Pure mastery

Karl Wells
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Bacalao still at the top of its game

Bacalao
65 LeMarchant Rd.
St. John’s
Phone 579-6565

I’ve known Andrea Maunder, Bacalao’s owner and resident pastry chef, since I asked her to be a regular contributor on my Rogers TV show, “One Chef One Critic.” She’s a friend, but that does not give Bacalao an advantage when I review it.

My editor, regular readers and Maunder (sometimes to her chagrin) know I do not pull any punches for Bacalao, or any restaurant, despite friendships, preferential treatment or offers of complimentary dishes or drinks, rare as they are.

So, why this preamble? It’s because what follows is a very different assessment of Bacalao from those I have given on three previous occasions.

And, I want to underline that everything I am about to say comes from a true place — as scrupulously objective a place as possible.

We (spouse and I) dined at Bacalao last Saturday. Our friend Bill came with us. The front three dining rooms were full and we were about to pretty much fill the fourth room at the rear of the restaurant, across from a bustling kitchen.

By the time we were seated, it was clear to me that an intangible quality I’d never felt before at Bacalao was present.

It was what some might call the buzz of a hot restaurant. But why, after seven years, was I feeling this incredible buzz, vibe, or whatever you want to call it?

Over the course of the evening, I would eventually discover the answer.

Marvelous mojito

First, drinks were ordered: bakeapple mojito, glass of house Sauvignon blanc and a bottle of Chateau Smith Cabernet Sauvignon from Washington for the table.

The mojito, in a sugar rimmed highball glass and dressed with lime wedge, was golden, light and pétillant. A handful of bakeapples floated on top, like perfect orange-coloured clouds reigning over a golden sunset.

The mojito was made with Newfoundlanders rum, bakeapple and mint syrup, club soda and a dash of bitters. Despite the syrup, most of the sweetness came from the sugary rim and I liked that.

The taste of the premium quality rum was at the fore, with the berry flavour occupying a firm but lessor spot in the background.

Our wine was new to me. I ordered the Chateau Smith from Charles Smith Wines because I like Cabernet Sauvignon and because I know that there are some very good wineries in the state of Washington. The Chateau Smith cab was deep, smooth and fruity. I tasted lots of cherry, chocolate and a whisper of vanilla. We all agreed it was a commendable vino.

Maunder is the definition of a hands-on owner but, in my view, her great contribution is in selecting wines and spirits for Bacalao. Her martinis and cocktails are fun and inventive and Bacalao’s wine list features over 100 highly drinkable wines. A separate specialty wine list contains approximately 25 more choices.

Seafood starters

Bacalao is still offering a menu with a range of seafood, meats and wild game. The emphasis on regional products is stronger than ever. Our amuse bouche of cured Atlantic salmon was served on ceramic spoons.

A thin round of crostini leaned against the small curl of salmon, underneath which was a soupçon of eggplant purée. The fish snuggled up to the perky, slightly smoky purée for a reason. Together they were the perfect duo, each making the other taste miles better. Poor crostini was rendered surplus to requirements.

Newfoundland snow crab was featured in the appetizer special. The rectangular plate had a busy arrangement of green and crab on one side, and a simple quenelle of tomato-flavoured mousse on the other. The green was a chiffonade of romaine on which sat half a pitted avocado filled with crab meat. Cascading downward over all was a creamy, herb-scented lemonette. This was a fresh, well-crafted and thoughtfully scented plate.

Basque-style calamari was cut to resemble cooked udon noodles. Then it was flash cooked on a pan and served with a combination of chilies, tomato, onion and bell pepper. I’ve seldom tasted calamari prepared so well. It was unusually tender and the red mixture accompaniment could not have complemented it better.

It’s seal flipper time in Newfoundland and Bacalao answered the call by preparing mini seal flipper pies. A small ramekin contained a stew of seal meat and diced root vegetables covered with a biscuit of pastry. The seal meat had been braised in red wine, rosemary, nutmeg, garlic and allspice for 12 to 14 hours.

I’ve been eating seal meat since I was a young child. Bacalao’s appetizer tasted exactly right to me. The seal carried no wuffy aroma or taste. It had been properly defatted, and tasted like the clean, robust wild game that it is.  

One fish, two fish

The catch of the day entrée celebrated two delicious but different fish: monkfish and Atlantic salmon. The living species are a contrast in appearance and their flesh contrasts as well. A few precious slices of pan-seared monkfish sat on a square of baked polenta. A cutlet of pan-seared salmon fillet almost seemed to be afloat on a serving of butternut purée.

In between and surrounding the pieces of fish was a slice of roasted fennel, green beans and cooked tomato.

A thin trail of red wine sauce also decorated the plate. Both servings of seafood, being either robust in texture (monkfish) or flavour (salmon), held up well with the hardy wine sauce. This was a formidable dish. Honourable mention goes to the exquisitely crispy skin covering the salmon.  

Duck fanciers will be pleased when they taste Bacalao’s local duck duo. The duck (I’m not sure what type) was raised by a farmer in the Grand Falls-Windsor area. It’s a wonderful product. Such duck deserves special treatment by cooks and that’s what it got. There was the succulent breast and a portion of rich, tender duck leg confit galette.

An accompaniment of butternut squash spätzle with peas and sweet and sour apple spice-braised red cabbage provided contrasting texture and accent.

The finishing touch was an excellent, aromatic, Asian-inspired red curry sauce made viscous and even better with coconut milk.

Lamb was the substitute game of the day that evening. I wasn’t complaining.

The dish presented a delicate rack of New Zealand’s finest along with a tender slice of local lamb shoulder.

There was even some flavourful local pulled lamb meat in the Newfoundland mushroom risotto underneath.

A sauce of international lamb juices painted the remainder of the plate. It was yet another brilliantly executed dish that honoured the ingredients, the diner and the kitchen that prepared it.

The answer

Creating a popular or hot restaurant requires assembling certain ingredients and making sure they all work together in a harmonious way. It’s like putting the pieces of a difficult puzzle together. Unless that last piece fits snugly, the end result is diminished.

Andrea Maunder has worked tirelessly to make Bacalao a remarkable restaurant, one that perfectly fit her vision as an eatery that would celebrate our local ingredients and our cuisine in a new, sophisticated way. But there was one element lacking: a cohesive, highly talented and thoroughly skilled kitchen brigade that could realize her vision.

To her credit, she has completed the puzzle and it is marvellous.

How did she do it?

By promoting Ivan Kyutukchiev to be Bacalao’s executive chef, the general in her kitchen. Kyutukchiev is one of the most gifted chefs I know. Bacalao will be good for him and he will be good for Bacalao. See for yourself while you can still get a dinner reservation. You will be amazed.

Know as well that, as of today, Bacalao receives a four-star rating in this newspaper.

Rating: * * * *        

Price: Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip: $190 (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,

www.karlwells.com.

Follow him on Twitter: @karl_wells

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

Geographic location: State of Washington, Newfoundland, Grand Falls-Windsor New Zealand

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Comments

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Recent comments

  • Harvey
    May 11, 2014 - 20:46

    Really, please tell me the purpose of article, other than to advertise a restaurant. This is utter, absolute, unadulterated you know what.

  • Guy Incognito
    May 11, 2014 - 12:56

    Pretentious Karl pays $190 for a meal for 2 and tells everyone they should run and try it while they can.