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Karl Wells: Find a little Gypsy pleasure in morose March weather


This chef's food pleases the eye as much as the palate

Gypsy Tea Room
315 Water St.
St. John’s, N.L.
Ph. (709) 739-4766

Lately we’ve been parking the SUV in one of the downtown parking garages. Finding a spot on the street is nearly impossible. Even in the garages we’re forced to drive in circles, higher and higher, as if ascending the Tower of Babel; except we’re only trying to find a 2.6 m parking space, not heaven.
Yet, most days — not all — the shops and restaurants on Water and Duckworth aren’t exactly beating away customers with a broom. Obviously, most downtown vehicle owners aren’t restaurant diners or retail shoppers.

We bumped into restaurateur, Emir Mahic, in the wine bar of his excellent restaurant, Gypsy Tea Room. We’d popped in for lunch. He was sitting at the bar intently reading that day’s Telegram. Behind him a huge wine storage wall contained an impressive number of bottles of wine. During a quick catch-up I mentioned the parking situation.

“Yes, so many cars, but, where are all the people?” he said. The question was rhetorical with a note of exasperation. It seemed as if a physical gesture, like throwing up his hands, could have been added for emphasis, but Mahic doesn’t communicate that way. He has a reserved eastern European temperament.

I had no answer except to suggest they might all be in offices. I could have added, or picking up passports, getting a tooth filled, attending a session of council or a trial; but he already knew that. Just as he knows March never was much of a restaurant month, people are belt tightening and competition is fierce. 

Sharply dressed

We were seated at a large, comfortable booth, one of only three in Gypsy’s main dining area. Tables, dressed sharply in black and white cloth, provide most of the area’s seating. Each table setting features stainless flatware, a white side plate, stemmed water and wine glasses and a black cloth napkin. Despite its red painted walls, the room doesn’t put your teeth on edge. Exposed wood, brick, colourful artwork and hardwood flooring create reassuring calm and warmth. 

Our meal didn’t get off to a perfect start. I ordered a glass of Malbec to have with steak tartare. It was served warm, very warm. I’d say at least 85F. I don’t expect restaurant red to be served at an ideal 60F – 65F. Room temperature is fine, 70F. But very warm Malbec is unpalatable. When I told the server, it was replaced in a flash. He told me the wine had been standing on top of a refrigerator and the heat from the appliance had warmed it.

Rapid redemption came thanks to the skillful cooking of Gypsy’s executive chef, Foxtrap native, Daniel Butler. The Holland College alumnus has been a cooking pro for eight years. He joined Gypsy Tea Room about three years ago. He respects food and has a well-developed sense in selecting the right number of ingredients for a dish, and in balancing the flavours of ingredients and seasonings — herbs and spices.

Tatars and Tartars

It’s been suggested that steak tartare is named after the Tartars (a corruption of Tatars) of the Baltic provinces. Apparently, a thousand or so years ago they became known for finely chopping or slicing red meat to eat raw. I suppose when someone decided to formalize the meal and write a recipe for it, they had to call it something more interesting than “chopped red meat.” Steak Tartar has a certain ring to it, but I’m pretty sure humans were eating chopped red meat before the Middle Ages - the archaic peoples of Newfoundland and Labrador, for example.    

It tasted good then and still does. Chef Butler does it with minimum fuss. My steak tartare was seasoned with ginger, soy, Worcestershire sauce and lemon juice and formed into a loose patty. Julienned radish, pickled red onion and grilled focaccia provided contrasting textures and flavours; but, make no mistake, the star here was the steak. Before serving, the slightly marbled beef was carefully cut by hand and the various seasonings folded in. It was effortless eating and tasted deliciously unctuous, satiny and faintly metallic — in a good way. 

Spouse began with the albacore tuna tataki. It was one of the most visually stunning dishes we’ve ever been served at a St. John’s restaurant. Think of an abstract painting, something by Russia’s Wassily Kandinsky, or of the plating of chef Michel Bras of Laguiole, France, or chef Thomas Bühner of Germany. Chef Butler had used his ingredients — tuna, pickled mango, radish, peanuts, cilantro, sriracha, cucumber, hoisin — as an artist uses paints.

Sharp eye

Chef Butler has a sharp eye for composition. With a plain, white plate as canvas he’d precisely arranged his ingredients for a balanced, visually pleasing presentation, carefully considering placement of the variety of colours and shapes — round, ovoid, amygdaloid — at his disposal. His dish was a perfect illustration of the maxim, “you eat with your eyes first.” You’d have to be dead not to appreciate the visual beauty of it.

My mouth took as much pleasure in the dish as my eyes did. It was a chorus of different flavours and textures, all as thoughtfully chosen and balanced for taste, as for visual impact. Presenting a dish beautifully takes time and can be challenging during a busy service; but, making the time pays dividends.

Our server told us the butter chicken sandwich had been a big hit with other patrons. Usually I don’t pay attention to such pronouncements but, in this case, I heard sincerity, not puffery. A nicely executed mild chicken curry was spooned over a fresh, sliced hoagie roll and dressed in cilantro, celery leaves, thinly sliced radish and pickled red onion. Gypsy’s excellent sandwich came with a basket of crispy fries.

Impressive

Gypsy’s cod is the ne plus ultra of pan-fried cod cookery. An impressive piece of fresh, thick, golden brown cod rested on what Douglas, our server, described as a “root vegetable hash.” It was far from hash, but rather an exquisitely prepared arrangement of fresh vegetables, including potato, turnip, pepper, snap peas and greens. The properly seasoned cod broke into pure white, opalescent pieces, which tasted incredibly good. The white plate was decorated with a sure and steady swirl of bright, yellow mustard pickle sauce, pea shoots and scrunchions.

Lunch closed with a small helping of delectable French macarons filled with homemade partridgeberry jam. Again, even for a few macarons, the plating was done professionally. The meringue cookies were surrounded by mint leaves, halved tall bush blueberries and a yellow fruit that looked something like quartered ground cherries.

Attention to detail is important to chef Butler, even for something as ordinary as a lemon wedge. On the plate of cod, for example, were two lemon wedges. They bore no blemishes, had no pips and had been trimmed, with a sharp knife, neatly at the ends to reveal moist, white pulp. Daniel Butler is a chef who respects himself, his customers, and the food he serves them. Gypsy Tea Room’s kitchen is in good hands.

Rating

***   
* Good * * Very good * * * Excellent * * * * Exceptional

Price Lunch for two with cocktails, wine, tax and tip costs approximately $140.
Service Excellent.    
Atmosphere Warm, relaxed and quietly elegant.
Sound level Moderate.  
Open Monday to Friday (lunch): 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (lunch): 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Evenings (dinner): 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. (daily). 
Reservations Yes and walk-ins are welcome.
Credit cards Most major cards.
Parking Street and Murray Premises paid parking.
Wine Gypsy Tea Room has one of the largest restaurant wine lists in the city. The list’s table of contents highlights: house wines, whites, reds, dessert wines, fortified wines and ports. House wines are mainly New World and can be purchased by the glass – most sell for $8 or $9 per glass – half-litre, bottle, or litre. A dozen of the world’s finest Champagne wines include: Krug Grande Cuvée Brut NV, Reims, $408, Moët & Chandon “Dom Pérignon,” Epernay, 2006, $425 and Louis Roederer “Cristal,” Reims, 2002, $463. The lowest priced Champagne is Bonnaire Ver Sacrum NV, Cramant/Bergères-Les-Vertus, $113. Some favourite whites include: Burgundy: William Fèvre, Chablis, France, $68, Chardonnay: Le Clos Jordanne “Le Grand Clos,” Canada, 2006, $131, Pinot Grigio: Banfi San Angelo, Toscana, IGT, Italy, $59, Riesling: Jacob’s Creek Steingarten, Barossa Valley, Australia, 2006, $83, Sauvignon Blanc: Cakebread Cellars, Napa Valley, California, $94. Favourite reds include: Cabernet Sauvignon: Frei Brothers Reserve, Alexander Valley, California, $62, Bordeaux: Château Le Gay, Pomerol, 2002, $146, Pinot Noir: Cloudline, Willamette Valley, Oregon, $61, Malbec: Ben Marco, Mendoza, Argentina, $66, Merlot: Charles Smith The Velvet Devil, Columbia Valley, Washington, $56, Sangiovese: “Sandhill” Small Lots, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia 2011, $68, Shiraz: John’s Blend, Margarete’s, Barossa Valley, Australia, $90, Tempranillo: Campo Viejo Gran Reserva, Rioja, Spain, $74.
Best bets Tuna tataki and pan-fried cod entrée. 
Gluten free options Accommodations can be made but please ask server for details.
Vegetarian and vegan options Some vegetarian dishes but please ask server for details. 
Wheelchair access No.

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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