131 Duckworth St.
St. John’s, N.L.
Ph. (709) 722-6636
I wasn’t intending to write about Harbour Room this fall. When I found out the restaurant had a new chef, I changed my mind. His name is Joseph O’Leary, a young guy – a millennial – in his first job as executive chef, kitchen boss, head chef, call it what you will. Linda, my semi-regular lunch date, was with me. We met O’Leary when he came to our table. The poor fellow may have been lonely and seeking company. We were the only people in the restaurant for lunch, the only people he was cooking for and feeding that day.
We thought he was very gracious and appeared sincerely interested in what we thought about the various parts of our meal. O’ Leary told us that recently he worked at a St. John’s chain restaurant. Before that he worked on the mainland. One of those mainland gigs, in Toronto, was at a restaurant that serves ramen. There he learned, step by step, how to make proper ramen. It was fascinating to hear him talk ramen, right down to the chemistry of noodles that work in the broth.
I squirm a little in restaurants when I see a chef headed for my table. Invariably, he or she wants to know whether I enjoyed their cuisine. If I didn’t, it can be awkward saying so right there in the restaurant. But, when a truly curious chef like Joseph O’Leary initiates a face-to-face dining table meeting, it can be instructive. We decided that he’s a knowledgeable, passionate, eager-to-learn chef, a chef who invites criticism and who will use it to improve his cooking…which reminds me…
I was asked recently by a regular reader if restaurants pay attention to what I say in my reviews. He was specifically wondering if restaurants make changes to fix problems I shine a spotlight on. Some don’t but many do make the effort. I know this because I’ve been told by readers and I’ve seen it for myself.
An example would be something as simple as turning the lights up or dimming them; or it might be removing a dish from a menu or expanding a wine list. I don’t expect restaurants or chefs to change something simply because I’ve been critical of it. But, I must say I’m baffled when, after writing, “the salmon fillet was overcooked,” the restaurant continues, consistently, to overcook its salmon.
The Harbour Room is a polite room, with modern décor. It’s very much the opposite of rustic. I’ve always thought it to have just the right amount of decoration. A seascape triptych on the main wall is quite striking, and the rear wall boasts a soldier line of oars above a jellybean coloured banquette. Both are eye catching. Of course, the main eye candy is the harbour view, not as good as some harbour views but not bad.
I was in the mood for a well-made Mediterranean style fish soup, one with all kinds of seafood, tomato, garlic and hint of saffron. Harbour Room wasn’t offering, so I tried the seafood chowdah, as they say in Boston. It was excellent. I’m sure I would have thought it perfect on a freezing cold day. The flavours were less jazzy than a bouillabaisse but still made some nice music. It contained a few mussels, shrimp, salmon and cod.
Balsamic vinegar is getting boring, really boring. Are we not fed up with the stuff by now? It’s been ages since we all jumped on the balsamic vinegar bandwagon. Now we need to jump off the darn thing and get reacquainted with good old red wine vinegar, Champagne vinegar or whatever other vinegars are out there. Please. I’m begging. Enough with the balsamic! If I taste one more balsamic vinegar reduction, sauce, dressing or drizzle I’ll throw up. I swear, I will.
Harbour Room’s summer salad was flavoured with a honey and balsamic vinegar dressing.
Okay, so, I didn’t throw up. Apparently, my falling out with balsamic vinegar hasn’t reached that stage. The salad, despite my lack of enthusiasm for balsamic vinegar — I’d have preferred a lighter, citrusy, sweet dressing — was good. It was an attractive, freestyle grouping of leafy greens, blueberries, peach slices and daubs of creamy, melt-in-the-mouth goat cheese.
Linda, who could eat breakfast three times a day, wanted to try Harbour Room’s “Traditional Newfoundland Breakfast.” It was a platter of fish cakes, fried eggs, toutons, crispy fried bacon and the condiments ketchup and molasses. Harbour Room’s toutons were light textured and fried without looking fried. I saw very little colour on them. I asked Chef O’Leary about the ratio of fish to potato in his fish cakes. He said, “50/50.” They were pleasant eating but I think the fish part of the equation should be bumped up by 15 or 20 per cent.
My favourite part of the meal was the pork ramen. While not a complicated soup, done well, ramen can be memorably delicious. The broth wasn’t the classic, tonkotsu. It lacked the thickness and whiteness. But, it was made from pork product and cooked long enough to develop the deeply rich flavours that can make ramen so special.
As Joseph O’Leary told me, ramen noodles must be alkaline or contain carbonate salts — meaning the pH should be 9.0 — otherwise the noodles will turn to mush in the broth.
Floating around the firm, broth-infused noodles were unctuous cubes of belly pork. So tender, so good. I liked the addition of sliced, pickled shitake mushrooms, which gave the broth a tangy, vaguely lemony edge. The snow-white poached egg, topping the ramen, revealed a slow-running, brilliant yellow yoke. I thoroughly enjoyed this ramen and could very easily have eaten another helping.
Joseph O’Leary is a very good cook, who makes excellent pork ramen. I look forward to tasting more of his food when he develops new menus for Harbour Room this fall and winter.
* Good * * Very good * * * Excellent * * * * Exceptional
Price Lunch for two with beverage, tax and tip costs approximately $80.
Service Slow at first, because the restaurant was empty and nobody appeared to be on duty. It was one o’clock, yet the restaurant looked closed. Things improved considerably after a friendly server arrived to seat us.
Atmosphere Because we were the only diners, Harbour Room felt a little like one of those gold star airport lounges when nobody is flying business class.
Sound level Low to moderate.
Open Daily for brunch, lunch and dinner.
Reservations Accepted and walk-ins are welcome.
Credit cards All major.
Beverages This restaurant operates a lounge with a full range of wines, beers, coolers, cocktails and spirits.
Best bets Seafood chowder and pork ramen.
Gluten free options Ask server what’s available that day.
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