8 Barrows Rd.
I remember Mallard Cottage co-owner and chef Todd Perrin telling me several years ago that he intended to open a restaurant. As I recall he said something like, “If you’re gonna be a chef you’ve got to be in a restaurant.” His ambition was to be in a restaurant that he owned.
At the time he was freelancing and operating a bed and breakfast establishment called Chef’s Inn.
Did I doubt that he’d pull it off? Not for a second.
Perrin is not someone who equivocates.
My sense is that he had a vision for Mallard Cottage and, come hell or high water, he was going to see that vision realized.
Not to diminish the contribution of his Mallard partners, his wife Kim Doyle and sommelier Stephen Lee, but I suspect every detail of the planning, construction, launching and operation of Mallard Cottage, as an eatery, originated in Perrin’s brain.
Establishing a restaurant in a fishing village (Quidi Vidi) and in a significant historic building (one of the oldest wooden structures in North America) is a challenge.
The business must blend in well with the community, and the building must retain its historic integrity. Perrin got it just right, with help from Doyle, Lee, Sweet Lumber Enterprises and the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador.
When Peggy Magnone operated her antique shop out of Mallard Cottage it was impossible to appreciate the uncomplicated, austere construction of the original building. It was just too full of every kind of antique, collectable and knickknack.
That’s changed. Mallard’s original rooms have now been cleared and brushed up to serve as overflow or private dining areas.
The greater part of Mallard Cottage, the restaurant, is a large build-on at the back of the building containing restrooms, a spacious dining room, bar and open concept kitchen.
Wooden boards (plain, varnished, painted) of four or five-inch width cover floors, walls and ceiling (supported by exposed wooden trusses). You can smell the wood, especially on a warm day. It’s a pleasant experience and serves to reinforce the conceit of the restaurant being a kind of spare, outport Newfoundland pre-Confederation home.
The representation is rustic and honest. You will not see clichéd lobster pots, fishing nets, nor plush toy puffins strung from the ceiling at Mallard Cottage. Instead, bottled preserves are carefully placed in the rafters. Several of the wall hangings, although painted by contemporary Newfoundland artists, feature traditional style landscapes.
A bar with colonial style barstools, and wine glasses hung upside down from overhead slatted, shallow wooden wine crates, create a friendly, eminently breachable boarder between dining area and kitchen.
Mallard’s menu changes daily. It is hand written on sheets delivered to each table but also appears in chalk on a large blackboard (quite fitting given the tone of the room). A compact but well-chosen wine list does not change. A good thing, too, because I discovered a highly drinkable red on Mallard’s list. It was an Italian blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon called Rompicollo by Tommasi.
A fresh-looking slice of tree trunk served as platter for our amuse bouche or appetite starter. At rustic Mallard Cottage this type of presentation seemed appropriate. On the wooden surface, and drizzled with sweet beer jam for accent, were the tiniest handmade crackers (one for each of us) daubed with slowly braised pork belly whipped with carrot and onion. This tease to make us yearn for more food and drink was very effective.
After more of the mellow Rompicollo and well-chosen recorded torch songs, bluesy numbers, jazz, and what I’d swear was Chet Baker’s trumpet, we received our appetizers.
First was cod brandade served with citrus aioli.
There’s a French dish called brandade de morue, a mixture of salt cod and olive oil blended together to form a paste. It’s often served on bread or crackers. What Mallard Cottage served was a combination of fresh cod blended with potato. This was formed into balls, coated with crumbs and fried. I’d guess the mixture was about 60 per cent cod and 40 per cent potato. The golden brown, crispy coated bits went down nicely — even better with the citrus aioli.
A perfect ode to late spring or early summer came in the form of a local organic green salad with bacon. It was surrounded by homemade croutons, colourful edible flowers, and topped with grated carrot. Some of the greens may have come from Mallard’s backyard vegetable garden. While outside I also noticed a work deck with food smoker for smoking bacon, sausage and other meats.
Ever had pickled herring? If so you’ll recognize the similar texture of Mallard’s pickled halibut. It made for an interesting, toothsome change from baked, fried or sautéed. This was pickle heaven. Large flakes of pickled halibut layered and dressed with chopped chives, sat in the centre of a green plate. Pickled carrot and pickled beet kept the halibut company along with some house mustard, edible flowers and peppery nasturtium leaves.
An appetizer called pork pressé caught my eye because I had no idea what pork pressé meant. Pressed pork belly I knew, and it’s delicious.
What Mallard served was a narrow stripe of dank, mushy textured, finely chopped pork all dressed up to impress on an elaborately printed plate and adorned with flowers, chopped chives and beer jam. Regrettably, the pressé did not impress me — on any level. No doubt effort went into the dish, but it paid small dividends.
Thoughts of the pork pressé quickly evaporated when I tasted Mallard’s wonderful skin-on cod entrée. This should be the restaurant’s signature dish. The most delicately tender cod, silky and buttery in the mouth, was served with succulent cubes of bacon, turnip greens (the quintessential Newfoundland green) fondant potato (roasted in stock) and carrot purée. It was Newfoundland on a plate.
Mallard’s cold lobster salad was another enjoyable main. Ultra-thin slices of beet (called beet carpaccio) made a bed for a serving of creamy dressed cubed potato salad mixed with bits of lobster meat. This was crowned with the tender meat of one lobster claw. Again, a lovingly prepared example of the rustic cuisine that Perrin does so well. Freshly chopped herbs and several dashes of infused oil provided visual appeal and additional flavour. Just a touch more salt would have helped, too.
I once had the pleasure of tasting handmade, freshly boiled papardelle pasta dressed with duck ragout by Perrin. It’s the way I like pasta best, where it shares equal billing with the sauce. His seafood pasta bake with halibut, Newfoundland shrimp and broad pasta in béchamel sauce was a well-made version of mom’s homey casserole.
The risk here is in seriously overcooking the seafood. That did not happen with Mallard Cottage’s pasta bake, a nostalgic, comforting production.
Four desserts were offered: lemon curd granola crumble, chocolate bread pudding, rosemary and rhubarb crumble, and rhubarb tart, served with homemade vanilla ice cream or coconut sorbet. The words nostalgic and comforting also apply here. Of the ones I tasted, my favourite was the rhubarb tart. The lattice pastry strips on top were wonderfully over-the-top big and wide.
More important, the pastry was flaky and tender. And unlike the lemon curd, which was a little too sweet (and which did not appear to have any of the granola our server mentioned), the rhubarb filling was perfect, retaining just enough tanginess.
A piece of wood from a berry crate held an après meal treat. Four coconut currant cookies with good, made-that-day taste. How I found room for that cookie I’ll never know. The rhubarb tart was large, but I polished off every morsel.
Mallard Cottage Restaurant has brought new life to Quidi Vidi Village and gives visitors another reason to spend time in a community that has the flavour of rural Newfoundland. And it doesn’t hurt that the food there is delicious.
Rating: * * *
Price: Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip — $200 (approximately)
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