115 Cavendish Sq.
St. John’s, N.L.
Ph. (709) 726-4980
Bivver is the only regular venue for lunch or dinner dining at Newfoundland’s iconic Sheraton hotel these days. The main dining room, Oppidan, is a breakfast only room. Oppidan — known as the Cabot Club in glory days — opens for dinner exclusively during summer.
“Just to let you know Mr. Wells, Jeremy is coming out with a new menu at the end of the month,” said genial, long-time bartender, Morris Barnes, after he’d delivered our appetizers. Bivver, the bar, now doubles as the hotel’s main restaurant.
My heart sank, like a brick. “What’s the point of writing about dishes that might not be available in a few weeks?” I thought. This was my third attempt to find a restaurant to write about for my first review of 2018. The first spot we tried was full as an egg, the second was laser focused on its Jiggs buffet.
Despite my affection for our traditional dinner, I didn’t think it was a compelling enough subject — with or without mustard pickles — for the first review of the year. I began thinking about other places.
Then, new Sheraton chef, Jeremy McKinnon, visited our table, followed a few minutes later by the Sheraton’s affable new General Manager, Dennis Davies. Both men have been at the Sheraton since July. What they had to say, their story, made me abandon my plans to find another restaurant. They’d given me a hook for this column, their plan to revive the Hotel Newfoundland of old — figuratively, of course.
As for Bivver’s dishes, which I’ll mention later in this column, they may or may not remain on the menu. The current menu was created by the hotel’s previous chef, Ruth Wigman, who decamped to British Columbia last year. But, the quality of the McKinnon kitchen’s preparation of our meal is worth noting, since McKinnon will likely be sticking around for some time.
I didn’t ask if Jeremy McKinnon cooked our food. I doubt it. Executive chefs, especially major hotel executive chefs, tend to delegate and oversee the operation. It may have been cooked by one of his sous chefs, Matthew Evely, formerly of Clovelley, or, Andrew Synyard, formerly of Red Oak Catering.
Chef McKinnon grew up in Amherstburg, Essex County, Ontario. His hometown is about 30 minutes from Windsor; where he attended St. Claire College, paying his own way, and graduating from its Culinary Management program. His professional career began with CP Hotels, followed by a longer stint with the Fairmont chain. He spent three years in Scotland at the Fairmont St. Andrews, where he finished as executive sous chef. (In its heyday, Hotel Newfoundland flew the Fairmont flag.)
Eventually, McKinnon joined Starwood Hotels and most recently was employed in Victoria and Whistler, British Columbia. Now he says he’s working for Marriott, for the first time, here at the St. John’s Sheraton. Marriott, you say? What? Yes, I was confused too.
“It’s complicated,” said an industry veteran, with whom I spoke. “Hotel Newfoundland was branded Sheraton Hotel Newfoundland and owned by Westmont Hospitality Group, which is part of Starwood Hotels, which was bought by Marriott.” One assumes that for Marriott there’s an advantage in having its properties retain the brands they’ve had for some time. Their resolve in this is plain to see, right on Sheraton’s new portico. Its new sign reads “Sheraton.”
Hotel GM, Dennis Davies, told me he was delighted to have an executive chef of McKinnon’s experience working with him. Davies and McKinnon are simpatico. They’re aware of the special status that Hotel Newfoundland had in St. John’s, indeed, throughout the province, and they’re determined to make it so again.
Davies says he does a lot of chatting with the hotel’s associates and the message he brings them is, “We’re on a journey to come back to where we started and to be ‘the’ hotel again — to move full circle.” As an example of how the journey is underway, he cited the hotel’s recent New Year’s Eve gala. Mckinnon created a seven-course, paired menu. According to Davies and McKinnon, the evening was a hit and guests told Davies, “the Sheraton’s back.”
Davies and McKinnon have been educated in the hotel’s history by staff members such as Morris Barnes and food and beverage outlets manager, Ken Richards. Richards has been at the hotel since the days of the original brick building, an amazing 46 years. His record of service is medal-worthy.
I remember the hotel’s past as well, and with a degree of fondness. It was vibrant, exciting, and the bars, there were two — in the CN and Fairmont era — and restaurants, also two, seemed to be busy all the time. On Fridays and Saturdays, the place was in overdrive. It wasn’t all consistently fabulous. What hospitality venue is?
I had some disappointing experiences at the hotel, rare instances of poor service and sometimes overcooked, mediocre food.
Of course, the glorious past can never be recreated. Prior to 2000, the St. John’s restaurant revolution hadn’t begun. At the time, Hotel Newfoundland was one of a handful of places offering something approaching classic cuisine, or, at least, food displaying finesse in its preparation. Now it must compete with Raymonds, Basho, Fifth Ticket, Merchant Tavern, Mallard Cottage et cetera. But, the hotel of 2018, the Sheraton, can certainly be better and more successful.
Despite their wish list I sensed that neither McKinnon nor Davies thinks the hotel’s beautiful corner dining room — now open for breakfast only — will be back to what it was any time soon. I was told that keeping the doors open couldn’t be justified, because they weren’t getting enough customers. McKinnon admitted that they had “toyed with the public” in closing it and opening it several times. “People just weren’t sure,” he said.
Chef McKinnon’s first task is to create a new menu for Bivver, an in-room dining card for hotel guests, and a new breakfast for Oppidan. I asked him to describe the new menus.
“What I really want to do is showcase the food and the bounty of Newfoundland to our local clientele and to those who come to visit the province. Obviously, with things like cod and salmon, my job as a chef is to not really treat the food so differently, but let the natural flavours of the food speak through. With the beautiful food that Newfoundland has, I think there’s a great opportunity to really showcase what we have in this province.”
McKinnon won’t be able to fully embrace and showcase “the bounty of Newfoundland.” He told me that Marriott policy only allows him to purchase produce that comes from government-inspected facilities. “It makes 100 per cent good sense from a liability perspective,” he said, adding, “but it makes it more difficult for me to do certain things.”
This means that the Sheraton would not be able to purchase the same ingredients that thousands of customers purchase at the St. John’s Farmers Market every summer and fall, not to mention the dozens of Sheraton competitor restaurants that regularly purchase from local, small producers. He went on to tell me that, for this reason, he turned away many local suppliers during the summer who showed up at his kitchen with, for example, organic lettuces, mushrooms and berries.
And yet, investments are being made to create a better kitchen in which to prepare the hotel’s cuisine. McKinnon informed me that the hotel will soon have a high capacity Rational oven, sometimes referred to as an intelligent oven, one that has sensors for detecting things like the size of a piece of meat, for example, and humidity control. A Montague grill is also coming, “the Cadillac of all grills for steaks,” according to McKinnon.
Morris Barnes’s service was thoroughly professional. I’ve always found the Sheraton’s staff to be, for the most part, excellent. Bivver is a visually engaging room with it’s birdcage central bar, outside which, exists a ring of tables, for drinking and eating. Solo patrons tend to sit on stools inside the cage, which at times, knowing how discreet the hotel’s bartenders can be, becomes a kind of confessional.
Spouse and I sat at a corner table, away from the only other customer, a woman near the entrance who appeared to be absorbed in paperwork. Despite a general emptiness of lobby, interior courtyard, business centre and Bivver, the hotel did have an obvious, fresher, more polished look about it.
I drank a pre-dinner cocktail, a Bivver Shivver, while listening to the bar’s soundtrack of pop classics. “Wedding Bell Blues,” sung by Marilyn McCoo and Fifth Dimension comes to mind. The martini, made with Iceberg vodka, blue curacao, vermouth and cranberry juice was cold and smooth, with a fruity edge. The taste of the Bivver Shivver’s alcohol was muted just enough. It was well-made.
We received a basket of rolls, rather tight looking square rolls covered in white sesame seeds. They reminded me of factory made bread, in taste and appearance. Since this is the first item to land on a table, it might be worth considering a house made product. No introduction to a restaurant meal bests the appearance and aroma of freshly baked bread.
My starter, from Bivver’s lunch menu, was Asian pot stickers. Five of the pork filled dumplings were placed on a shallow pool of lime scented (vaguely scented) but quite salty soy sauce, and came in a large white bowl. Microgreens and sesame seeds were added for decoration. The pot stickers were similar to what you might find at a Chinese buffet restaurant.
Bivver’s cashew and herb roasted chicken salad was a mixture of fresh greens, cubed chicken, apple and dried cranberries. It was competently made, with a pleasing vinaigrette. I was disappointed that the chicken looked and tasted like processed chicken. If a menu describes “herb roasted chicken” there’s an expectation that you’re going to receive fresh, roasted chicken.
The signage outside Bivver says, “Taste, Savour, Linger.” We were tasting but not really savouring to this point. Then we tasted the shrimp spaghetti aglio e olio pepperoncini, meaning spaghetti with garlic, olive oil and hot peppers. Overall, it was an excellent dish with perfectly cooked shrimp, al dente spaghetti, good olive oil and hints of garlic. The pepperoncini, if present, appeared to be out of action. Bivver’s spaghetti contained no more kick than the salad.
Bivver’s roasted broccoli ravioli did not contain broccoli. The ravioli had been filled solely with ricotta cheese, and reminded me of a President’s Choice or Compliments readymade product. I liked the freshly roasted broccoli, with which the ravioli had been sautéed. The dish, as with everything else we tried, could have been made easily at home, after a trip to your local supermarket.
The Sheraton wants back in the game, but it will need to make a greater impression on diners than Bivver’s food is making. Hopefully, Jeremy McKinnon’s new menu will jump-start better days. At any rate, the future looks interesting.
A final note: You may have noticed that the Sheraton parking lot is now a commercial venture where users pay to park. This only applies to those not staying at the hotel, like people visiting or working at other businesses in the area, people who previously took advantage of the Sheraton for free parking. (You know who you are, cheeky beggars.)
If you’re a customer at Bivver or Oppidan, according to Morris Barnes, you get three, free hours parking. Just get a ticket from the machine at the gate — like at the airport — and upon leaving, Barnes or another staff member will give you a second ticket. Scan both as you approach the exit, the gate will open, and you can be on your way.
* Good * * Very good * * * Excellent * * * * Exceptional
Price Meal for two with wine, tax and tip costs approximately $130.
Atmosphere Has visual appeal and a warm, casual, friendly vibe.
Sound level Moderate.
Open Sunday to Wednesday: 11:30 a.m. to 12 a.m. Thursday to Saturday: 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Reservations Walk-ins are welcome.
Credit cards All major.
Parking Sheraton’s parking lot.
Beverages A small selection of ordinary wines, priced between $15 and $20 per glass. Bivver’s cocktail list is solid, and the bar has a wide variety of spirits. Beer selections lean in favour of Quidi Vidi products.
Best bets Shrimp spaghetti.
Gluten free options Please ask your server about options.
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