Old Portobello’s location repositions their view and their menu
Location, location, location. This old adage is recited endlessly by real estate agents and restauranteurs alike, but does the location of a restaurant guarantee success? In early 2019, Portobello’s restaurant closed with owner Barry Bennett blaming an increase in reservation cancellations at his restaurant despite having the best views of the harbour in St. John’s.
Less than a year later the dining room has been transformed into Vu Resto Bar, a casual fine-dining eatery. Bennett is back, along with co-owner and executive chef Chris Chafe (whose resume includes cheffing stints at Atlantica, Moxie’s and Magnum & Stein’s) with a new name and new perspective.
But changing the public’s perspective of a restaurant space means more than just refurbishing the menu — they’ve actually changed the seating so you can sit in large booths (big enough for six adults) facing the harbour. It’s not easy to revamp a space so much it doesn’t feel like the old restaurant but there are no ghosts of restaurants past here. The decor is understated, save for the too-busy pattern of the booth’s upholstery, with off-white walls and simple dark wood tables.
My husband and I dined at Vu on a Friday evening with another couple. The atmosphere was convivial. Around us, a long table of family celebrated their patriarch’s birth underneath floating 8-0 balloons, couples on date night sipped wine and several tables of women enjoyed a night out on the town. Partway through the evening a woman donning an “I’m 50 Bitches” sash and crown was paraded through the restaurant by Bennett and several friends to a private dining room.
The cocktails were punchy — in fact, they veered a little too close to a boozy punch. My Gin Sour ($12.50) came in a stemless wine glass with a little too much grapefruit juice, but a good foam on top, while a dining companion’s Bourbon Smash ($12.50) was fresh and fruity. The Dark+Stormy ($12.50) was standard and the Burnt Old Fashioned ($12.50) was dark and smoky. The wine list isn’t innovative, with lower-end whites and reds by the glass starting at $10.50 for a five-ounce pour.
For starters, our table went with several dishes. The Beef Tar Tar ($14) was well-seasoned with truffle and parmesan and the accompanying crunch of the potato chips was a nice touch. The breaded squid of the Salt & Malt Squid ($14) dish wasn’t tough but didn’t have a lot of flavour — the most exciting part of the dish was the miniature squirt bottle filled with malt vinegar that accessorized it.
The Beet & Arugula Salad ($14) and its candied Pecans, 5 Brothers Fresh Cheese and bourbon vinaigrette was beautifully presented in a half-moon shape but didn’t wow in flavour, while the expertly plated Tuna Tataki ($15) hinted at Chef Chafe’s pedigree but unfortunately was underseasoned.
The mains came about 30 minutes later, just enough time to finish our apps. While throughout the night service was pleasant and adequate, it felt a little rushed. For mains, the couple who joined us shared the Cider Maple & Mustard Braised Pork Shank ($32) which was large enough to share. No knife was needed here; the flavourful pork just fell off the bone mixing into the bed of deliciously luscious sweet potato puree.
I went for the Pan-Fried Local Cod ($22). The expertly cooked fish, flaky and fresh, sat atop toothsome gnocchi swimming in creamy white sauce and fresh green peas. A refreshing take on pan-fried cod. My husband’s Buffalo Honey Chicken Sandwich ($24) came with a warning from the server that it was “very spicy” and while he didn’t find it over the top, some diners may appreciate the heads up.
There were several options for dessert, all homemade. The table opted to share the Strawberry Bread Pudding ($10) which came out in a huge chuck accompanied by a scoop of ice cream and the Disarono Creme Brulee ($10) which had the satisfying crack of caramelized sugar but was a bit too boozy.
Vu Resto Bar didn’t blow my hair back — nor does it contribute to widening the spotlight on the unique culinary dining scene here in Newfoundland. That said, while the dishes at Vu aren’t inventive, they are tasty. A safe bet for a satisfying dinner with your parents or a group of diners with varied palates ranging from timid orderers to adventurous eaters.
115 Duckworth Street
St. John's, NL
Hours: Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Accessibility: There is no wheelchair access to the main dining room on the second which is accessed by a flight of stairs, only the main floor smaller dining area is accessible.
Noise level: Average, with music.
Reservations: By phone
Meal for two with drinks, appetizers, mains and dessert with tax and tip: $215