carry much cash and the inconvenience of finding a bank machine at the last minute makes the choice to go to another restaurant very easy. The reality today is that most people use cards and while I understand the reasons for “cash only” I still think it’s bad for business. One more thing. If you only accept cash, please make sure your customers know the deal before they order. If they are unaware at settling up time, and become embarrassed, they will never be back.

Ramada’s PJ Billington’s review

PJ Billington’sPJ Billington's interior

Ramada St. John’s

102 Kenmount Rd.

Ph. 722-9330

There was a time when you could count on hotels to have a restaurant and bar on the premises. Several of the newer St. John’s hotels, or planned hotels, do not and will not have dining rooms, restaurants or bars. They may have a stand where you can grab a cup of coffee, muffin or bowl of cereal for breakfast, but that’s about all. There’s a business argument to be made for not having dining or bar facilities in certain hotels; but the result, in my opinion, is that such establishments are boring and dull.

Happily we still have many hotels in St. John’s with restaurants and bars, like the Ramada St. John’s with PJ Billington’s. The general public can conveniently access PJ Billington’s through the restaurant’s own separate outside entrance. I went through that portal in record time recently to escape the blasting cold air of an unusually cold St. John’s winter. The restaurant was a warm and warmly lit haven. Several booths in the restaurant’s main area were occupied so we sat in a quiet booth in the sun room, which despite all its windows was quite warm.

Buffalo chicken pizza

Buffalo chicken pizza

I opened the menu and the first item that caught my interest was the Buffalo chicken pizza. When that famous chicken wing treat, Buffalo wings, was invented in the 1960’s in a bar in Buffalo, New York, I doubt if anyone in that city would have imagined the idea yielding Buffalo chicken pizza. Although not advertised as such, a slice of the small, thin crust pizza worked well as an appetite starter. It certainly captured the flavours of the dish from which the idea sprang. It had the yin and yang of tart and sweet, the smokiness, and above all, the hot sauce hotness. Tiny bits of seasoned chicken were scattered liberally over the sauce base, some covered and some not by a lace blanket of melted cheese.

Mussels

Fresh steamed mussels

Fresh steamed mussels

PJ Billington’s offer steamed mussels with either garlic butter or a white wine cream sauce. I’ve always loved moules marinières, essentially a dish featuring mussels, wine, cream, butter, onion and fresh parsley. I thought mussels steamed in a “white wine cream sauce” might approximate moules marinières. Visually the dish looked brilliant, dozens of mussels on the shell arranged in the bowl in a kind of starburst pattern. The mussels were small but tender and rich in natural flavour. Unfortunately the mussels didn’t seem to have engaged the sauce, which slickly coated the bottom of the bowl, hidden from view at first. It was just as well. I spooned a little of the sauce over a mussel only to discover that it had been over salted.

Traditional pea soup

Traditional pea soup

It’s fascinating to see how traditional pea soup is made by different cooks. If you like your pea soup so thick you could almost stand a spoon in it, then PJ Billington’s has one for you. It is seriously thick. My preference is for pea soup that’s halfway between liquid and porridge. Then there are those who prefer to add ham over salt meat. Some cooks even add carrots and parsnip to their pea soup. (Parsnip in pea soup is just plain wrong.) PJ Billington’s was mostly peas with a few bits of carrot and pieces of salt meat. It seasonings and flavours were perfect.

Traditional prime rib

Traditional prime rib

It was a wintery night and comfort food was what I sought. PJ Billington’s has been serving prime rib dinners for years. I needed prime rib with Yorkshire pudding and a glass of red wine. The wine was Australian, Nottage Hill cabernet-shiraz. The beef looked sensational. It was a very thick cut from the prime rib roast, glistening with jus. The meat did not disappoint. It was tender with robust beef flavour. The mixed vegetables and baked potato were fine. Sadly, the Yorkshire pudding did disappoint. Instead of a golden brown, fluffy, eggy rich and tender baked pudding I bit into a dark, bitter, cooked-to-a-crisp shell with literally nothing but air inside.

Salmon

Pecan and basil crusted salmon

Pecan and basil crusted salmon

There was a salmon offering on the menu called, pistachio basil crusted salmon. Normally when something is crusted it has a coating that’s been made crisp and golden from the roasting or baking process, a genuine crust that you can actually peel back (not that I would ever peel back a good crust). This salmon did not have a crust. It was coated in a greenish, grainy sauce that appeared to have been poured over the fish after baking. Despite the unusual use of the term, “crusted”, the dish was enjoyable – mainly for the salmon which could not have been cooked better in terms of doneness.

Warm ginger cake

Warm ginger cake

Warm ginger cake ended the meal. It was a round puck of cake sauced with warm caramel that gave the lush, not-too-sweet cake extra richness, and moisture which it did not need but was all the better for. The taste of ginger was intense and fresh. The ginger cake, and fresh coffee I was served with it, made a good marriage.

Finally, a word about the service at PJ Billington’s. It was excellent. Our server noticed the parchment paper had not been removed from the bottom of my ginger cake before it was served. (The paper was the only thing remaining on the plate when he cleared the table.) He was embarrassed that it had not been removed and decided not to charge for it. That’s exactly the way servers should handle such situations: acknowledge, correct, move on.

Rating:

**  

Price:

Dinner for two with wine and gratuity – $95.00 (approx.)

Sound level:

Moderate

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