The year 2014 has been a remarkable one for the local restaurant industry.
We’ve seen many new restaurants open (some made this list), and I’m pleased to say that the food and service in numerous restaurants exceeded my expectations. In a few cases, dramatically, as with my No. 1 pick, Bacalao.
It, along with my top four choices, was awarded four out of four stars by me in 2014. A bumper year! What follows is not an “all-time best” list. It is solely a list of restaurants I consider to be the best of those I reviewed over the past 12 months.
No. 1. Bacalao
Although Bacalao has been around since 2007, when I dined there in 2014 (after many previous visits), it was like I was in a different restaurant. Why? Because of an astounding improvement in Bacalao’s food.
In every way, presentation, taste, technique, Bacalao’s cuisine was more sophisticated and better than that of many St. John’s restaurants. This is mainly because of the vision, talent and artistry of Bacalao’s executive chef, Ivan Kyutukchiev. His treatment of seafood, in particular, is most impressive. I recall a brilliant entrée of monkfish and salmon, a study in contrasts. Each fish had its own entourage of accompaniments. Yet, Kyutukchiev achieved well-tuned harmony on the plate.
— Bacalao, 65 LeMarchant Rd. 709-579-6565. www.bacalaocuisine.ca.
No. 2. Chinched Bistro
The always relaxing, enjoyable Chinched Bistro provided me with another delightful surprise this year: a massive improvement in cuisine. Chef Shaun Hussey and team are producing food that is more interesting and better tasting than ever.
I tried, for example, an octopus curry that turned a difficult ingredient (octopus) into a tender, textured and fragrant dish with perfectly balanced seasoning. Chinched also earned its reputation this year as the “go to” spot for excellent house-made charcuterie.
— Chinched Bistro, 7 Queen St. 709-722-3100. www.chinchedbistro.com.
No. 3. Adelaide Oyster House
Chef Steve Vardy’s Adelaide Oyster House opened with a bang. You could say the same thing about Vardy’s reignition of his career as a chef. He loves feeding people, and the joy he takes from that is what, I think, makes his food so incredibly satisfying. When I visited, nothing impressed me more than Adelaide’s braised beef short ribs, served with jus, carrots, wheat berries and pickled mustard seeds. And kudos to Vardy for providing oyster lovers with a place to sample an impressive variety of the bivalves.
— Adelaide Oyster House, 334 Water St. 709-722-7222.
No. 4. Bianca’s
As restaurants go, Bianca’s is a timeless classic. Since it opened there has not been a minute when it was not seen, by St. John’s diners, as one of our top eateries. The reason is obvious. A combination of excellent food, wine, service and atmosphere.
Owner Bianca Tszanov is always front-of-house. Her daily involvement matters. Nobody does fresh roast chicken or grilled halibut like Bianca’s. Soups are also brilliant.
— Bianca’s, 171 Water St. 709-726-9016. www.biancas.net.
No. 5. Mallard Cottage
Chef Todd Perrin, Kim Doyle and Stephen Lee have done something very special. Special for several reasons, not the least of which is the rescue of Mallard Cottage, part of the built heritage of Newfoundland. They’ve also helped place a spotlight on historic Quidi Vidi Village and what it has to offer. Tasteful rustic décor, friendly service and excellent farm-to-table or ocean-to-table fare will always make Mallard Cottage a popular choice for local restaurant goers. I enjoyed Perrin’s skin-on cod entrée, with local accompaniments of bacon, turnip greens, fondant potato and carrot purée. I called it “Newfoundland on a plate.”
— Mallard Cottage, 8 Barrow’s Rd. 709-237-7314. www.mallardcottage.ca.
No. 6. Magic Wok
Magic Wok is one of the brightest and busiest restaurants in St. John’s. Chef/patron Rennies So likes to operate a happy eatery with smiling staff and contented customers. No doubt serving consistently delicious Chinese food is what puts everybody in the right mood. I always enjoy my visits, starting with Magic Wok’s steamed dim sum dumplings, usually followed by crispy duck or flambéed beef.
— Magic Wok, 402-408 Water St. 709-753-6907. www.magicwok.ca.
No. 7. Fish Bowl Restaurant and Bar
The St. John’s Courtyard Marriott pulled a game-changer this year, by saying goodbye to a chain restaurant (Smitty’s) and embracing a one-of-a-kind, called Fish Bowl. Chef Chris Hounsell is new to hotels but, more importantly, he can cook. Really cook. Fish Bowl’s menu is 75 per cent seafood. Shellfish is plentiful and you can’t go wrong with the daily fish special. I tried some bliss inducing tuna, accompanied by perfect risotto.
— Fish Bowl, Courtyard Marriott, 131 Duckworth St. 709-722-6636.
No. 8. Legros and Motti
Rob Moore devoted years of research and toil developing an original restaurant for St. John’s. He even gave it his family names, Legros and Motti. The project involved trips across the United States and to Italy (where Moore found an olive oil producer for the restaurant). In my review I called it one of the “best looking restaurants in Eastern Canada.” It simply is. But more than that, Legros and Motti (after some startup problems) serves excellent food, by chef Maurizio Modica, and is a fun place to dine, whether you’re with a group or alone.
— Legros and Motti, 127 Harbour Dr. 709-726-6884.
No. 9. Magnum and Steins
It’s taken me a while to get used to the current location of Magnum and Steins, but changes made this year (adding a wine bar) have me liking it more. Since the tenure of chef Christopher Mercer they’ve been changing up the menu at Magnum and Steins as well. The fried cod tacos are well worth a try. I liked the textures and spicing. Even more impressive was Mercer’s surf and turf invention featuring veal cheek with butter poached lobster. Need I say more?
— Magnum and Steins, 329 Duckworth St. 709-576-6500. www.magnumandsteins.ca.
No. 10. One 11 Chophouse
One 11 Chophouse owner, Amir Mahic, had dibs (for a few years) on space formerly occupied by Hungry Fisherman in the Murray Premises. His idea was to install a high-end steak house there. That goal was accomplished in 2014. If you’re hungry for properly cooked expensive beef, this is the place to find it. The priciest cut is wagyu from Australia, going for $12 an ounce (10 ounces minimum). Most of One 11 Chophouse’s beef is top grade stuff from Prince Edward Island. Equally enjoyable for me was the marbled pork loin. Supremely tender and rich.
— One 11 Chophouse, Murray Premises 709-738-1011.
Congratulations to all of my Top 10 restaurants for 2014. It’s exciting to see the St. John’s restaurant industry continue its development at a brisk pace.
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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 via www.karlwells.com
Follow him on Twitter: @karl_wells