The Reluctant Chef
281 Duckworth St.
Tony Butt might be called a reluctant chef because, for fourteen years, he was determined that he’d never open a restaurant. “Then one day,” he said, “I woke up with a restaurant and I was on Facebook, all in one week.” The Reluctant Chef at 281 Duckworth St. is that restaurant.
Butt was a late bloomer in pursuing culinary work. The Northwest Brook native had been working in the oil industry. One day in the mid-nineties he had an epiphany. It was the realization that despite making good money, he wasn’t happy.
After quitting his job, he moved to St. John’s from Clarenville and decided to learn how to cook. His approach was slightly unconventional. Butt became fascinated with a new restaurant called Bruno’s, owned and operated by the late Bruno Orticello. At the time Bruno’s was creating a stir in St. John’s dining. The restaurant’s approach was European continental, very Italian, very Spanish. Bruno would, for example, serve grilled fish with the head on.
Tony Butt walked into Bruno’s one day and asked if he could be a volunteer dishwasher. They thought he was crazy but he kept asking for two straight weeks. Eventually Bruno and his partner Gail Chancey gave in and allowed Butt to wash dishes. Within a couple of weeks he was at the main stove cooking octopus and whatever else Bruno’s eclectic menu offered.
That was the genesis of Tony Butt’s cooking career, after which, his life involved cooking part of the year in a string of different St. John’s restaurants for restaurateurs and chefs he admired – like Maurizio Modica. The rest of the year – if work was available – was spent working for film production companies, like Paul Pope Productions, as a Location Manager.
Tony Butt now owns his own restaurant and he can’t afford to be reluctant anymore – except in the name of his business. The Reluctant Chef’s location at 281 Duckworth has been a bit of a Bermuda Triangle for restaurateurs who’ve attempted something there before. I can’t remember the names of all the restaurants that have tried to achieve altitude at No. 281, but let me see…there were Bistro 281, Malu, Thymestone Bistro and Christopher’s, just for starters.
I’m not citing it as a reason for business failure but one drawback at the location is the ridiculously small kitchen. It’s been described in the past as a closet, a cubbyhole, you name it. Tony Butt was well aware of the limitation and decided the best approach would be to do a set menu every night where all customers are served the same meal. It cuts down on the number of pots and pans that’s for sure.
“Yes the kitchen is tiny,” he said, “and that’s one of the reasons that provoked me to do our dishes the way we’re doing them. I would never try a menu with fifteen or twenty items using that kitchen; you’d be setting yourself up for failure. The food would be sub par, but this way it works.”
If you’ve been inside 281 Duckworth before, you already know the layout of The Reluctant Chef. There’s a narrow hallway with a small dining room (seating ten or twelve) to your left as you enter. At the end of the hall there’s a larger box shape room (seating sixteen to twenty) with several windows. A narrow bar, leading to the tiny kitchen, separates the two dining rooms. The rooms are very traditional. We were seated in the front room with pale green walls, large format seascape photographic prints by Adam Cryderman, fireplace and chandelier.
As Tom Waits’ unique sound swirled above our heads our server announced an eight course set menu for the evening. The appetizer course came on a board for sharing. It had a few fresh breads – whole wheat and gluten free, made by a baker in Witless Bay – smoked salmon, hummus, tapenade, pickled shallots and pickled cabbage. It was a pleasant start.
The Reluctant Chef offers a small selection of wines, about four reds and four whites. Between three of us we managed to try Conundrum, a white blend from California, Chateau Smith Cabernet Sauvignon, Washington State, Château Saint Jean Côtes du Rhône, France and Catena Malbec from Argentina. The Côtes du Rhône and Malbec were my favourites – great aroma, rich, smooth flavour.
Second course was a sweet potato salt cod cake served with a sweet chilli accent sauce. It was my first time having sweet potato combined with salt cod. I liked the sweet and salty combination. The texture was puréed. By the way, the fish was quite salty so if you don’t have a salt tooth steer clear. (They will do something else.) Personally, I don’t see the point of salt fish that’s so watered down (a couple of days in some cases) that the salty taste has disappeared.
Next came a lightly breaded pan seared trout with aioli. The beautifully cooked trout rested on a serving of al dente green beans. The fish had an extra crispy top and very succulent flesh. Unlike many I’ve tasted, the aioli was very mild and smooth as silk. The trout was followed by a simple calamari salad dressed in limejuice. The calamari, presented in rings, was remarkably tender.
Fifth course moved us onto meats and a heavier dish – pork. The rolled pork tenderloin was stuffed with black rice and feta. Black rice is a short grain rice that’s very dark, tender and somewhat creamy. (In China they use it in desserts.) The textures here were notable, especially the crispy tips of the broccolini served with the pork. It seemed that the tips had been dipped in hot fat to crisp them up.
Sixth course brought an interesting terrine. It was hot and made from beef and hazelnuts with tart cranberry coulis and sautéed zucchini to the side. The terrine had the texture of pudding – crusty exterior and softer nutty, meaty interior. I found the flavour to be less beefy than I was expecting but still delicious.
Final meat course was lamb ragout over spirulina spaghetti. (Spirulina spaghetti is made from flour and a powdered form of spirulina – algae that’s high in protein and in vogue these days.) The ground lamb was flavoured up with a touch of mint and topped with homemade ricotta. This dish worked well for me. The lamb was strong and although the spirulina flavour wasn’t high in this particular pasta, ground lamb is a good match for it.
Dessert was a cheesecake, something of a cliché dish for me but I have to say, Tony Butt’s cheesecake is darn good. The secret he tells me is to beat egg whites until stiff peaks form and then fold them into the cheesecake batter. The result is a very light and much less cloying cheesecake. I enjoyed it very much, followed by excellent coffee and a pour of André Petit Cognac.
Tony Butt is a very good cook. He’s hired some very good servers and kitchen help. I like the idea of eight or nine courses over three or four hours in a warm, friendly atmosphere. Some may think that’s too much time to commit. But consider this, just once in a while, is that really so much time to spend with friends having great conversation, good wine and excellent food?
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Meal for two with wine, tax and tip – $240.00 (approx.)
Food, service, atmosphere
*Fair **Good ***Excellent ****Exceptional