It may be pitch black outside Mallard Cottage, a green-and-white clapboard building nestled in Quidi Vidi, Nfld., but inside two long tables are bathed in the orange glow of antique oil lamps. In a low-ceilinged room with no electricity, it's a fine solution – at least until an ocean breeze wafts through an open window, extinguishing one. There's a cheer, a flurry of activity and soon actor Allan Hawco, star of the CBC's Republic of Doyle, is on his feet, trying to find someone to relight it.
In early July, friends and family of chef Todd Perrin, including some of St. John's most familiar faces (Hawco, Great Big Sea's Alan Doyle and broadcast journalist Seamus O'Regan among them), gathered at the 220-year-old historical building for a preview of Perrin's new 65-seat restaurant, which opens early August. Here, the red-bearded chef plans to use ingredients that express the rocky island's terroir: traditional staples, foraged foods and hunted meat, which have long been dismissed as poverty fare.
The timing is significant. St. John's, once denigrated as a city of fish and chips and mediocre hamburgers, has recently experienced an incredible renaissance in its restaurant scene, fuelled by a booming oil and gas sector and a returning cadre of expats, entrepreneurs and businesspeople.
"There's a new confidence, a new swagger in town," says Jeremy Bonia, co-owner and sommelier of Raymond's, an acclaimed fine-dining restaurant that opened on St. John's Water Street in November, 2010. Before moving back to the city to cook food he calls "rustic East Coast," Raymond's executive chef Jeremy Charles cooked for the Molson and Bronfman families in Quebec, and then trained and worked as a personal chef in Los Angeles and Chicago.
In an increasingly popular nouveau Newfoundland style, the menu at Raymond's leans heavily on local products, including wild rabbit, moose, greens and foraged berries. Similar ingredients are increasingly peppering menus at other high-end downtown eateries such as Aqua (chef/owner Mark McCrowe trained and worked in Vancouver before returning home) and Chinched Bistro (owners Michelle LeBlanc, from Cape Breton, and Shaun Hussey, from St. John's – both started their careers in Nantucket, Mass.).
In harbourside Quidi Vidi, three kilometres from downtown St. John's on a street too narrow for two-way traffic, Perrin, a fan-favourite competitor on Top Chef Canada in 2011, says he's not gunning for Michelin stars. He wants to cook reimagined Newfoundland standards, relying heavily on wild game, along with seafood – snow crab, whelks, halibut, cod, turbot, lobster and scallops – pulled fresh from the ocean, and an emphasis on Canadian wine. He'll serve lunch and dinner (a small chalkboard menu will rotate seasonally), weekend brunch, and stay open on Sunday night, a rarity in St. John's.
During the preview dinner, family-style platters landed on the table in quick succession, paired with wines primarily from Ontario. There was a fabulously ferric dish of confit lamb heart on caramelized onions and emerald turnip greens followed by grilled lamb liver and blackened bread. There were gasps when a gorgeous spiral of native seabird sausage, made with turr, seaduck and snipe and accompanied by chive-flower mustard, was set down. Then came local halibut with a rustic crust of hard tack, savory and pork belly, and a "fish feed" of Atlantic cod, new potatoes and shredded salt beef. A rhubarb cake with malt ice cream, served in a tiny casserole, capped off the meal. It was unfussy and delicious food: comforting, familiar in a totally unfamiliar way.
Like the lowly seabirds in the sausage, Perrin says he's trying to elevate ingredients Newfoundlanders have long taken for granted. "If you walk from here to downtown, you would pass 500 of those birds in people's freezers. And they sit in freezers and they sit in freezers, and there's no value to them," says Perrin. For example, he says, "it's hard to sell moose to Newfoundlanders, because they've got a freezer full of moose at home. They want to eat bisque and tenderloin. But that's changing and it's long overdue."
Before Perrin bought Mallard Cottage, a national and provincial historic site, it was in rough shape. For Perrin and business partner Stephen Lee, a former operations manager at Raymond's, it has been two long, expensive years of restoration, demolition and rebuilding. Where artificial flooring once was, there are now wide original wooden planks, hewn from ancient trees. The walls, stripped of their disintegrating wallboard, are centuries-old red brick.
After the last dish hit the table, Perrin pulled up a bench and chatted with friends LeBlanc and Hussey of Chinched Bistro. The pair, along with many other restaurateurs, have also benefitted from the sudden rise in the city's fortunes. "To be honest, it's easier to be collegial, because we're not competitors any more, we're colleagues," says Perrin.
A decade ago, after the cod industry collapsed, Perrin owned a restaurant called Two Chefs. "Back then it was dog eat dog," he recalls. "Restaurant owners would drive up and down Water Street, looking in at other restaurants to see who was empty and who was full. It was so competitive, because the economy here sucked. ... Now, every restaurant in St. John's is busy, even the [bad] ones."
Newfoundland-born Hussey, who represented St. John's in this year's national culinary competition, Gold Medal Plates, says Perrin doesn't give himself enough credit. LeBlanc, his fiancée, nods vigorously. While the oil money arrived at the right time, LeBlanc says Perrin landed in the national spotlight at the perfect time as well. "He helped spark this revival."
"I'm not the sharpest tool in the shed, but I've enough sense to know that the potential here is significant," responds Perrin. "Honestly, I don't think there's a better jurisdiction to open a restaurant right now, in the country, than St. John's."