St. John’s Fish Exchange
351 Water St.
St. John’s, NL
Ph. (709) 739-7539
St. John’s Fish Exchange. It’s a grandiloquent name. Then there’s that exterior sign overlooking the harbour, with ST. JOHN’S in highlighted caps. Wow, you’d think there was a fish market inside to rival NYC’s Fulton or Tokyo’s Tsukiji. But, nah, not even close. Nope, it’s just a decent enough all-round restaurant with a posey name and posey signage. One that’s reasonably well-appointed, with a good view and menu where seafood dishes take up about 55 per cent of the space. Unless you’re looking at the brunch menu. (We went for brunch.) About 20 percent of that menu features seafood.
It’s sad really. We live in one of the planet’s historic fishing capitals. St. John’s, Newfoundland was all about fish. It would be perfectly natural for a visitor to assume that St. John’s Fish Exchange was, in fact, a seafood market or some other venture totally dedicated to seafood. Pity poor tourists, after the bewilderment of finding (Shall we all blush with embarrassment together?) chains – The Keg, Jack Astor’s Bar and Grill and Mill St. Brew Pub – on our historic harbour’s wharf, that has smelled of the pong of ripe cod for over 500 years, who wander into SJFX expecting a symphony of seafood. Just an allegro and scherzo I’m afraid.
Let there be light
We were seated upstairs in a dark area next to the top of the staircase – an awkward spot. Since there were vacant tables near the windows, spouse asked if we could move to the brighter situation. “No problem, just pick a table,” said a hospitable server. I wondered why we weren’t seated there to begin with; the restaurant wasn’t very busy. If you plan to visit, I suggest making a reservation for a window table. The atmosphere changes dramatically the closer you are to the windows. We enjoyed the light and the view of a sunlit harbour.
Décor at the Exchange is rather eclectic. Different areas seem intended to appeal to different tastes. It reminded me of one of those large furniture showrooms where they have different styles of furniture arranged in groupings, to better appreciate the unique qualities of each.
Spouse wanted a mimosa. It came in a coupe – the champagne glass of yesteryear. Most prefer the more elegant flute. The sun was over the yardarm, so a screwdriver would have suited me. Mimosas are fine if you like your orange juice with a whisper of fizz and a hint of the grape. An almost imperceptible whisper and the tiniest of hints it turned out, in the case of the St. John’s Fish Exchange mimosa. Seriously, when somebody’s paying good money, a mimosa should be equal parts champagne and orange juice.
Short on seafood
Since we were in a restaurant with the word “fish” in its name, we felt we should order seafood. The menu given, labeled “Brunch”, contained three seafood items: fish and brewis with sautéed greens, lobster eggs Benedict, and smoked salmon with cream cheese on a waffle. Since becoming readily available in supermarkets and at Costco, smoked salmon has been popping up on restaurant menus like spring dandelion on a St. John’s lawn. So, no thanks, to more vacuum-packed fish. I’d had lobster on a previous SJFX visit and – for your sake reader – wasn’t inclined to spend still more ink on it. Fish and brewis it was.
It was served in a bowl where half the space was taken up by the sautéed greens: bok choy, kale, Swiss chard and green beans. A non-traditional presentation but one with merit. The fish tasted fishy in a slightly unpleasant way and looked like the kind that comes from the thinner, cheaper, salted fillets.
Several sides were available. I very much enjoyed the deeply brown, baked beans, in an umami rich sauce subtly tinged with thyme. Sliced crispy fried pork belly, with unctuous centre, made a pleasing, upscale change from fried bacon strips. The hash browns were different, like triangular, brown bricks made of densely packed potato. I didn’t find them as satisfying as shredded fried hash browns in patty or pancake form.
Savoury waffles have been trending for the past few years. Wafflewiches, waffle sliders and stuffed waffles have gone from waffle stands, to food trucks, to bars and restaurants. Our Fish Exchange waffles were excellent. Light and airy but still tasting reasonably substantial. Served with chicken and called Chicken Schwarzwald, they were certainly not designed to be served with whipped cream or drenched with Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup.
Savoury waffles aren’t too much of a stretch for me but careful thought should be given to the kind of ingredients you pair with them. I can’t imagine a combination of beef and waffles being very palatable, for example. White chicken meat is the ingredient equivalent of a master key. You can plug it into all sorts of recipes and it will work like a dream. Fish Exchange used a chicken breast reminiscent of generic, mass produced, processed chicken breasts, that slice too easily and too uniformly. A little more house made blackened spice blend on the chicken would have helped and the red wine cream reduction was too thin.
Yolande Modica, spouse of SJFX chef, Maurizio Modica, prepares desserts for St. John’s Fish Exchange. Blueberry bread pudding was a firm bread pudding, cut into triangles like the hash browns. I liked the taut, yet moist texture, the bread, the berries, and the white chocolate and raspberry sauces. I would have been happy with this marvellous pudding and a cup of coffee, and nothing else – for brunch, lunch, or supper.
Price Brunch for two with one mimosa, coffee, tip and tax costs approximately $70.
Service Very warm and friendly.
Atmosphere Livelier near the windows. We dined upstairs, where we enjoyed the fine weather and view of the harbour. As you get further away from the windows, the darker and less energized the restaurant feels.
Sound level Moderate.
Open Sunday to Thursday: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday: 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Reservations Yes. Walk-ins are welcome.
Credit cards All major.
Parking Attached parking garage, nearby metered lot and street.
Beverages Many original cocktails, like the Eighteen 9-2, “inspired by the Great Fire of 1892,” featuring spiced rum. It “arrives in flames.” A variety of domestic beers and some draught beers, including: Hops and Bolts, Creemore and Murphy’s. The one page wine list offers popular red and white wines, mainly from New World countries.
Best bets Waffles, baked beans, bread pudding.
Wheelchair access Accessible only on ground floor of restaurant. Restrooms with access can be found outside the restaurant, off the adjoining hallway.
* Fair * * Good * * * Excellent * * * * Exceptional