Working in a bakery-restaurant requires commitment. The kind that sees you up before sunrise and on the job before most of us have touched our feet to the floor. Rocket Bakery on Water Street is serving coffee, croissants, tea buns and pain au chocolat by 7:30 every morning, seven days a week.
Kelly Mansell, Dave Hopley, Mark McGann and a few others took over the space early in 2011. Mansell became the public face of the business, a marketer’s dream, with her colourful head scarves, signature spectacles and high wattage smile. Oh, did I mention she has a marketing background? It helps, especially when you’re trying to establish a local, independently owned food business in St. John’s.
Despite our shrinking economy, Rocket Bakery is still around. That shouldn’t be a surprise. Rocket has great food at reasonable prices. It also has dedicated employees — several long-term — who, clearly, can cook, bake, work an espresso machine and provide service with a smile. If you’re thinking of starting a business, you could do a lot worse than make Rocket your model.
Rocket is the flesh that clings to the bones of what was, originally, the Neyle-Soper Hardware Store, which operated on Water Street for over 100 years. At its core, it still looks like an old-timey hardware store. When I was little, I’d go there with my Dad when he needed something for a DIY. Every time I’m at Rocket, in my mind, I can see four-inch nails in bins. I think they were sold by weight. A clerk would put them in thick paper bags for you.
Now they put French style pastries, like Rocket’s brilliant macarons, in bags, or pulled pork turnovers, or burritos to go. Of course, you can eat right there. Rocket has two rooms for dining. Kelly Mansell would call them “funky” rooms. (Works for me.) Both rooms, with painted shiplap walls, were filled with sturdy, used furniture store wooden tables and every kind of vintage wooden kitchen chair.
Monday isn’t the best day for dining out. Many restaurants are closed and the ones that are open aren’t up to full speed after a busy weekend. Rocket, on the other hand, never closes and always seems to be running on all cylinders. We felt confident that Mansell and company would provide a satisfying lunch. They did.
When I heard the carrot soup was actually carrot and cilantro soup I hesitated. I thought it might be like drinking Palmolive. Some taste buds – mine included – give cilantro a soapy taste, especially if too much is used in a recipe. Rocket’s thin soup had only the faintest hint of cilantro. Mostly it delivered bright, fresh carrot flavour. It was the definition of bright. I had no complaints.
The fish cakes weren’t mean. In other words, they weren’t diminutive and lacking in fish. The golden brown, stubby pucks were a credit to the cook and to Rocket. House made tartar sauce daubed on each of my cakes helped enhance the experience. I’ve gotten so used to being served the bottled stuff that Rocket’s own version probably impressed me more than it might have.
Rocket’s Greek salad was nearly perfect. Whoever selected the restaurant’s vegetables this week did a superior job. Everything in my bowl had flavour. I swear, I could even taste the sunshine in the salad’s tiny tomatoes. This may be cavilling, but less red onion would be nice. It left too strong an aftertaste.
Now I must rave. There’s no other word. Rocket served the best quiche I’ve ever eaten in my life. Light, buttery, flaky pastry was filled with the most luscious, creamy rich egg and thinly sliced ham. It was as if I’d never had quiche before. Rocket’s quiche was so different, so extraordinary it should be in a category all by itself.
A well-constructed salad can be the perfect one dish meal, if it has a good balance of ingredients: carbs, proteins, seasonings etc. Rocket’s noodle bowl with sesame chicken also came in a closed plastic container, which made it conveniently mobile. Rice noodles loaded up with roast chicken, edamame, cabbage and carrot took on an Asian taste, thanks to ginger, soy sauce and rice vinegar.
A sign boasting that Rocket’s tea buns contained 30 per cent more raisins caught my attention. Thirty per cent more than what? I thought. My eyeballs told me they had just about the right amount of the dried fruit. I love a good raisin tea bun. The one I bought and slathered with butter was a fine example of this category of baking. I wished I could have found room for one of the compact individual pecan pies. They were the real star of the pastry case. Next time. Definitely.
Price: Lunch for two with coffee, tip and tax costs approximately $40.
Service: Fast and friendly.
Atmosphere: Rocket has a calming, laid-back vibe, but the high ceilings work against cosiness.
Sound level: Moderate.
Open: Monday to Saturday: 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday: 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Reservations: Walk-ins are welcome.
Credit cards: All major.
Beverages: Beer (draught and bottled), house wine, coffee, espresso beverages, tea, juice, pop and water.
Best bets: Carrot and cilantro soup, fish cakes, quiche, tea buns.
Wheelchair access: No.
* Fair * * Good * * * Excellent * * * * Exceptional
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