Top 10 restaurants I reviewed in 2016

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1. Basho
283 Duckworth St.
St. John’s
Ph. (709) 576-4600

Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip: $185

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Basho’s sashimi of halibut

Every few years I find it very easy to choose the number one restaurant for this annual “best of’ list. 2016 was one of those years. Although I visited many excellent restaurants during the year now rapidly dwindling, none rose to quite the level of my top pick, Basho. Chef restaurateur, Tak Ishiwata, created the restaurant a decade ago. My last visit, which I described at the time as, “a beautiful adventure,” also got me thinking about why I enjoy Basho so very much. Apart from the cordial, sheltered atmosphere, the pleasant servers, and the lip smacking cocktails, there is something else. It’s sensed, but is not immediately obvious – sort of hiding in plain sight. But, once you put your finger on it, it becomes as clear as if a 10-ft. giraffe were hovering over your table.

Ishiwata offers many of the same dishes year after year. In many restaurants, such long established dishes might lose their lustre from a kitchen’s lack of attention to detail, fuelled by apathy born of constant repetition. But, Basho hasn’t fallen into that trap. Not even a little bit. Whether it’s a tuna tartare appetizer or a halibut entrée, the dishes are as perfect as they ever were. What’s more, every time I order one of Ishiwata’s dishes I discover something I hadn’t noticed before, a subtle new flavour or juxtaposition of textures. Can it be that Ishiwata’s creations are always works in progress, and not fixed recipes? Regardless, he is maintaining an outstanding and consistent record of quality at this extraordinary restaurant. Yes, Basho is my pick for top restaurant of 2016.

2. Seto Kitchen and Bar
281 Duckworth St.
St. John’s
Ph. (709) 722-7386

Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip: $170

Seto's Steel Cut Oat Risotto
Seto’s Steel Cut Oat Risotto

If you can snag a table at this compact restaurant, you won’t be disappointed. Chef Ken Pittman has a wonderful way with certain dishes: braises, risotto and pasta, for example. His risotto can be downright playful. Sometimes Pittman employs barley, sunflower seeds and steel cut oats. He’ll even top risotto with a runny poached egg, to further flood what is already rich, with more luxury.

3. Wedgwood Café
17 Elizabeth Ave.
St. John’s
Ph. (709) 726-1860

Lunch for two with wine, tax and tip: $70

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Turkey chili

Wedgwood Café is a gem. Chef Peter Wedgwood continues to make an outstanding range of comforting, homespun food; from buttery soups and hot sandwiches, to turkey chili and peppery casseroles. I was recently charmed by a velvety chowder starring cod, scallops and shrimp. Wedgwood Café is also doing meals that are packaged up and ready for an easy, satisfying supper at home. I had the Thai red curry. It was superb.

4. Chinched Bistro
7 Queen St.
St. John’s
Ph. (709) 722-3100

Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip: $180

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Chinched potato wrapped cod

Chef Shaun Hussey is still dishing up some of the best tasting food in St. John’s. Being a charter member of the local do-it-yourself charcuterie fraternity, Hussey often has salumi and other types of charcuterie – mostly house-made – available to guests. I’m a huge fan of his hot bistro style dishes, especially anything featuring seafood. Nobody around here does a better job with shell or fin fish than Hussey.

5. Exile
JAG Hotel
115 George St.
Ph. (709) 738-1524

Brunch for two (no alcohol), tax and tip: $60

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Exile’s roasted cod

Whether it’s brunch, lunch or dinner, Exile can deliver plates with liberal amounts of food and flavour. Delicately roasted cod with piquant Bavarian style potato salad made a strong, positive impression. So too did a classic hamburger, made with freshly ground beef and served with superlative fries. Exile’s pop rock décor is colourful and fun, especially for boomers.

6. Stone Jug
232 Water St.
Carbonear
Ph. (709) 596-2629

Lunch for two with wine, tax and tip: $85

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Stone Jug Margherita pizza

Stone Jug’s Old World pubby ambiance is often enhanced by live music. Naturally, there’s plenty to drink, and the menu is in keeping with what you’d expect to find in a high-end watering hole these days. Nothing on our impeccable table was more impressive than the Margherita pizza. With its beautifully crafted thin crust, deeply red tomato, fresh basil and soft mozzarella, it was like tasting Naples.

7. Bernard Stanley Gastropub
223 Duckworth St.
St. John’s
Ph. (709) 722-5266

Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip: $145

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Bernard Stanley duck breast and confit leg

Calling Bernard Stanley Gastropub, a “gastropub”, seems inadequate. That’s because the food served in this Duckworth Street pub goes beyond ordinary dishes like fish and chips and Sheppard’s pie. No, at Bernard Stanley you get duck breast with confit leg, sautéed spinach and fried spätzle and rosemary Merlot braised lamb shank, caramelized onion smashed potato and green beans. Everything is delicious.
8. Get Stuffed
190 Duckworth St.
St. John’s
Ph. (709) 757-2480

Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip: $120

Get Stuffed garlic shrimp
Get Stuffed garlic shrimp

Elaborate cuisine isn’t Chef Rob Somers’ style. You won’t find too many ingredients in his dishes and certainly none that rankle. Cooking excellent foods to maximize their flavour, be it pork loin or a plate of shrimp, is the mission at Get Stuffed. Somers has achieved an admirable level of quality and consistency at his eatery, which virtually guarantees that nobody leaves Get Stuffed disappointed.

9. RJ Pinoy Yum
38 Ropewalk Lane
St. John’s
Ph. (709) 747-1953

Meal for two (no alcohol), tax and tip: $40

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RJ Pinoy’s steamed pork dumpling

Ricky and Jocelyn Delacruz, the R and J of RJ Pinoy Yum, have done St. John’s a service by opening their bright café. They’ve demonstrated that strip malls can provide better food services than chain restaurants and purveyors of greasy fast food. RJ Pinoy is also giving local diners a good introduction to Filipino cuisine. You must try RJ Pinoy’s large, steamed dumplings filled with pork, if nothing else.

10. St. John’s Fish Exchange
351 Water Street
St. John’s
Ph. (709) 739-7539

Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip: $160

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Fish Exchange’s seared salmon

St. John’s Fish Exchange is a solid choice for an overall dining experience that scores well above average in ambiance, food and service. Care has been taken to create a modern setting with décor that incorporates wood, stone and glass. Cocktail creations, like Sailor’s Thyme, suit the restaurant’s general theme of seafaring and seafood, and Chef Maurizio Modica’s catch-of-the-day is worthy of serious consideration.