Restaurant dining this past year, for me, revealed only one exceptional dining experience. Most outings could be described as somewhere on the sliding scale of okay to very good. A few were extremely disappointing. I did find enough excellent restaurants - awarded three stars - in 2017 to make up a varied and solid Top 10 list of restaurants I believe deserve the extra recognition that comes with being one of the 10.
The reason my 2017 list has lots of variety is because, as you may have noticed, I left the beaten path for the extremely beaten path, the one that brings a foodie in contact with every kind of restaurant out there, from the greasiest greasy spoon and small family run gem to a long-established restaurant, to which I was delighted to award not three, but four stars.
Whether you agree, partially agree or strongly disagree with this list you should first know an important fact. This list is not, repeat not, a best or all-time best restaurants list. It is merely a list of the Top 10 restaurants I reviewed in 2017. Having said that, let me assure you that every restaurant on this list receives a very strong recommendation from me. Now, beginning with that four-star restaurant I mentioned, here they are:
1. India Gate
286 Duckworth St.
St. John’s, N.L.
Ph. (709) 753-6006
I’ve never had a bad meal or a bad dish at India Gate. I’ve also never, until this year, awarded four stars to India Gate, unless you count the way I raved to spouse about the lamb vindaloo.
Distinguishing an exceptional restaurant from an excellent one, for me, has more to do with final impressions or how I feel about the experience days later. Keeping score on food, service, décor, atmosphere et cetera works fine when assigning a restaurant one, two, three, or no stars.
Assigning the rarified fourth star usually involves a more abstract approach, where instinct and feeling comes into play. Deciding on a fourth star can be difficult.
Since India Gate is the only four-star restaurant on this year’s list, making it the No. 1 restaurant for 2017 was easy. Read my review of India Gate here: http://www.thetelegram.com/living/karl-wells
407 Main Highway
Witless Bay, N.L.
Ph. (709) 743-3490
I never expected to find the artful, thoughtfully executed dishes I found at Fork.
There are very few rural Newfoundland communities with restaurants that prepare cuisine at the level chefs Kyle Puddester and Kayla O’Brien do, consistently, at Fork, Witless Bay’s “evenings only” restaurant.
Everything I tasted at Fork was made with fresh, high quality ingredients. Those ingredients, including garnishes like edible flowers and granola, were mixed, stirred, cooked and arranged so well it was obvious that a couple of first class chefs were about to take the Southern Shore by storm, or tornado, at least. Read my review of Fork here: http://www.thetelegram.com/living/karl-wells-creative-spark-lights-witless-bays-fork-134889/
2297 Topsail Rd.
Conception Bay South, N.L.
Ph. (709) 781-1099
Conception Bay South keeps growing and, as part of its general development, there’s been a sprouting of restaurants.
Mogul, because of its food, impressed me enough to warrant mention here.
I should say mostly because of the food, because I also liked Mogul’s atmosphere. I sensed positive energy, happiness and contentment on the part of the diners.
It’s a small place so it was easy to pick up on the general mood. Mogul’s standout dishes, for me, featured chicken: the smoky edged tandoori chicken and the unctuous butter chicken, a perennial favourite at Indian restaurants. Read my review of Mogul here: http://www.thetelegram.com/living/karl-wells-well-done-mogul-134683/
4. Hungry Heart Café
142 Military Rd.
St. John’s, N.L.
Ph. (709) 738-6164
The word, heart, in the name, is very appropriate.
Every time I dine there I get the sense, with every bite, that I’m enjoying food that’s been made with love. In fact, the entire social enterprise that is The Hungry Heart Café feels like it’s running on, as the song goes, “lots and lots and lots of heart.”
Much of the credit for the current excellence at Hungry Heart goes to chef/manager/instructor, Carolyn Power.
Power’s food is always fresh, honest and creative. I favour her pastas. Lamb tagliatelle, for example. Soups and desserts - like Hungry Heart’s heavenly blueberry galette - are special too. Read my review of Hungry Heart here: http://www.thetelegram.com/living/karl-wells-all-hail-the-hungry-heart-134791/
5. The Grounds Café
1501 Portugal Cove Rd.
Portugal Cove-St. Phillip’s, N.L.
Ph. (709) 895-2800
A modest, but impressive café opened at Murray’s Garden Centre in 2017.
The Grounds Café is bright, airy and more comfortable than you’d expect a café in a former retail garden equipment space to be.
From rich-tasting coffee, to beautifully made soups and sandwiches, to skillfully baked pastries, Grounds Café sets the bar high. It helps that Murray’s grows vegetables the café can easily access. Management has also committed to sourcing, what can’t be gotten at Murray’s, from other local farmers and producers. In many ways,
The Grounds Café is an experiment. Can it succeed outside of gardening season? Can it survive on local ingredients exclusively? If so, let’s hope others follow. Read my review of Grounds Café here: http://www.thetelegram.com/living/karl-wells-caf-in-a-garden-centre--whoda-thunk-it-134900/
6. SeaSalt and Thyme
1 Convent Lane
Ph. (709) 528-9100
Given the large number of tourists visiting Brigus each summer, it’s good that the village finally has a spacious, comfortable restaurant serving excellent food.
The oddly named, SeaSalt and Thyme, used to be a convent, and apart from the section that’s been turned into a pub, the public areas still look pretty much as they did during the holy days.
SeaSalt’s menu is the definition of eclectic, which can be fun if things are done properly.
Our meal began with a traditional fish chowder, beet salad and novel touton bun burger; then it veered sharp left with hoisin chicken and a vegan chocolate whoopie pie. It was a very satisfying meal, from start to finish. Read my review of SeaSalt and Thyme here: http://www.thetelegram.com/living/karl-wells-hail-to-the-chef-134931/
7. Rocket Bakery
272 Water St.
St. John’s, N.L.
Ph. (709) 738-2015
Rocket Bakery, the name, doesn’t even begin to tell the story of this bakery/café/entertainment venue.
Over the years it’s been in operation, it has become, more than any other business on Water Street, like a welcoming, unofficial community centre of downtown St. John’s. It all goes back to the food at Rocket, exceptional, consistently good victuals.
I remember writing, glowingly, about the quiche. A reader wrote to tell me she’d gone to find out if it was as good as I’d said. She told me, “You were right. It was as good as you described.”
I have yet to taste the full contents of the cornucopia which is Rocket Bakery but I’m confident, based on what I have tasted, that this downtown treasure offers little, if anything, that disappoints. Read my review of Rocket Bakery here: http://www.thetelegram.com/living/rocket--water-street-eatery-solid-as-a-rock-134832/
8. Kimchi and Sushi
140 Water St.
St. John’s, N.L.
Ph. (709) 579-4382
Newfoundland and Labrador certainly doesn’t offer a United Nations of choice when it comes to international restaurants.
It’s always been a few steps forward, one step backward in terms of developing this sector of the industry. It takes lots of patience, tenacity and hard work to grow a following for an international restaurant.
Kimchi and Sushi is one that’s making it. The sizzling marinated beef alone, possessing so much flavour, is reason enough to go back. Crispy pork and chicken gyoja Asian dumplings and spicy codfish soup are two more reasons. Read my review of Kimchi and Sushi here: http://www.thetelegram.com/living/karl-wells-kimchi--sushi-serving-up-korean-japanese-cuisine-practically-dairy-free-134769/
9. New Moon
656 Topsail Rd.
St. John’s, N.L.
Ph. (709) 368-6698
My trip to New Moon was one of the most pleasant dining out surprises of 2017.
Most Chinese restaurants in Newfoundland stick with the usual suspects in terms of dishes offered. You know, standard Canadian Chinese buffet food.
Sophie Wan, New Moon’s owner, decided to make things more interesting for à la carte diners. She’s a fan of spicy food and has added several hot Szechuan preparations. I enjoyed the shredded beef and Chinese preserved mustard rice noodle soup. Other dishes worth mention are the Shanghai style vegetarian duck and the seafood worbar on sizzling platter. Read my review of New Moon here: http://www.thetelegram.com/living/karl-wells-new-moon-rising-134722/
10. The Outport
1495 Topsail Rd.
Ph. (709) 782-2121
Rounding out this year’s eclectic list of restaurants is an unpretentious café specializing in home-style cooking.
The Outport’s popularity has increased over the last few years. I witnessed how busy it’s become; and I know folks who’ve made lunch at the Outport a Sunday ritual.
Service at the restaurant has always been friendly and good, and the atmosphere positive and chatty.
Before I’d tasted a bite of my dessert I’d figured out what was so different about the Outport from my last meal there. The food had really improved, from good to excellent. And, by the way, that dessert I mentioned was coconut cream pie. It alone justifies a visit. Read my review of Outport here: http://www.thetelegram.com/living/karl-wells-chowder-down-on-comfort-food-134753/
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