The great survivor

Karl Wells
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Bianca’s still reigns after withstanding the winds of change

171 Water Street
St. John’s
Ph. 726-9016

Darwin once said, “It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.” He was talking about life forms, but the same can be applied to businesses, be it a newspaper coping with the challenges of new media, or a restaurant riding the roller-coaster of boom, recession, shifting food and dining styles, food costs and customer apathy.

Bianca’s has survived in the St. John’s downtown dining scene for over 20 years. It’s not the same restaurant it was in the beginning. It has subtly changed. The cuisine reveals more thoughtful preparation and presentation. Service is as good as ever but is not as overbearing. Generally, Bianca’s is now a restaurant that takes the essentials seriously, but does not take itself too seriously.

Over the years, Bianca’s has had talented, skilled chefs. It still does. Chefs Jeff Renouf, and longtime stalwart Kent Tilley, now guide the culinary program at the restaurant. Wine selection is overseen by Bianca and Nick Tsanov. Very few restaurants in the city give wine the prominence it is given at Bianca’s.

The main dining room has seen colour and décor changes over the years and I like the current darker tones. Bianca’s lounge looks no different, but one recent development I’m excited about is the addition of live music on weekends. Steve Edwards (piano) and Steve Randell (bass) are producing a weekend show called Music and Friends. A couple of weeks ago, Carolann Fowler performed incredible covers of Adele and Sarah McLachlan songs and you would have been wowed by Justin Nurse belting out his version of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”

In the “Sex and the City” movie Miranda asks the girlfriends why they stopped drinking cosmopolitans. Carrie Bradshaw replies, "Because everyone else started." Seven or eight years ago, everyone was drinking cosmos — mainly because Sarah Jessica Parker’s character Carrie drank them on the TV version of the wildly popular “Sex and the City.”

Perfect cosmo

Back then, most cosmopolitans were completely shagged up. Too much cranberry juice and cheap triple sec. A great cosmo should contain a hint of cranberry juice. If the drink is just pink, that’s fine. If all other ingredients (citrus vodka, triple sec, fresh lime juice) are of good quality, then you will have the perfect cosmo.

I was served such a cosmo at Bianca’s, which I sipped and nursed while waiting for our starters. Dean Martin sang “Arrivederci Roma” in the background. In a way, that seemed right because the King of Cool loved a good cocktail. Although, I think Dino may have had more to do with my decision to order the veal chop and gnocchi.

An amuse bouche of clean flavours comprised of ceviche scallop on crostini, Parmesan and red pepper Caesar mayo revved up our digestive engines. Scallops always seemed, to me, the best seafood for the ceviche method because the difference between a raw scallop and a properly cooked one is slim. There’s much less risk of toughening the bivalves when citrus is used to denature them.

Quite tender

More scallops were ordered as a starter. A rectangular plate contained a chorus line of three, dressed with orange segments, apple wood bacon and Jerusalem artichoke purée. Despite roasted tops and faintly charred edges, they were quite tender.

The mild, peppery and somewhat nutty taste of the root vegetable did not overpower. All the zip needed came from the citrus and bacon. I loathe rubbery scallops wrapped in bacon, but done separately, as Bianca’s demonstrated, the combo is more than agreeable.

Pork belly confit sounds totally indecent, but I knew as soon as I saw it on Bianca’s menu I had to have it. Slow-cooked pork and pig fat is too powerful a temptation. The four-inch-long slab of belly, topped with cabbage slaw, sat in barbecue sauce. It was a succulent, rich storehouse of woodsy, sweet, smoky flavour.

I’ve never met a Bianca’s soup I didn’t like. The simple curried asparagus was intense but, happily, not too spicy. It was important to have our taste buds intact for main courses. But first, a surprise intermezzo nibble on a spoon had to be tasted.

Shrimp in sorbet

Ceramic spoons (one for each of us) contained a small amount of honeydew melon and mint sorbet along with a large shrimp — looking like it was doing a back flip out of the sorbet. A drizzle of Sambuca filled any remaining gaps in the bowl of the spoon.

Personally, I liked all the elements of this treat, but found the Sambuca a tad forceful. My guests thought the Sambuca was just right. I felt one or two drops of Pernod would have sufficed.

Atlantic salmon enhanced with maple butter is a wonderful marriage of two classic Canadian ingredients. Beginning with a colourful base of citrus and fennel purée, the dish rose in layers of roasted garlic fingerling potatoes and salmon fillet. The fingerling halves were seasoned with herbs that matched the salmon and maple flavours beautifully.

The special of grilled halibut provided a bowl filled with carrot, mussels on the shell, broccolini and micro sea beans risotto and buttery sauce. Taking pride of place, reigning like a monarch over all was a thick, snow white piece of halibut sporting crosshatch grill marks, as if to signify its superior status. This dish was a triumph; from the moist, fresh fish to the carefully chosen accompaniments, not a false note was struck.

Veal in Marsala

A veal chop should be fat and juicy and that’s what Bianca’s delivered. The meat was slightly firm, but gave way quickly to my knife and revealed rivulets of juice running down its fibres.

Underneath and around it was a brigade of rich, pillowy soft gnocchi, covered, like the chop, in Marsala sauce. The woodsy, wine based sauce was an ideal accompaniment. Both veal and gnocchi love the seasoning provided by a robust sauce.

The lemony finish of our meal was Bianca’s lemon Napoleon. Five crispy thin wafers were stacked on top of each other with lemon curd in between. A regal crown of white and golden brown meringue gave the simple construction all the gilding it needed. I thought it was the ideal light, refreshing dessert.

I’m told Bianca’s has a new spring and summer menu on the way. It’s good to know we’ll have something to look forward to, along with the warm weather and sunshine.

Rating: * * * *         

Price: Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip: $265 (approximately)

Sound level: 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, Follow him on Twitter: @karl_wells

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

Geographic location: Jerusalem, Marsala

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