Legros and Motti
127 Harbour Dr., St. John’s
Legros and Motti is stunning. It is without doubt one of the biggest and best looking restaurants in Eastern Canada. Legros and Motti is the kind of money-was-no-object Xanadu dining hall that would fit in comfortably in London (maybe Knightsbridge?) Toronto or New York.
I’m told the planning of this new waterfront colossus began more than two years ago.
It’s obvious. Owners Rob Moore, Wayne Moore and Leo Power left no detail to chance with this cathedral of gourmandization.
(Their names are also linked with The Keg and the coming Jack Astor’s chain restaurants at the same location.)
Given that the restaurant is located on the St. John’s waterfront I suppose it’s appropriate that it has the ambience of a converted warehouse.
Over the years our harbour has been home to all manner of large echoing structures including a southside fish plant and a seal processing plant (Job Brothers).
The western half of Legros and Motti contains an atrium of some height.
When you enter your eyes are drawn to the ceiling from which hangs a network of bare light bulbs attached to a labyrinth of pipes. Below, at ground level, is seating of various kinds: communal benches, scalloped, padded circular booths for six along the north wall of windows and stand-alone tables.
A long bar, where additional patrons can be seated, runs the length of the west wall. The shelving behind the bar is framed on either side by very high wine coolers.
I assume the coolers are automated to carry wine bottles within reach of bar staff.
The space above the bar bears one of the largest flat screens you’ll see. It was split into six different channel feeds, five sports and one featuring music videos.
A marble fireplace of about 15-feet high (including its elaborate mantelpiece) dominates the south side of the atrium.
We were seated on the mezzanine level above, directly east of the atrium’s mostly empty loft space. (Stairs and elevator provide access.)
I counted even more wine bottles on the mezzanine — stacked as high as the eye could see — again on the restaurant’s west wall. I could wax on about the look of Legros and Motti but I have much else to tell you.
The majordomo of Legros and Motti is general manager Barb Henshaw.
Henshaw has worked on the mainland, namely Vancouver, for large catering and food service operators with multiple restaurants. She is also in charge of Legros and Motti’s more than ample wine list of approximately 85 wines. I particularly liked the simple, straightforward descriptions of the various wine groupings like: “crisp, clean, light and lean,” “full-bodied, rich and round,” and the cheeky, “second-mortgage wines.”
Legros and Motti is billed as being two restaurants in one, an Italian trattoria and a French bistro. Although you will see the odd wine from places like California, Washington and Spain on the list, most of the wines offered, as you might expect, are either Italian or French. All but one of the so called “second-mortgage wines” (Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Château de Beaucastel, 2009, Rhône, $211) is an Italian red. The dearest is Solaia Toscana IGT, Antinori, 2007 at $291.
Legros and Motti executive chef Matt MacDonald (formerly sous chef at award winning Bacalao), has also been engaged with the project for more than two years. He told me part of his job during that period was to source the best quality ingredients, wherever they might be found. A delicious example is the verdant, spicy olive oil that bears the Legros and Motti label on bottles and three litre tins. It is made for the restaurant in Umbria, Italy.
A small loaf of hot bread and Legros and Motti olive oil for dipping cued the start of dinner. Although they make their own pasta at the restaurant, the bread is made for Legros and Motti by Ace Bakery. Ace makes a good artisanal style product. Our bread was aromatic with chewy crust and soft, substantial white centre. Ideal.
Polenta has been a staple for many Italians since ancient Roman times. I like porridge, grits and cream of wheat so I was keen to try the creamy polenta (essentially boiled cornmeal). It was served with a “truffled wild mushroom ragoût.” The mushrooms (a wild field mushroom mix with truffle paste and herbs) had been sautéed until very dark and rich tasting. The mild flavoured, pale yellow polenta was the perfect counterpoint.
Legros and Motti’s crab bites with mustard aioli were a tour de force.
I taste a lot of crab cakes over the course of a year but these smaller cakes reset the bar. Four or five of the cakes came with aioli described as “spicy mustard aioli.” The aioli was mild, not spicy. The cakes, covered in a crisp shell of golden fried crumbs, broke open into a wonderful display of sweet white crabmeat with traditional binding ingredients: seasonings, possibly egg, dairy and so forth.
Meatballs are back, apparently. From New York’s Rocco Dispirito’s mama’s meatball’s made famous a few years ago, to the meatball creations of Newfoundlander Rod Bowers at Toronto’s Hey Meatball restaurants, meatballs are in. Legros and Motti serve an excellent appetizer of meatball sliders with tomato sauce. The balls are homemade, as is the sauce. Melted fiordilatte (cow’s milk mozzarella) adds extra unction.
The milk-fed veal chop (broiled, grilled or valdostana) is standard fare at every classic American Italian restaurant. Legros and Motti does a pan roasted version seasoned with a little sage and juniper. It came with fingerling potatoes and broccolini. The chop was exquisite: ultra-tender and mild with sage and juniper deftly added to great effect.
Another very competent execution of a classic dish was the slow braised short ribs. Succulent, almost black ribs, napped with braised onion and jus rested on an overwhelming mound of pancetta mashed potato. Next to the potato was a generous sized ramekin filled with turnip gratin. No hungry meat lover could turn down this full-on plate of homemade vittles.
Adam Stuckey is Legros and Motti’s pastry chef. While the restaurant’s main menu heavily favours Italian dishes as opposed to French, Stuckey’s dessert card is more balanced. We tried the cannoli from the Italian side. Executive chef MacDonald sourced made-to-order cannoli pastry shells on the mainland.
Stuckey fills them with a mixture of mascarpone, ricotta, icing sugar and vanilla.
It may sound weird but I was desperate to try cannoli after I first saw “The Godfather.” Eventually I did, many times, and the best I ever had was in Little Italy in New York. Next time I’ll try Legros and Motti’s 10 layer chocolate cake.
Legros and Motti is an extraordinary restaurant on many levels, including service.
I was hugely impressed by the obviously well-trained staff. However, they need to find their groove. A little less intrusion and better timing would help.
We were interrupted too often to be asked, “How is everything? How does it taste?”
Initially our mains arrived within 10 minutes of being served our appetizers. We had no choice but to send them back until we were ready for them.
No doubt individuals will soon find their groove.
Meanwhile Legros and Motti, the restaurant, is well on the way to finding its groove, and making its mark.
Rating: * * *
Price: Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip — $180 (approximatly)
Sound level: High
* 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