Published on December 20, 2013
Fresh steamed mussels.— Photo by Karl Wells/Special to The Telegram
Published on December 20, 2013
Traditional prime rib.— Photo by Karl Wells/Special to The Telegram
Published on December 20, 2013
Warm Christmas ginger cake. — Photo by Karl Wells/Special to The Telegram
Ramada St. John’s
102 Kenmount Rd.
There was a time when you could count on hotels to have a restaurant and bar on the premises. Several of the newer St. John’s hotels, or planned hotels, do not and will not have dining rooms, restaurants or bars.
They may have a stand where you can grab a cup of coffee, muffin or bowl of cereal for breakfast, but that’s about all. There’s a business argument to be made for not having dining or bar facilities in certain hotels; but the result, in my opinion, is that such establishments are boring and dull.
Happily, we still have many hotels in St. John’s with restaurants and bars, like the Ramada St. John’s with PJ Billington’s.
The public can conveniently access PJ Billington’s through the restaurant’s own separate outside entrance. I went through that portal in record time recently to escape the blasting cold air of this unusually cold December.
The restaurant was a warm and warmly lit (for Christmas) haven. Several booths in the restaurant’s main area were occupied, so we sat in a quiet booth in the sun room, which, despite all its windows, was quite warm.
I opened the menu and the first item that caught my interest was the Buffalo chicken pizza. When that famous chicken wing treat, the Buffalo wing, was invented in the 1960s in a bar in Buffalo, N.Y., I doubt if anyone in that city would have imagined the idea yielding Buffalo chicken pizza.
Although not advertised as such, a slice of the small, thin-crust pizza worked well as an appetite starter. It certainly captured the flavours of the dish from which the idea sprang. It had the yin and yang of tart and sweet, the smokiness and, above all, the hot sauce hotness. Tiny bits of seasoned chicken were scattered liberally over the sauce base, some covered and some not by a lace blanket of melted cheese.
PJ Billington’s offers steamed mussels with either garlic butter or a white wine cream sauce. I’ve always loved moules marinières, essentially a dish featuring mussels, wine, cream, butter, onion and fresh parsley. I thought mussels steamed in a “white wine cream sauce” might approximate moules marinières.
Visually the dish looked brilliant: dozens of mussels on the shell arranged in the bowl in a kind of starburst pattern. The mussels were small but tender, and rich in natural flavour. Unfortunately, the mussels didn’t seem to have engaged the sauce, which slickly coated the bottom of the bowl, hidden from view at first. It was just as well. I spooned a little of the sauce over a mussel only to discover that it had been over salted.
It’s fascinating to see how traditional pea soup is made by different cooks.
If you like your pea soup so thick you could almost stand a spoon in it, then PJ Billington’s has one for you. It is seriously thick.
My preference is for pea soup that’s halfway between liquid and porridge. Then there are those who prefer to add ham over salt meat. Some cooks even add carrots and parsnip to their pea soup. (Parsnip in pea soup is just plain wrong.)
PJ Billington’s was mostly peas with a few bits of carrot and pieces of salt meat. Its seasonings and flavours were perfect. It was a wintery night, and comfort food was what I sought. PJ Billington’s has been serving prime rib dinners for years.
I needed prime rib with Yorkshire pudding and a glass of red wine. The wine was Australian, Nottage Hill Cabernet-Shiraz. The beef looked sensational. It was a very thick cut from the prime rib roast, glistening with jus. The meat did not disappoint. It was tender with robust beef flavour. The mixed vegetables and baked potato were fine.
Sadly, the Yorkshire pudding did disappoint. Instead of a golden brown, fluffy, eggy rich and tender baked pudding, I bit into a dark, bitter, cooked-to-a-crisp shell with literally nothing but air inside.
There was a salmon offering on the menu called pistachio basil crusted salmon. Normally when something is crusted it has a coating that’s been made crisp and golden from the roasting or baking process, a genuine crust that you can actually peel back (not that I would ever peel back a good crust).
This salmon did not have a crust. It was coated in a greenish, grainy sauce that appeared to have been poured over the fish after baking. Despite the unusual use of the term “crusted,” the dish was enjoyable — mainly for the salmon, which could not have been cooked better in terms of doneness.
Warm Christmas ginger cake ended the meal. It was a round puck of cake sauced with warm caramel that gave the lush, not-too-sweet cake extra richness and moisture (which it did not need but was all the better for). The taste of ginger was intense and fresh. The ginger cake and fresh coffee I was served with it made a good marriage.
Finally, a word about the service at PJ Billington’s. It was excellent. Our server noticed the parchment paper had not been removed from the bottom of my ginger cake before it was served. (The paper was the only thing remaining on the plate when he cleared the table.) He was embarrassed that it had not been removed and decided not to charge for it. That’s exactly the way servers should handle such situations: acknowledge, correct, move on.
Rating: * *
Price: Dinner for two with wine and gratuity: $95 (approximately)
Sound level: Moderate
* Fair * * Good * * * Excellent
* * * * Exceptional
For regular updates on “One Chef One Critic,” my Telegram Dining Out column and the latest developments on the local culinary scene please follow me on Twitter @karl_wells.
Karl Wells is an accredited personal chef and recipient of awards from the national body of the Canadian Culinary Federation and the Restaurant Association of Newfoundland and Labrador. He is also a restaurant panellist with enRoute Magazine. Contact him via his website, www.karlwells.com.