The Ship Pub
265 Duckworth St.
St. John’s, NL
Ph. (709) 753-3870
The Ship Pub is operated by the same folks who own the Duke. Both are different. The Duke feels like a pub imagined by a designer. The Ship is like a pub that materialized independently, as if in nature, a strange flower that gradually revealed itself in the jagged crack of a concrete foundation. The Duke is a bar you’d see on a TV show – literally. The Ship is the type written about in books.
Several downtown pubs are tucked away, inconspicuously, in the belly of buildings. I think the older ones have ghosts. These days when I look at the wedge-shaped corner bar and stools at the Ship, I see and hear the ghostly figures of a whole company of characters – many from the early arts community – all bibulous, mostly garrulous and, sometimes, pugnacious.
Our friend Andy O’Keefe invited us to have lunch at the Ship Pub. I didn’t expect to get a review out of it because after fish and chips and a burger what’s left? I was wrong. The iconic pub, thanks to its creative new chef, Amy Anthony, has stealthily morphed into a gastropub – in the best sense of the term. Just glance at a few of the recent blackboard menus – which change weekly – and you’ll see what I mean. But, don’t panic, the Ship still does excellent fish and chips, burgers, Club sandwiches et cetera.
While perennial favourites can be found on the Ship’s dutifully delivered permanent card, after reading the wall specials, you might think Amy Anthony is working her way through a cookbook called, “World’s Favourite Comfort Food Recipes.” You never know what might pop up there. One week it could be veggie chickpea curry, Báhn mì or popcorn chicken roti; and next, it might be Moroccan chickpea soup, Korean BBQ pulled pork tacos or salt meat grilled cheese sandwiches. Yes, that’s correct, salt meat grilled cheese.
A pale, puréed root vegetable soup, even one decorated with crispy, carrot ribbons, wouldn’t have been my choice on a warm August day, unless I’d just had dental surgery. Andy had a hankering for it though. I tasted the mixture of rutabaga and celery root. It was subtly flavoured, well made and undoubtedly rich in minerals and vitamins. Andy enjoyed it. I appreciated the potage but prefer puréed soups with zip and bold flavours.
Spouse’s Moroccan chickpea soup was more in line with my preferences. It looked like something that had been whipped up in the middle of a farmer’s field on a portable camp stove. There were so many fresh vegetables seeking attention, the chickpeas almost went unnoticed. Tomatoes, carrots, yellow beans and the ubiquitous cauliflower florets subsumed the peas. Anthony’s soup released the kind of exotic aroma you might imagine wafting around the spice shop of a Marrakesh souk. One delicious sip confirmed the presence of cumin, coriander, garlic and other aromatics.
Hawkins mac and cheese takes its name from the Hawkins Cheezies crumbled on top of the casserole. I’ve always been a Hawkins Cheezies fan. They taste superior to the puffy alternative, have better texture, are less uniform and less messy. I received a huge square serving of the tubular pasta, bound together with cheese sauce, cheese and cheezies. My mother was an excellent cook. The Ship’s reminded me of her macaroni and cheese. I can’t pay a higher compliment.
Brisket stuffed Yorkshire pudding should have been called smothered Yorkshire pudding. It took me several minutes to find the pastry underneath a great stack of pulled beef, mushrooms – including foraged chanterelles – peas, rainbow chard, kale, carrots and gravy. The dish needed editing. I’m a committed omnivore, but even for me, this was an intimidating Mount Everest of protein and carbs. The textures were fine but the gravy had a ramped up, unusually strong beef flavour. Instead of enhancing, it dominated, like too much rum in a trifle.
Andy ordered the salt meat grilled cheese sandwich. He’d had one on a previous visit and liked the combination of salt meat, three cheeses and mustard pickles. I tasted it and thought, there’s a really good grilled cheese sandwich in there screaming to get out. Salt meat adds taste to Jiggs dinner and is good eating on its own, as part of the dinner. It can be used effectively in other ways as well, but I don’t think this is one of them. Obviously, salt meat is salty but when you add cheese and pickles – both made with salt – you’ve simply got too much salt.
The Ship’s sweet potato crab cakes were a dream, appetizing to the eye and delicious. Generously sized, the crab cakes had lots of texture – pieces of red pepper and green onion helped – with flavour mainly provided by the crab and sweet potato. A drift of lime aioli gave each bite a boost, with fatty richness and zing. A first-rate side salad composed of very fresh greens, red cabbage, cucumber, sweet peppers and tomato gave the plate balance and colour.
You won’t find desserts on the Ship’s menu. By the time I’d gotten through my meal I didn’t have room for one. Neither did Andy or spouse. If I were to suggest a signature dessert for The Ship Pub it would be rice pudding with raisins – a simple pudding with only five ingredients. Chef Amy might be tempted to add more ingredients like: nuts, dried fruit, liqueur, et cetera. I would caution restraint. Sometimes less really is more.
Price Lunch for two with beers, tax and tip costs approximately $65.
Service Fast and hospitable.
Atmosphere Quiet for a pub. The Ship seemed to attract a crowd that day who were interested in pints and low-key, serious conversation.
Sound level Moderate.
Open Sunday: 12 p.m. to 12 a.m. Monday to Saturday: 12 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Reservations Walk-ins are welcome.
Credit cards All major.
Beverages Many beers on tap, plus the usual pub beverages.
Best bets Crab cakes, Hawkins mac and cheese and the soups. I tried the Ship’s fish and chips on a previous visit and it’s also excellent.
Gluten free options Please ask your server about options.
Wheelchair access No.
* Good * * Very good * * * Excellent * * * * Exceptional