Fort Amherst Pub
29 Rowan St.
St. John’s, NL
Ph. (709) 745-4550
Names are important. Fort Amherst Pub is a good name. It’s easy to remember. It conjures up St. John’s history; but, it would be more accurate to call Churchill Square’s newest business, Fort Amherst Gastropub or Fort Amherst Pub and Restaurant. Sure, it sells booze – a wide variety, as it happens – but it also sells pan roasted chicken for $25, steak and chips for $38, fish and grits at $26 and hamburgers for $22.
That makes it as much restaurant as pub. And, let’s not forget that Fort Amherst’s owner, Evan Bursey, is first and foremost a chef. Fort Amherst also has a large, well-equipped kitchen and several cooks, including a dedicated pastry cook.
Fort Amherst Pub maintains roughly the same layout as the pizzeria that preceded it at 29 Rowan Street. Colour changes have been made. Surfaces are grey, except for very dark furniture, darkish ceiling and light, wooden bar tops. Most tables are in a narrow, dimly lit alcove. There’s also seating at the drinks bar and along a wide bar attached to the front window. Without the big window, atmosphere would be non-existent.
Our server, the owner’s elder brother, was very hospitable, friendly and efficient. He helps manage the bar and does double-duty serving tables. Several members of the Bursey family have worked in food service over the years. Prior to starting his own place, Chef Evan Bursey was the inaugural chef at Water Street’s, Social House Kitchen and Bar, since renamed The Fifth Ticket. (Speaking of names, it’s important to pick the right one and stick with it.)
I’ve cooked grits and I’ve eaten southern grits more than a few times in my life. Chef Brian Piercey of Celtic Hearth served me some delicious grits with Guinness braised short ribs at Savour a few years ago. On a Sunday morning in 2012, spouse and I were at a buffet breakfast featuring a live performance of the Harlem Gospel Choir. It was at BB King’s in New York. I had a plate of southern fried catfish and grits. As my Ridgeland, Mississippi cousin Debbie would say, “Oh my glory, they were good.” So, I have a pretty good idea what southern fried fish and grits – or classic shrimp and grits – is supposed to taste like.
I was taken aback by the $26 price of Fort Amherst’s fish n’ grits, but, I’m always looking for something different to write about, so I ordered a plate. I wish I hadn’t. The grits were topped with approximately 25 shelled, southern fried mussels. I’d never eaten southern fried mussels. I’ve decided there are better ways to prepare them. The remaining seafood included a small portion of southern fried lobster and a few fried shrimps – both were excellent. There was no “fish” as such. Shellfish, but no cod.
My main criticism of the dish is that the grits weren’t grits. They looked like cottage cheese. Fort Amherst’s menu plainly stated that “stone-ground grits” would be served. There was nothing ground about what was on my plate. It looked like I’d been served dried, partly cooked hominy – whole corn kernels. Hominy that had never been between two grinding stones, or put through any other kind of grinding machine. Grits should be soft, creamy, and a little gritty. The lumpy concoction I was served tasted like individual pieces of undercooked pasta. Bits of bacon, usually added for flavour, tasted like hard pieces of Lego.
Left me cold
The presentation of Fort Amherst’s dish called, “It Tastes Like Chicken,” left me cold. I saw a nightmare on a plate. My dining companion didn’t disagree. Its main ingredient was the crusty, southern fried, headless body of a whole quail, with its stiff, skinny little quail legs sticking up in the air. Surrounding the pathetic creature, as if mocking it, were cubes of bright red watermelon. Why watermelon was beyond me, unless chef thought he needed to drive home the southern theme harder. Maybe he thought the creamed collard greens, black bean purée and whipped corn pancake underneath weren’t enough.
The quail was a little dry and rubbery. May I suggest, Fort Amherst, that you try brining the wee things before cooking? I’ve tasted quail in the past that has been treated this way, resulting in tender, moist flesh. The creamed collard greens were good and the black bean purée, very good. Unfortunately, the whipped corn pancake, underneath all, was a total failure. It wasn’t cooked through and the taste of raw pancake batter permeated everything, except the unfortunate quail.
Companion had the Ft. “Mac” burger with secret – server wouldn’t tell us what was in it – house sauce. Sauce that wasn’t that special. The bun, however, was very special. Made in-house, it was fresh and tender. As cheeseburgers go, thanks to the bun and fresh, handmade beef patty, the Ft. “Mac” burger was very good.
The burger came with skinny fries, which companion had with Fort Amherst’s gravy. It was, literally, jaw dropping gravy and not in a nice way. It looked like gravy, it had the colour and viscosity of gravy but it tasted of nothing. Seriously, it had absolutely no taste. I’m still puzzled by it. How is it even possible to make gravy so insipid? Dishwater has more flavour. Did anyone think to dip a spoon in and taste the stuff? Apparently not. Fort Amherst Pub succeeded in creating gravy more boring than waiting in line at the post office.
Dessert was house maple bacon doughnuts. They were more substantial and enjoyable than chain doughnuts. Obviously, the bacon and maple flavours worked well together. This time it wasn’t the Lego bacon I’d had with the fish n’ grits. Fort Amherst’s doughnuts tasted a little like breakfast, especially with my cup of excellent coffee. The chocolate sauce underneath, meant no doubt as a decorative touch, was an unwelcome extra flavour.
I’ve tasted chef Evan Bursey’s food a few times in the past and it was excellent. Obviously, he’s capable of doing much better. Some might blame this disappointing meal on start-up glitches. Some might even say I should have waited longer to review Fort Amherst Pub. I would disagree. In my view, if you’re charging full prices from the outset, then you must be prepared to be criticized by customers and reviewed by newspaper restaurant critics.
Price Dinner for two with beverage, tip and tax costs approximately $110.
Atmosphere Subdued. Needs some dazzle.
Sound level Moderate.
Open Tuesday to Thursday: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday and Monday: Closed
Reservations Walk-ins are welcome.
Credit cards All major.
Parking Metered parking.
Beverages Full range of beers, spirits, house cocktails and popular wines.
Best bets Ft. “Mac” burger and maple bacon doughnuts.
Wheelchair access Yes.
* Fair * * Good * * * Excellent * * * * Exceptional