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Karl Wells: Hail to the chef

SeaSalt and Thyme B & B Gastropub, Brigus.
SeaSalt and Thyme B & B Gastropub, Brigus.

SeaSalt and Thyme 1 Convent Lane Brigus, NL Ph. (709) 528-9100

Conception Bay, apart from being a web of flourishing communities, has over time become a place where many of the St. John’s bourgeoisie want to play and build summer homes, or buy and turn existing properties into homes away from home. Those with sea legs and extra cash own pleasure boats, along with their seasonal residences. Personally, I’ve always found it to be a pain in the posterior taking care of one house, let alone two, but, to each his own.

Properties aren’t exactly going cheaply around the bay of Conception either, including commercial buildings. Recently it was reported that the Stone Jug in Carbonear was put on the market for $7.4 million. Then, there’s Brigus, where I swear you can smell the money.

The once-quiet fishing village with small fish plant (now gone) birthplace of Arctic explorer, Captain Bob Bartlett, has become a summer community of mostly part-time residents from the capital city. New, larger homes have replaced modest, small ones. Old homes have been given pricy upgrades.

Resort community


Brigus is beginning to look a lot like one of those precious Cape Cod resort communities. It already has an antiques/vintage collectibles shop. Time to bring on the mini commercial art galleries. Rockwell Kent will spin in his grave.

My sister joined us for a day trip to Brigus. Our family has its own history with the town. Dad’s brother, Roland, spent most of his life there as the United Church minister and for a time served as its mayor. My brother was married in Brigus, in the plainer-looking wooden church on the hill.

As a child, I remember visiting Hawthorne Cottage, the famous Bartlett residence. Back then it was still a private home, occupied by Captain Bob’s elderly sister. I remember the house as bursting at the seams with books, papers, framed pictures and mementos — I recall a stuffed animal of some kind — from Captain Bob’s life as an explorer.

SeaSalt and Thyme’s seafood chowder

Convent conversion

Captain Bartlett’s hometown also has a couple of new restaurants. One is situated in the former Roman Catholic convent, which has been transformed into a bed and breakfast and gastropub. SeaSalt and Thyme is owned by Roache’s Line egg farmer, Joe Smallwood, and his wife, Tracey.

The building still looks much like it did in its convent days. Longish corridors lead to half a dozen or so guest rooms — each with its own colour theme — a few dining rooms, and a pub with an Old Blighty countryside vibe. Father Brown, supping a pint of best bitter at the corner table, would not look at all out of place.

We had lunch in the largest room at SeaSalt and Thyme, a conservative space with white wainscoting, dark walls and dark carpeting. We sat at one of many colonial-style tables, on colonial chairs. I could easily picture the nuns of yore sitting at refectory tables in that room, and dining on locally caught cod with boiled potatoes.  

 

SeaSalt and Thyme’s local beet salad

Rejected rock

I doubt they, even Sister Mary Clarence, would have enjoyed the music we were exposed to — the most annoying, loudest, discordant rock I’ve ever heard in a restaurant. My sister, who was about to pop a blood vessel, asked to have it turned down. Our server accommodated her. I think server feared a medical emergency, chest compressions, the works. We were the only guests and SeaSalt wouldn’t have had us if they hadn’t cut the cacophony.

Chef Leeann Veil is no tyro. While SeaSalt’s music may be unpalatable, the food is not. I began with a remarkable, dairy based, seafood chowder. Some chowders turn to mush if fish and liquid are left in the pot. SeaSalt’s intact seafood appeared to have been cooked separately and added to the liquid just before service.

Beets are still “in.” Of course, all vegetables are consistently rising in popularity these days — like Fitbits. I’m glad, because a good beet salad with soft cheese is a treat. It’s also a versatile salad that can work with the addition of, for example, a pouched egg. Along with the egg, Veil added some crunchy granola, which provided more variety, texture and flavour.

 

SeaSalt and Thyme’s sticky hoisin chicken thighs

Touton temptation

Spouse, who can’t seem to say no to anything with the word touton in it, ordered the touton beef burger with maple bacon. The touton bun looked like a round croissant. It wasn’t as delicate as a croissant, nor as chewy as a regular touton. You can have it with cheese. Spouse didn’t. You can also have it with molasses. Spouse did. I liked the juicy, perfectly cooked beef patty. Spouse liked the whole enchilada.

Years ago, if you’d told me that one day I’d be dining on hoisin chicken with white rice in a Brigus restaurant I’d have guffawed. Despite dropping a piece of well-sauced hoisin chicken down my front, leaving me wearing a hoisin shirt, I appreciated SeaSalt’s entrée. Chicken thighs hold up better to grilling. They’re more tender, more flavourful and juicy. While the red sauce was quite sweet and sticky, it was considerably tempered by steamed white rice, not to mention my cotton dress shirt.

Local chefs have taken to the old-fashioned Pavlova. SeaSalt joins a growing list of restaurants making the classic dessert. An individual lemony meringue was served, with berry compote topping, filling, and permeating every part of the artfully broken meringue. Veil didn’t stray too far from the classic recipe, which is commendable. Simple recipes with few ingredients often work best.

 

SeaSalt and Thyme’s vegan whoopie pie

Vegan victorious

I’ve never been a big fan of baked vegan cakes. After eating they sit like a clump of cold, claggy pasta. But, sometimes there’s an exception. SeaSalt’s vegan Whoopie pie was a first-rate brownie filled with chocolate avocado mousse on blueberry coulis. It was dark and rich, and the mousse filling was, thanks to the avocado, extra velvety.

After lunch, we took a walk around Brigus. The injection of new money over the past few years has changed the town’s face. A few of the buildings look a little too wide and too high for a small village. It’s much brighter, and dare I say, cleaner looking. A friend of mine would say it reminds him of a rural town built by Disney. Maybe. Is the town better for all the changes? I think so, but there’s a tipping point. Let’s hope it’s never reached.

 

Rating

***       
Price: Lunch for two with beverage, tip and tax costs approximately $55.
Service: Very good.            
Atmosphere: Like an historic, rural hotel.
Sound level: Moderate.  
Open: Brunch — Saturday and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Breakfast —Monday to Friday from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. Lunch — Monday to Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Pub menu — Daily from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Reservations: Accepted and walk-ins are welcome.
Credit cards: All major.
Parking: Street and parking lot.
Beverages: Full range of beers, spirits and popular wines.
Best bets: Local beet salad, touton burger, Pavlova, Whoopie pie.
Wheelchair: access No.

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

CLARIFICATION: While brunch is served Saturday and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. as indicated, breakfast service is provided to SeaSalt and Thyme’s B&B guests only — not the public.

 

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 

CLARIFICATION: While brunch is served Saturday and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. as indicated, breakfast service is provided to SeaSalt and Thyme’s B&B guests only — not the public.

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