Chinched gets a well-deserved four stars

Karl Wells
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Chinched Bistro
7 Queen St.
St. John’s
Phone 722-3100

When Shawn Hussey and Michelle LeBlanc cooked together in tranquil Cape Cod I wonder if they ever thought that, a decade hence, they’d be married and operating a very successful bistro in downtown St. John’s?

Much less after taking a detour for a year to an island on Newfoundland’s northeast coast. Turns out Fogo Island’s loss was very much a win for

St. John’s diners.

Their 2010 creation, Chinched Bistro, has matured from a promising colt into a real thoroughbred. It’s been an Atlantic Canadian effort, in a way. Chef patron Hussey hails from Newfoundland, LeBlanc (pastry chef) from Nova Scotia and Tyler Gallant (sous chef) is from Prince Edward Island. Credit must also be given to their astute, well-trained wait staff.

Apart from the pictures on the walls and a few other details, physically Chinched has not changed a whit since it opened. In fact, it looks pretty much the same as it did when Restaurant 7 operated there in 2009 under Brian Abbott. It’s a modest spot with seating for about 25, maybe 30 if you include the downstairs bar.

 

Laid back

Chinched is the epitome of laid back. Tee shirts are as welcome as jackets and ties. When we were there a guy was munching away on his bread starter (with molasses and scrunchions dip) while working his laptop. Even the music is laid back — a succession of highly listenable contemporary ballads expertly sung by a variety of artists.

Although LeBlanc is quite proud of the new flooring they’ve just installed in the unseen kitchen, the improvement of consequence at Chinched is in the food. The quality of ingredients has always been excellent. Now there’s evidence of those ingredients being used with a higher level of skill and panache. It’s like a painter having a dozen colours on his palette and finally figuring out how and where to use them for the perfect result.

This was made manifest from our first appetizer.

I have to be honest, when I ordered the octopus curry with coconut and several other ingredients, I did not order it because I really wanted it. Like most reviewers I order things that I think will be interesting to write about. For all I knew the dish might have been a total disaster. In the hands of a less skilled cook it may well have been.

The dish was rife with harmonious flavours and textures. Of course, any Indian-inspired dish should be. But these flavours and textures were brought together brilliantly. No single spice overpowered another and each newly discovered texture — octopus, pakora with raisins, scallion rice — was a most welcome surprise. I would love to know what alchemy was used to make the octopus so tender. If Hussey is smart he’ll make it a trade secret, just like Colonel Sanders did with his secret herbs and spices recipe.

We were served an outstanding charcuterie board that any still life artist would have been pleased to paint. That’s how beautiful it looked. There were so many delicious elements to this display it’s hard to know where to begin. Charcuterie selections of razor thin slices of pork sausage (stuffed with what appeared to be pistachios), moose salami and prosciutto were all made in house. Pork takes well to this kind of processing, moose less so. I enjoyed these meats. It’s obvious that Hussey has learned how to make proper salumi.

The board also contained a couple of artisanal cheeses: soft unpasteurized cow’s milk brie style with bloomy rind from Quebec, and semi-soft pasteurized cow’s milk cheese from Switzerland. A myriad of tangy, sweet, zestful and savoury things filled out the remainder of the board: dill pickle, candied walnuts, pickled beet, olives, mustard seed caviar, capers and assorted crackers.

 

Crackers

There was one other addition that helped make the board memorable — fresh crackers handmade by LeBlanc. We all know the care and attention given a homemade product. The difference in taste, from something out of a box, can be astounding. Each variety was different and interesting, especially when eaten with specific meats, cheeses and condiments. I liked the combo of mustard seed caviar with the whole wheat, red wine and fennel cracker. The other crackers were: almond, sunflower seeds and molasses, rosemary crostini and buttermilk.

Mussels steamed in wine with pickled sweet peppers is my new favourite way to enjoy these delectable local bivalves.

Chinched also served an appetizer of parsnip agnolotti. Delicate pockets of pasta had been filled with a sweet parsnip purée, then served with brown butter, toasted hazelnuts, bits of deep fried kale and Parmigiano-Reggiano. It’s amazing how some flour and a few vegetables can be transformed into something so appealing to the eye and taste buds.  

Steelhead trout isn’t as popular as salmon, in or out of restaurants, but maybe the time has come to serve more of it. We tasted beautiful, slightly nutty pan-seared steelhead fillet at Chinched, with citrus butter sauce, fingerling potato hash, caramelized Brussels sprouts and game chips. This dish was very well-balanced. Everything was in sync and arranged in an economical, eye catching manner.

 

Glorious

Duck has to be one of the most glorious meals when done by an expert hand. Chinched served the best plate of duck I’ve had in several years.

No timid flavours here. Tender, succulent and gamy canard glazed with spiced honey was aided by a classic flavour companion, sour cherry vinaigrette.

The plate also offered butternut squash purée, parsnip and a sprinkling of walnut sage gremolata.

After trying LeBlanc’s incredible biscuits I felt obliged to try dessert. Her made-from-scratch cannoli was easily the best I’ve had in

St. John’s.

Light, aromatic, flaky shells carefully filled with a mixture of sweetened ricotta, pistachios and chocolate made for a near celestial eating experience.

Then there was the daily ice cream offering, oatmeal vanilla.

A new kind of oatmeal dairy mix wonderfully executed.

Finally, we were served a piece of homemade chocolate bark embedded with nuts, dried fruit and sprinkled with a dash of salt. How’s that for an ending?

Hussey, LeBlanc and Chinched staff certainly got my attention this week.

There’s been a phenomenal improvement in the cuisine since I last reviewed Chinched in 2010. The plates are more well-balanced, better tuned and visually pleasing.

Currently only four St. John’s restaurants have a top four star rating from me.

Now there is a fifth. I happily award four stars to Chinched Bistro.

Congratulations on a job well done.

 

Rating: * * * *   

Price: Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip — $180 (approximately).

Moderate * Fair * *

Good * * *  Excellent

* * * * Exceptional

 

Karl Wells is an accredited personal chef, author of “Cooking with One Chef One Critic” and recipient of awards from the national body of the Canadian Culinary Federation and the Restaurant Association of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Contact him through his website, www.karlwells.com

Follow him on Twitter: @karl_wells

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

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Fogo Island, Nova Scotia Prince Edward Island Quebec Switzerland Brussels

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Comments

Comments

Recent comments

  • Chris
    April 05, 2014 - 13:36

    No surprise here. Chinched has been kicking it out of the ballpark since I first ate there over a year ago. Excellent review.

  • Matt
    April 05, 2014 - 07:04

    Wells finally gets one right.