Excellent hotel restaurants are somewhat rare in St. John’s. We have about five that regularly range, back and forth, between good and excellent. Two are Steele hotels: The Capital and JAG. Exile, the restaurant at JAG, on the western end of George Street, was my Sunday pick.
Exile’s a bright room with lots of light and big windows. It’s a pity there’s not much to see through them, except a mundane street and colourless buildings. I know there are very sound, practical reasons for hotel restaurants to be situated on the ground floor; but wouldn’t it be great if at least one downtown hotel had a restaurant on a high floor to take advantage of the view? It would be spectacular.
A four-foot partition separates the dining and drinking sides of Exile – although eating and drinking can take place anywhere a customer likes. A very handsome bar, with shelves stocked with dozens of brightly labeled spirits, liqueurs and wines, dominates the space on one side of the divider.
We were seated at a window table in very comfortable restaurant chairs. Exile’s seats are grey, and flooring – like the walls – is light in colour. The restaurant’s edges are dark, giving definition to the room. Staff, like our friendly server named Melanie, also wore black.
Exile’s current chef is Andrew Dale. He’s been with the Steele group for a few years, having started at The Capital Hotel. Dale is from Torbay and studied cooking at Holland College in PEI. His Exile menu is perfect for fall and winter. Warm, comforting dishes occupy much of the luncheon and dinner cards. How about moose masala in coconut curry sauce, tempura cod tacos, or freshly made pasta for lunch? Braised pork belly or braised veal cheek for dinner?
Cold weather calls for robust soups with plenty of flavour. Exile’s mushroom, bacon and sweet potato was such a soup. Although I didn’t taste much sweetness in the sweet potatoes, there was plenty right with Exile’s potage. I liked the presentation, specifically, keeping the pool of colourful, pleasant tasting tomato scented broth so shallow that the chunky vegetables and other ingredients could be seen plainly. In addition, the mushroom, bacon and root vegetable combo gave the soup a palatable earthiness.
I struggled to eat the hard, dry roasted chickpeas that covered Exile’s chickpea and chicken salad. The salad could easily have done without them. Nuts or croutons would have worked – even tender, tinned chickpeas. Apart from the unyielding legumes, the salad was exceptional. Ripe cherry tomatoes and pickled turnip added zest. Juicy chicken and an intense sweet garlic and parsley vinaigrette completed the impressive medley.
Exile’s JAG burger and fries was deliciously retro. A thick patty, house-made from fresh beef, had the texture of ground meat gently and temporarily bound together just long enough to stay whole until breaking up in the mouth, into juicy, rich flavoured pieces. A toasted brioche roll appeared to be the only non-retro component. A classic American burger would have had an ordinary, plain hamburger bun. Otherwise, the burger, dressed with bacon, cheese, tomato and onion, reminded me of those incredibly good burgers every restaurant and snack bar used to make before mass produced, frozen patties came along.
Exile’s fries were praiseworthy. Just lightly browned, the fresh cut chips were a good length, mildly crisp on the outside, and tender inside.
My favourite dish was Exile’s roasted cod. Warm Bavarian style potato salad provided a kind of shelf, on which to place the entrée’s delicate, succulent white codfish. But, the tangy-edged salad served much more than a utilitarian purpose. It gave the dish substance, and with its hint of acidity, provided the dish with some zip. A dressing of olives, olive oil and cherry tomatoes, surrounding the cod, gave the dish a predominantly Mediterranean taste.
I reviewed Exile two years ago, when I was served burnt southern fried chicken.
Exile has improved. The cooking is better, and so’s the service. Exile’s latest menu has broader appeal — no more roasted bone marrow (pity), and no more seared Arctic char with black beans. Most of what I tasted on this visit was very good, and there was so much more that I wanted to try.
Ah, well. There’s always next time.
* Fair * * Good * * * Excellent * * * * Exceptional
Price: Lunch for two with coffee (no alcohol) tax and tip costs (approximately) $60
Atmosphere: Exile has an energetic, positive vibe with décor that’s modish and comfortable.
Sound level: Moderate.
Open: Daily from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Reservations: Accepted and walk-ins are welcome.
Beverages: Exile presents 10 house cocktails, most of which have a sweet or fruity edge. A very decent wine list, with global choices, offers wines by the glass from (approximately) $8 to $17. Bottles of vino generally range between $30 and $90. A handful of finer wines includes Alter Ego de Palmer 2010, $289, Dom Pérignon Champagne, $399, Joseph Phelps Insignia 2008, $499, Penfold’s Bin 95 – Grange 2004, $990 and Opus One 2009 for $999. Beer is well represented. Exile has the usual domestic products, as well as imports. Craft beers and draft choices include: Muskoka Mad Tom IPA, Muskoka Detour, Hops and Bolts IPL, Creemore Springs, and, for cider lovers there’s No Boats on Sunday Cider. Quality single malt Scotch is available like, The Macallan Ruby, $48 per glass, and Laphroaig 25 YO at $85 per glass. If you prefer your after-dinner booze in coffee, the menu features four specialty coffees. One, Irish Nut, has java, Baileys, Frangelico and Brandy.
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