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The Telegram's restaurant reviewer selects his 10 favourites of 2007

Just before I sat down to write this column - revealing the much-anticipated Top 10 Restaurants of 2007 - I got a call from Canadian Press. The reporter wanted to interview me in my capacity as The Telegram's food critic. He was working on a piece about the burgeoning restaurant scene in St. John's.

Apparently, it's becoming evident that dining in St. John's these days can mean more than fish and chips with vinegar, dressing and gravy. (Not that there's anything wrong with being known for great fish and chips.) Of course, having Atlantica recently named best new restaurant in the country by enRoute magazine certainly didn't hurt matters.

Recipes like this Trio of Veal helped vault The Vault to the top of Karl Wells' Top 10 list. Submitted photo

Just before I sat down to write this column - revealing the much-anticipated Top 10 Restaurants of 2007 - I got a call from Canadian Press. The reporter wanted to interview me in my capacity as The Telegram's food critic. He was working on a piece about the burgeoning restaurant scene in St. John's.

Apparently, it's becoming evident that dining in St. John's these days can mean more than fish and chips with vinegar, dressing and gravy. (Not that there's anything wrong with being known for great fish and chips.) Of course, having Atlantica recently named best new restaurant in the country by enRoute magazine certainly didn't hurt matters.

The CP interview gave me an opportunity to reflect on how far we've come as a "restaurant" city since I began writing about restaurants.

For example, three years ago, after my first full year of reviewing, I decided to do a "best of" list from the restos I'd looked at during the previous 12 months.

Frankly, coming up with restaurants good enough to be on such a list was a challenge. Five would have been easy. Eight might have been a little tough. Finding 10? That was like finding needles in the proverbial haystack.

In the end I did get 10 and it was a pretty good list.

What a difference a few years can make. Looking back on this past year, I see an embarrassment of riches by comparison. There were so many good choices this year it was a struggle cutting my list back to 10. That's great news for those of us who love restaurants.

Let's hope the St. John's dining scene keeps getting better. (I'm still waiting for a truly authentic Italian restaurant.)

Remember though, it cannot happen without your participation. Keep supporting our local restaurants, especially during the wintry months after Christmas when business typically slows for many.

Now, it's my pleasure to present the Top 10 Restaurants of 2007:

1 The Vault

291 Water St.

Phone 738-5200

The following story is true. It actually happened. I was dining at The Vault with friends and, as I frequently do, I spilled sauce on my shirt.

Being the self-conscious type who prides himself on being mostly spotless, I moaned, "Jeez, I wish I had one of those Tide stain remover pens right now."

Within 60 seconds a hand discreetly placed a Tide stain remover pen next to my plate. Our waiter/sorcerer had overheard and produced, as if by magic, the very Tide pen I'd wished for. Now that's service.

Funny story aside, The Vault's service is nonpareil. You will not find better, anywhere.

Beyond service The Vault offers extraordinary food, smart dÉcor, lively atmosphere, an extensive wine list - overseen by a professional sommelier - and marvelous pairing opportunities for individual menu items with individual wines by the glass.

By St. John's standards, The Vault is a tad expensive, but worth every penny. The Vault is also worth being at the top of this list.

2 Atlantica

Beach House

Portugal Cove

Phone 895-1251

Amazing food, often prepared with little fuss, makes Atlantica an exceptional restaurant. Kudos to Chef Jeremy Charles, who loves working with local ingredients and who displays real talent when it comes to matching ingredients and flavours.

Atlantica also provides a simple, elegant dining atmosphere with a view better seen than described.

The staff is friendly and helpful and shows extensive knowledge of the menu, as well as Atlantica's wine list. Reservations are absolutely necessary.

3 The "New" Cellar Restaurant

189 Water St.

Phone 579-8900

I love the new Cellar Restaurant across from the Courthouse. It's a major improvement over the restaurant's last location which was on the third floor of a Water Street East building with an elevator that - on some days - couldn't decide which floor it wanted to stop at.

So, it settled just below floor level, opened its doors, and made you climb out of the darn thing. "Careful you don't hitch your Versace skirt on the way out, Madame."

The new restaurant at 189 Water St. has a private club feel to it, lots of wood and a magnificent chandelier. If you're nostalgic for the original Cellar, it's waiting for you just underneath the chandelier, below stairs. (And, there's no elevator!)

All in all, this was a very savvy move by restaurateur Harold Brown and company.

The food and service at the Cellar Restaurant are better than ever.

4 Portobello's

377 Duckworth St.

Phone 579-7050

Portobello's has a relaxing atmosphere that would work equally well for a two-person romantic dinner date or a table of six. Contrary to the Italian-sounding name, the food at Portobello's is mostly a mixture of contemporary North American cuisine. Whether it's surf "or" turf or surf "and" turf, everything is prepared properly and with care. Service at Portobello's is professional, meaning attentive but discreet.

5 Fishers' Loft Inn

Port Rexton

Phone 1-877-464-3240

Within a few hours of St. John's you'll find Fishers' Loft Inn, and - if you've made reservations - a very enjoyable home-style dining experience. Unfortunately, it's a seasonal operation that can only be enjoyed in summer and fall. But do make a note of it. I especially liked the fresh veggies grown in the garden just outside the dining room windows.

6 Get Stuffed

190 Duckworth St.

Phone 757-2480

Get Stuffed opened in the old D'Jango's space on Duckworth Street last year and has developed a loyal customer base. They offer large, as well as normal-sized portions with plenty of a la carte items. For example, I like the sweet potato fries. Get Stuffed has a cosy, comfortable atmosphere in both its upstairs and downstairs dining areas.

7 The Shanghai

210 Water St.

Phone 753-2378

The Shanghai is the most posh Chinese restaurant St. John's has seen. This former British style pub has been transformed into an Asian food emporium with hot red accents. The food - from a menu with lots of choice - is delicious. I loved the pig's knuckle in "chef's special marinade."

8 Asian Taste

250 Duckworth St.

Phone 576-3311

Asian Taste is a wonderful addition to the St. John's restaurant scene. It's straightforward and unpretentious. It's the first and only place in St. John's that will actually prepare Korean staples like kimchi for you. (Kimchi is definitely an acquired taste, by the way.)

I also like the dim sum-style menu that's offered. It's inexpensive and provides a great many taste opportunities.

9 Tangled Up in Blue

5 Bates Hill

Phone 738-0008

Tangled (that's the short version of the name) is another fabulous newcomer to the St. John's scene. It is owned and operated by a young restaurateur from Oz. While the restaurant offers a bit of the flavour of Australia, it's not a kitschy "theme" restaurant, far from it. The food at Tangled is first-rate. They also make - I'm certain - the very best thin crust personal pizzas in Eastern Canada.

10 Bacalao

65 Lemarchant Rd.

Phone 579-6565

And finally, another impressive new option for the St. John's dining public is Bacalao. The word bacalao means "cod."

While they serve plenty of it - especially, interesting salt cod dishes - there's plenty more wonderful food on the menu.

You'll appreciate the home-style desserts prepared by co-owner Andrea Maunder. There's ample parking available at the back of the building.

Karl Wells is a restaurant panellist with enRoute magazine. To reach him, log on to his website: www.karlwells.com.

Organizations: Atlantica, Canadian Press, The Telegram Portobello Asian Taste North American Loft Inn

Geographic location: St. John's, Portugal Cove, Water Street East Shanghai Port Rexton Duckworth Street Bates Hill Australia Eastern Canada

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