Karl's top 10 restaurants 2009

Karl Wells
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Dining out in 2009 provided more evidence that St. John's and environs has a vibrant and rapidly developing restaurant scene. Three restaurants on this year's list are new creations and two relocated, resulting in a bold new look. Three ethnic or ethnic influenced restaurants made the list, with one, Basho, actually topping the list (as it did in 2006). Gold Medal Plates Olympic Gala Dinners gave St. John's restaurants the ultimate compliment in 2009 by staging one of their annual dinners here, featuring eight of our finest restaurant chefs.

Several more potentially exciting restaurants are slated to open in the city in 2010. Meanwhile, of the restaurants I reviewed last year, here are the eateries that most impressed.

Dining out in 2009 provided more evidence that St. John's and environs has a vibrant and rapidly developing restaurant scene. Three restaurants on this year's list are new creations and two relocated, resulting in a bold new look. Three ethnic or ethnic influenced restaurants made the list, with one, Basho, actually topping the list (as it did in 2006). Gold Medal Plates Olympic Gala Dinners gave St. John's restaurants the ultimate compliment in 2009 by staging one of their annual dinners here, featuring eight of our finest restaurant chefs.

Several more potentially exciting restaurants are slated to open in the city in 2010. Meanwhile, of the restaurants I reviewed last year, here are the eateries that most impressed.

1. Basho - 283 Duckworth St.

Ph. 576-4600

Every serious food lover within driving distance of Basho owes himself or herself the experience of dining on Chef Tak Ishiwata's superb food. Ishiwata is a food artist, a fact consistently obvious when tasting his culinary creations. A favourite starter is his salmon parfait which I described as "an eye-catching seafood presentation in a brandy snifter. The bottom of the glass was covered with salmon tartare, and then a layer of aioli followed by black flying fish roe to the depth of about half-an-inch. More salmon tartare followed, capped by a dollop of aioli and then, side-by-side, orange and black flying fish roe. This was accompanied by a handful of the lightest, crispiest fried wontons I have ever tasted."

2. Duck on Water- 193 Water St.

Ph. 754-9005

The latest addition to the Franklin Hotel is its remarkable dining room called, Duck on Water. The acquisition of accomplished staff and the talented Chef Matthew Aubin enabled Duck on Water to be amongst the top three restaurants this year. "The main course that caught my eye was a specialty dish featuring a duo of duck. There was leg confit and roasted duck breast. The leg meat and skin was falling from the bone and in combination created a sensation in the mouth. Slices of succulent breast were fanned around the plate and decorated with a delicious merlot and blueberry veal reduction. It was a triumph of canard cookery."

3. Blue on Water - 319 Water St.

Ph. 754-2583

Blue on Water underwent a favourable transformation in 2009. It added a smart new martini bar after acquiring the space east of the restaurant. This allowed for more seating in the restaurant and an energized atmosphere. I enjoyed their "fillet of fresh cod, perfectly cooked, enhanced by the introduction of a tincture of anise-flavoured Sambuca. Grilled salmon never tasted better with a topping of caramelised onions and, get this, figs. The sweet addition made the flavours of the salmon sing. Chicken breast, one of the hardest foods to cook properly, was as delicious as I've tasted. The lemon pepper glaze, as always, was a most suitable seasoning to draw out the freshly roasted flavour of the bird."

4. Bistro Sofia - 320 Water St.

Ph. 738-2060

The good news story of 2009 was the creation of Bistro Sofia by Gregory Bersinski and his partners. It is a true European style bistro with all the accompanying flavours and atmosphere. "Braised lamb shank is a staple at Bistro Sofia. It is the quintessential comfort food and, perfect bistro fare. A generous piece of meat on its bone, (much of the bone exposed from long, slow cooking), was smothered in and resting on a rich sauce of rendered lamb juices, tomato and onion, infused with the flavours of herbes de Provence. The dark meat fell from the bone. This was the food of Bersinski's youth and nobody does it better."

5. 7 ... a restaurant - 7 Queen St.

Ph. 576-2112

Chef Brian Abbott, true to his word, created something totally fresh in the wake of his last restaurant (lost in a fire in 2008). The smal-plates concept of this venture has been well received, mainly because of the exceptional quality of what's on those plates. "The words succulent and flavourful seem inadequate to describe the crispy pork belly. It was wonderfully memorable sitting atop mashed sweet potatoes and brown butter, an incredibly delicious treat. Another clever match was the chili marinated seared scallops with fruit salsa."

6. Aqua - 310 Water St.

Ph. 576-2782

Aqua's chef and owner, Mark McCrowe, was awarded a bronze medal in November at the St. John's Gold Medal Plates event. The accolade was well deserved, as anyone tasting Aqua's food in 2009 knows. I tasted "Aqua's oven roasted Cornish hen with maple cream and a salad of shaved Brussels sprouts, pancetta, raisins, and asiago. A helping of olive oil whipped potato was served on the side. This was a slightly more finessed version of the great comfort food dish of chicken and mashed potatoes. It was half a golden brown Cornish hen set on a pool of cream infused with maple syrup and roasting juices. Both went together perfectly."

7. Portobello's - 115 Duckworth St.

Ph. 579-7050

One of the smartest moves and makeovers of 2009 was the reinvention of Portobello's. They took a space with a great view and made it the focal point of an attractive, beautifully planned restaurant. "Portobello's seafood dishes were a big hit with my palate. The ginger fried shrimp I had as a starter one evening were outstanding. They were big, succulent tiger shrimp sautÉed with ginger, garlic, scallions and sesame oil. It was a simple but perfect combination of flavours. Skillful baking was in evidence as well with Portobello's delicious champagne cake with fresh strawberries."

8. India Gate - 286 Duckworth St.

Ph. 753-6006

On every level India Gate is a wonderful representative of the cuisine of India. Colourful, aromatic spices permeate every dish. The restaurant's atmosphere is authentic and the service is friendly and knowledgeable. "India Gate's tandoori chicken is a visual delight. It's fiery red in colour - usually from food colouring or red peppers - with black highlights from the charring effect of the tandoor - the clay oven of North India. Our chicken was tender and juicy with smoky hints from the charcoal smoke of the tandoor." Booking one of the large tables for a family get together or special event is a great way to enjoy India Gate's food and atmosphere.

9. The Gypsy Tea Room - The Murray Premises

Ph. 739-4766

Another amazing restaurant transformation in 2009 was the unveiling of the new Gypsy Tea Room in the Murray Premises. It's about five times its original size with space for approximately 200 diners. A good place to begin your evening might be the handsome bar directly off Water Street that stores dozens of bottles of quality wines. Seafood is a sure bet. "Tilapia is a sweet thin white-fleshed fish. Chef Bruce Brookings prepared it with a slightly crispy coating and wrapped around a mix of bread and sausage. I enjoyed it very much. The stuffing wasn't too overpowering, allowing the subtle flavour of the tilapia to come through."

10. Asian Taste - 250 Duckworth St.

Ph. 576-3311

This unpretentious family-run restaurant on Duckworth Street is the repository of appetising Asian culinary delights. You'll find lots of menu variety here along with friendly service. It's the perfect place to introduce your palate to new flavours at affordable prices. "I liked the hand rolls, which consisted of uncooked salmon, wasabi infused mayo and sticky rice wrapped in rich, shiny dark sheets of nori (a type of edible seaweed). They had the correct proportion of salmon to mayo to rice. The hand rolls made for a fun dining experience, too. I loved the feel of the nori as I pressed it between my fingers and munched happily on the ocean scented wrapper and its tasty contents."

Organizations: Asian Taste

Geographic location: St. John's, India Gate, Brussels Water Street Duckworth Street

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Recent comments

  • Starr
    November 07, 2010 - 22:32

    I agree with you M - if Karl doesn't like it then its not fit; it just doesn't qualify. Those restaurants he has evaluated as his "favorites" are not necessarily that of others, nor should we feel we "have" to go there. They are all either ethnic or extremely expensive. Not your everyday fare. Who wants duck and caviar - anytime, let alone at the prices charged there. He is just not in the real world. Give me a good restaurant where I can take my family for dinner and go back again next week - not just one meal that I have to take out a mortgage on and could be a once-in-a-lifetime dining experience. Lets see if some of those restaurants even exist next year this time . . .???

  • m
    July 02, 2010 - 13:32

    Karl Wells bases his critics on food he likes..not the actually food itself and the preparation...i have observed and noticed that if it not appeasing to his palate then its not fit...I think he needs to go to schol to find out that everyone has different tastes and likes and expectations and he should not be the soul judge and jury.

  • tess tess
    July 02, 2010 - 13:26

    it would be interesting to know if c(k)arl wells is an actual food critic,such as the type of martha stewart,julia childs,jacques pepin,...or was he at the right place at the right time,when someone said here's a free credit card,use it,and let us know who makes the best gravy...

  • Diva Hazel
    July 02, 2010 - 13:22

    I must truly say that food critic Karl Wells has an educated palate.A fair judge who encompasses globally the wholesome way of preparing ,presenting,and savouring food.I was interested to know if Karl had tried chicken feet done in ginger and wine sauce , balut , natural goat cheese wrapped in banana leaves and other ethnic adventurous foods of the world?Bon appetit and mabuhay,Karl!!!

  • Taxpayer ll
    July 02, 2010 - 13:17

    I think the Cellar has amazing food and great service, the roasted tenderloin of beef in peppercorn reduced wine sauce is absolutely delicious.

  • James
    July 02, 2010 - 13:12

    Why do we continue to use the word ethnic as a catch-all to describe anything that is not North American or European? Perhaps international would feel less in to the them/us paradigm.

  • Andrew
    July 02, 2010 - 13:10

    India Gate is good, but I'd hardly call it 'authentic'. The menu lists three levels of spicyness mild , medium and hot ... by that they mean sweet , mild and medium . They have no truly spicy south indian dishes. Since the North American taste seems to love Punjabi food, all Indian food imitates that taste. It's not bad, just that it gets boring when taste gets standardized.

  • m
    July 01, 2010 - 20:21

    Karl Wells bases his critics on food he likes..not the actually food itself and the preparation...i have observed and noticed that if it not appeasing to his palate then its not fit...I think he needs to go to schol to find out that everyone has different tastes and likes and expectations and he should not be the soul judge and jury.

  • tess tess
    July 01, 2010 - 20:13

    it would be interesting to know if c(k)arl wells is an actual food critic,such as the type of martha stewart,julia childs,jacques pepin,...or was he at the right place at the right time,when someone said here's a free credit card,use it,and let us know who makes the best gravy...

  • Diva Hazel
    July 01, 2010 - 20:06

    I must truly say that food critic Karl Wells has an educated palate.A fair judge who encompasses globally the wholesome way of preparing ,presenting,and savouring food.I was interested to know if Karl had tried chicken feet done in ginger and wine sauce , balut , natural goat cheese wrapped in banana leaves and other ethnic adventurous foods of the world?Bon appetit and mabuhay,Karl!!!

  • Taxpayer ll
    July 01, 2010 - 19:57

    I think the Cellar has amazing food and great service, the roasted tenderloin of beef in peppercorn reduced wine sauce is absolutely delicious.

  • James
    July 01, 2010 - 19:49

    Why do we continue to use the word ethnic as a catch-all to describe anything that is not North American or European? Perhaps international would feel less in to the them/us paradigm.

  • Andrew
    July 01, 2010 - 19:46

    India Gate is good, but I'd hardly call it 'authentic'. The menu lists three levels of spicyness mild , medium and hot ... by that they mean sweet , mild and medium . They have no truly spicy south indian dishes. Since the North American taste seems to love Punjabi food, all Indian food imitates that taste. It's not bad, just that it gets boring when taste gets standardized.