Mario’s mixes it up

Karl Wells
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Well-known hotel spot has new menu

East Side Mario’s
180 Portugal Cove Rd.
Phone 722-6900

East Side Mario’s at Holiday Inn has a new menu. It says so on a big banner hanging above customers’ heads in the main section of the pasta/pizza chain restaurant. (They also have a gluten free menu which I don’t remember being available a few years ago when I dined there. I applaud them for their efforts.)

I did not understand why the large “new menu” banner was hung inside the restaurant as opposed to outside. Presumably customers already inside were staying regardless of the menu being old or new. Surely a banner outside might have attracted a few more diners?

Ah well, it’s a moot point. The restaurant was pretty full anyhow, and is probably full every night of the week with people wanting reasonably priced, competently cooked food to fill their stomachs.

Chain restaurants are becoming more and more popular with St. John’s investors, and obviously with St. John’s diners. It seems that every time you turn around there’s another one popping up somewhere.

Shopping areas are popular locations for them, even downtown St. John’s and our historic harbour. (Apparently, the latest coming to the downtown is Hooters. Honestly, who knew Hooters was a restaurant?) Several Newfoundland hotels have chain restaurants. Holiday Inn was one of the first with East Side Mario’s.

Basic skills

Chains don’t really need creative chefs. They require competent cooks with basic skills and good managers. The dishes served in chain restaurants are designed in corporate headquarters and franchise owners are required to follow a template that ensures all restaurants in the chain produce the same dishes. Once the ingredients are prepared, they are assembled to look exactly like the dish designed by headquarters.

Holiday Inn does employ a creative and well trained executive chef. His name is Andrew Hodge. Unfortunately, he does not have the leeway to demonstrate that creativity at East Side Mario’s. However, since the hotel has banquet facilities to host weddings, galas and the like, he does have a partial outlet for his talent.

Recently Chef Hodge showed some of it at Gold Medal Plates St. John’s, where he won a bronze medal.

But, back to East Side Mario’s.

I began with a beverage called blueberry pomegranate sangria. The menu indicated that it contained blueberry pomegranate juice, red wine, passion fruit purée, raspberry vodka, fresh citrus (I saw a wedge of lemon), ginger ale and seasonal fruit. I tasted from the straw provided which delivered a mouthful of syrup. It was like drinking Purity syrup straight from the bottle. The drink had not been stirred. I stirred it up and tasted again. It tasted better but not like sangria.

Perhaps East Side Mario’s headquarters send down something in a bottle that’s supposed to provide the basic flavours outlined on the menu. Then the bartender here adds whatever other liquids and flourishes may be necessary. My drink tasted of artificial flavour, not real flavour.

Starters

We were served fresh, hot bread and butter. The bread was good but not as good as it used to be several years ago. It did not have the same crustiness, homemade flavour and chewiness that I remember.

Years ago it had a quality that made you want to have more and more of it. Not now. I had it with a bowl of East Side Mario’s Roasted Garlic and Tomato Soup. The soup was excellent. It delivered everything promised. There was rich tomato taste, garlic flavor and hints of basil and fennel.

A Garden Salad followed with iceberg lettuce, a few cherry tomatoes, red onion and croutons. It was fresh and good, despite iceberg lettuce being the most boring of lettuces.

East Side Mario’s Feta Bruschetta was another excellent choice, perhaps the evening’s best. The soft flatbread was dressed with a drizzle of balsamic reduction, arugula, diced fresh tomatoes and feta. The flavours were bright and balanced. It was perfect.

I was not as happy with the Classic Calamari Fritti. Very small squid rings came lightly coated and fried. On their own they were pretty dull fare. The coating seemed to have little seasoning. Thank goodness a few dips (tartar and salsa) accompanied the dish. I recommend having the Calamari Al Diavolo. It’s much more interesting (and slightly more expensive) and is served with onions, peppers and tomato.

Second fiddle

My main was lacking in an appropriate amount of flavour and interest. I ordered Mario’s Chicken Parmigiana. I’m not sure why it’s called “parmigiana” because the flattened, breaded chicken breast was capped, almost encapsulated, with a thick layer of mozzarella cheese, not parmesan.

The chicken really played second fiddle to everything else on the plate — thick as paste tomato sauce, penne pasta and mozzarella. I had to scrape away much of the sauce and cheese to get a good taste of the chicken, which I found to be under-seasoned, too thin (from excessive pounding) and dry.

The Basil Chicken and Fettuccine Pomodoro was a combination of fettuccine, pesto, tomato, sliced chicken breast and herbs. Apart from the sliced chicken breast likely being of the processed variety (coated, frozen and packaged in bulk) and the pasta being al dente, or too al dente in places and not in others, the dish was enjoyable.

Finally, the service we received at East Side Mario’s was excellent. From the second we arrived our server was cheerful and attentive. Her demeanour definitely made the East Side Mario’s experience more pleasant.

Rating:

**   

Price:

Dinner for two with wine and gratuity: $90 (approx.)

Sound level:

High

* 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 through his website, www.karlwells.com.

Organizations: Holiday Inn, Canadian Culinary Federation, Restaurant Association of Newfoundland and Labrador

Geographic location: East Side Mario

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