"Listen," my sister says, leaning close to my ear, munching a crispy chunk of fried cod at the Anchor Café in Port au Choix, Nfld. "That's what fish and chips should sound like." For someone who has worked for 36 years at an iconic West Vancouver fish and chippery, that's a mighty big stamp of approval.
Linda and I are on Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula - that gangly arm pointing toward Labrador that's home to both Gros Morne National Park and the ancient Viking site of L'Anse aux Meadows - in search of the country's best fish cakes. Not the chic crab cake that is the benchmark of quality seafood dining, but the humble fish cake.
Although the large-scale commercial cod fishery was shut down in the early 1990s, local fishing keeps the province supplied with cod. There are even small-scale farming operations popping up. Around here, where "fine dining" often means two kinds of vinegar for your chips, guffaws greet the term "locavore."
Our first stop is the Seaside Restaurant, in the fishing village of Trout River, known for its "tongue and cheek special" (flawless fried morsels of cod's most underrated parts). The fish cakes were the classic combo of mashed potatoes, sautéed onions and boiled salt cod that "some of the local boys gets for us," said chef Laura, who promptly refused to divulge the tasty herbs within. "It's a little on the secret side," she said. Rounding out the meal were Quidi Vidi beers brewed in St. John's with water from icebergs.
We spent the night in Rocky Harbour and for breakfast headed to the yellow clapboard house that is Java Jack's, a local gallery and creative café, with a hearty Hiker's Special of smoked Arctic char, wild caribou sausages, a multicoloured calico beanpot, and two sumptuous fish cakes that included garlic and chives. The yummy mustard pickles that are a mandatory accompaniment were homemade with red pepper, cauliflower and cucumber.
Continuing north on the Viking Route, we spotted our first icebergs drifting along the distant Labrador coast across the Strait of Belle Isle. In places, locals had set up stands to sell homemade jam made with bakeapple, salmon-coloured tundra berries. Moose meandered everywhere, including onto the menu of the Anchor Café near Port au Choix, a windswept seaside archeological site with 5,500 years of human history. The front half of the restaurant is shaped like the bow of a boat and there was moose soup, stew and burgers to be had. Introduced in the early 1900s from Nova Scotia, the moose are now 120,000 strong.
With no fish cakes on the menu that day, I went hard-core, opting for the "fish and brewis," a one-time fisherman's staple of seabiscuit - a hardtack cracker - soaked in water, mixed with salt cod and sprinkled with scrunchions, diced salted pork fat that is fried until crispy. It was one of several iconic culinary experiences that proved an acquired taste.
Past L'Anse aux Meadows, we ate at the Norseman Restaurant, a stylish little eatery where surf and turf means Labrador caribou tenderloin and snow crab legs. The salt cod arrived atop a bed of caramelized onions and olives, and they serve their delicious scallop and crab cakes on a bed of mango slices with cilantro juice and togarashi, Japanese chilies.
Turning back down along the peninsula's east coast to St. Anthony we explored the Grenfell Interpretive Centre that celebrated the remarkable work of Wilfred Grenfell, the doctor who set up missions and hospitals in poverty-stricken Labrador and northern Newfoundland in the early 1900s. We asked for a dining recommendation on a whale-watching expedition that afternoon, and took the guide's advice: an old lightkeeper's residence alongside a working lighthouse. At that red and white Lightkeeper's Seafood Restaurant - best known for its Viking Feast served by costumed staff in an adjoining turf-covered underground restaurant - we stumbled upon the tastiest fish cakes of our trip.
The menu featured the usual cod suspects, but we started with Thai Moose Spring Rolls, a crunchy blend of cabbage, carrots, Chinese five spice and moose shot by the owner's dad. Then the plump fish cakes arrived, perfectly crisp and brown, melting in our mouths with just the right saltiness complemented by the sweetness of homemade molasses-rich baked beans. I asked Audrey Noble, chef for 19 years, why her fish cakes were so good. "We use good olive oil, but it's the quality of the cod."
"And the spices," she said as she slipped a hefty slice of partridgeberry cheesecake in front of us, "but I can't tell youse what they are because it's a secret."
IF YOU GO
Many restaurants are seasonal, open from about May to October, so it's best to check in advance.
- Seaside Restaurant, Trout River, 709-451-3461,
- Java Jack's, Rocky Harbour, 709-458-3004, javajacksnl.wordpress.com
- Anchor Café, Port au Choix, 709-861-3665
- The Norseman, L'Anse aux Meadows, 1-877-623-2018, valhalla-lodge.com/restaurant.htm
- Lightkeeper's Seafood Restaurant, St. Anthony's, 1-877-454-4900, fishingpoint.ca/restaurant.html
Special to The Globe and Mail