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Karl Wells: All hail the Hungry Heart


It wasn’t Spode or Wedgwood or even Minton, but by God it was a China cup and saucer I was drinking from at Hungry Heart Café. As I sipped refreshing, properly brewed orange pekoe from the Queen Anne cup, with its blue and grey scroll pattern, I thought, “This is a retro trend I can get behind.”

Hungry Heart braised lamb tagliatelle
Hungry Heart tea in a china cup.

If we can debate the width and gauge of a wine glass, and fuss over stemless versus stemmed, I say let’s devote some attention to what we’re drinking tea and coffee out of these days. Not to mention the slops, posing as tea, some restaurants are pouring.  

“Civilized” is the word that came to mind when I was served tea in that china cup. In fact, that’s the general feeling I’ve always had when dining at Hungry Heart Café and other social enterprise restaurants in St. John’s. The Pantry and Network Café come to mind. There may be other social enterprise cafés. If so, please let me know.

Stella’s Circle opened Hungry Heart Café April 15, 2008. Its purpose was to provide a food service training program for clients of the organization, while at the same time generating revenue to keep the program going. Almost nine years later Hungry Heart Café — with mandate intact — is still going strong.

Hungry Heart squash and farro salad

Chef to chef

Of course, head chefs changed over the years. Back in 2008 it was Kathy Jaeger who helped establish the practical part of the program and trained the first students. These days Carolyn Power of Epicurean Kitchen fame is fulltime executive chef, responsible for the in-house restaurant, special themed dinners and Hungry Heart Café’s catering business.

Maybe it’s the storefront location — the former W.J. Murphy’s Grocery — and a little residual ambiance, but there’s no doubt Hungry Heart Café has captured the flavour of an old-style café. And that feeling or mood is probably the only part worth borrowing from St. John’s cafés of 1930 or 1940.

I wasn’t around then, but everything I’ve heard describes very basic food, often not as good as you’d get at home.

(In that era, many thought our best restaurant was on wheels. It was called the Dining Car of the Newfoundland Railway.)

Hungry Heart banana bread pudding

Fresh with flare

Dishes at Hungry Heart Café are made with fresh ingredients and flare. Our first appetizer, for example, was a dandy salad of farro, roasted squash and kale tossed in a maple Dijon vinaigrette. I’m no friend of kale, but here it had been chopped into small pieces and absorbed into the general blend. Perfect.

It was the chewy texture of cooked farro grains that pleased me most. Diced butternut squash was firm enough to maintain its shape and add some colour. Squash and vinaigrette helped create the salad’s memorable, tangy, sweet flavour profile.  

For years, people have eaten parsnips to boost their libido. It’s true. (Claims like that carry about as much weight with me as weather predictions in the Old Farmer’s Almanac.) But, I can vouch for Hungry Heart Café’s parsnip soup as a non-carnal appetite booster.

 

Purée vs. pulverize

I was expecting a puréed soup with the consistency of Gerber banana baby food. It was much better. Indeed, it had been blended, but not to the post-Pablum stage. The soup, full of natural parsnip sweetness, had been thoughtfully pulverized, leaving it with several textures. It was liquid in parts, Pablum-like too, but, the soup also contained firm fragments of parsnip. I liked that, as well as the flavour: unmistakable but not strong.

I noticed an exhibition of photos on the restaurant’s back wall. They’d been hung a tad high but I could tell whoever had taken the shots knew something about composition. Our server told us, “It’s our Just Us Program. All the pictures were done by women who’ve been through the justice system.”

Later she handed me an information sheet.

Each photographer attempted to show her innermost feelings through a photograph.

For example, one photo called, “Lock and Key,” showed an outstretched arm with a rusty chain and padlock around the wrist. The photographer’s description of the image explained that it was meant to represent her feelings of being imprisoned by depression, anxiety and thoughts of guilt and anger. Viewed in context, the photos were quite powerful. I’m glad I took the time to see them.

Hungry Heart’s photo exhibition

Top tagliatelle

What’s more comforting than hot soup followed by pasta in a cozy restaurant? Well, quite a few things but if the pasta is Hungry Heart Café’s lamb tagliatelle, it’s still a rewarding conjugation. The pasta itself, which looked and tasted handmade, was tossed in lean pieces of braised lamb, currants, pine nuts, parmesan and green olives. Finished with a generous sprinkling of garlic bread crumbs, I don’t think this dish could have tasted any better.

Spouse settled for a piece of grilled salmon with rice, green beans and mushrooms. Obvious grill marks left no doubt about the cooking method. One of the advantages with grilling and grill marks, apart from the procedure’s simplicity, is the smoky flavour it imparts. A big drawback is the peril of over cooking. Hungry Heart Café’s salmon tasted delicious but it was a little overcooked.

A woman at a nearby table was heard saying, “This is much better than the bread pudding I make.” She looked like somebody who could knock off a wicked bread pudding. After tasting the restaurant’s roasted banana and chocolate bread pudding with bourbon sauce, I appreciated her reaction. Hungry Heart Café’s dessert was spectacular. It was buttery rich and came with (a fanfare would be good here) real whipped cream! Of course, nothing else would have sufficed.

All hail the Hungry Heart.

 

Rating: ***       

* Fair  * * Good  * * * Excellent  * * * * Exceptional

 

Price: Lunch for two with tea, tip and tax costs approximately $70.

Service: Professional and friendly.           

Ambiance: Cozy, bright, comfortable.  

Sound level: Moderate.  

Open Daily: from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Reservations: Yes, and walk-ins are welcome.

Credit cards: All major.  

Parking: Street and building’s small parking lot.

Beverages: A modest selection of popular wines, beers, soft drinks, juices, water, tea and coffee.

Best bets: Roasted squash and farro salad, braised lamb tagliatelle, banana bread pudding.

Wheelchair access Yes.

 

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.

 

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