The bar has officially been raised, loyal reader! To celebrate four years together, my beautiful wife and I made some reservations at Bacalao on Lemarchant Road. It’s a restaurant that had intrigued us for a while with its promise of a modern twist on traditional Newfoundland fare. And boy did it deliver an extraordinary experience!
When you walk in the restaurant, you actually find yourself in the front door of a century-old house. We were greeted with a big smile by our hostess Tracy and directed to a table in one of the dining rooms.
Bacalao is cleverly laid out symmetrically into four dining room, each a repurposed room from the old house and each the size of a medium modern living room. The rooms are lovingly decorated with things that emphasize the Newfoundland settings: warm colours, original art from local artists on the walls, a fish copper ornament on the fireplace, bottles of local wine and Screech on the mantle, it all combines in a very cozy and warm atmosphere. I was delighted that the menus and the wine list had been laid out in advance at our table.
After a few moments, our hostess came back and introduced herself and asked how we were doing and if it was our first time. Upon hearing that it was our fourth first date anniversary she sincerely congratulated us. Tracy, and from what I saw of them the same applies to her colleagues, was extremely genuine, friendly and yet professional. She was hands-down the best server we ever had. Her attention to our comfort and pleasure was fantastic without being overbearing. She was also very knowledgeable and helped us select our wine.
As I was perusing the menu, I was pleasantly surprised to find very unique offerings. The dishes, as their reputation affirmed, are really taken from Newfoundland tradition and then elevated. For example, a popular appetizer is a Jiggs Dinner Cabbage Roll: salt meat and veggies wrapped up in a beautiful bright green cabbage leaf and served on a spoonful of pease pudding. It comes with a little cup of mustard pickles and a shooter glass of pot liquor. For the mainlanders among you, that’s the water in which the salt meat and veggies have been boiled. Yum!
The same goes for the main courses. Where else will you find a caribou medallions in partridgeberry reduction sauce?
In addition to the menu, Tracey informed us of the specials. Among them was an appetizer of pan-fried scallops and a main course of braised goat leg. I had heard on the Internet that the restaurant had some recent goat specials and I was hoping they still did!
My better half ordered the scallops for her appetizers while I just had to try the Jiggs dinner cabbage roll. Of course I went for the goat dish for my main while Erica opted for a seafood risotto.
A few minutes after taking our orders, we were presented with a complimentary amuse-bouche of crostinis with cheese-stuffed smoked salmon. The crostini was nice and crunchy and the cold smoked salmon was very aromatic and with a refreshing smoky flavour. It was a great start that left us looking even more forward to our meal.
Tracy also came back with two glasses of the wine she helped us select, a red wine called Barrens by a local vineyard. That was just about the most unique and tasty wine I ever had. It was made with various Newfoundland berries rather than grapes. As a result, there was absolutely no acid aftertaste and just a hint of alcohol. It went down so smoothly it was almost like drinking fruit juice! I recommend it even if you’re not usually a wine person.
Our apps arrived soon and what a treat they were! I wanted to take some pictures but the room was too dark for it.
Erica’s scallops were cooked perfectly and were the smokiest I ever tasted. They were sieved on a turnip purée and finished with a mushroom sauce. They were to die for.
As a big fan of a good cooked supper, my mouth was watering at the thought of the cabbage roll. I was not disappointed! I had never seen a cooked cabbage leaf look do deliciously green and fresh. Slicing into it revealed a mix of salt meat (a good portion of it) and vegetables. Underneath, the pease pudding was very flavourful and had a spot-on consistency. I had never had mustard pickles before and I enjoyed it. And washing it down with a shot of pot liquor was both a great traditional touch and a good palate cleanser. It’s a brilliant dish you won’t find anywhere. It was very cool to experience a dish that was specifically created and designed!
Shortly after, or so it seemed, our main courses arrived. The presentation on them was very elegant and inviting.
Erica’s risotto came accompanied by about 10 to 12 smoked mussels in the shell. The consistency was a little crunchier than I personally like in my risotto, but that’s how my honey likes her and she was happy indeed. The fish had bay scallops, shrimp, asparagus and was served with roasted vegetables and more scallops.
But the star of the evening for me was my dish of goat. I really had no idea what to expect, but for some reason I imagined goat to be stringy. I could not have been more wrong! It turns out that goat has a very tender flesh, very much similar to lamb, but with a much more intense, woody flavour. The cut was boneless and without any sinew, very easy to it. It also had a partridgeberry and goat jus and was accompanied by Duchess potatoes (yummy mashed potatoes shaped into spoon-sized balls and then baked) and roasted vegetables.
A word to the roasted veggies: they were perfectly executed, with just a hint of sear, crunchy texture and full flavour. Well done!
After such a fantastic meal, we just had to ask for the dessert menu. Like their main dishes and appetizers, Bacalao‘s dessers are a a mix of classics and special creations. Dessert chef Andrea Maunder keeps experimenting and coming up with new recipes and designs. We chose to go with two Banana Maunders, the restaurant’s take on the Banana Foster. It’s four banana pieces flambeed with local rum and served with vanilla ice cream, walnuts, a hint of coconut and a brown sugar sauce. I tell you, loyal reader, even if the rest of the meal had been bad, I would still return for the Banana Maunder alone! Dessert lovers, you owe it to yourself to try it. I’m not generally fond of the taste of liquor. When I took a bite of the dessert, I felt a hint of strong alcohol flavour that I anticipated would turn into an unpleasant full-blown taste. But instead, just as a was bracing for the strong taste, a wave of smooth banana flavour hit my taste buds and restored balance. Wow! It’s truly amazing when you encounter this sort of layering of flavours that give your mouth an actual multiple taste experiences!
I accompanied my dessert with a small glass of Lady of the Woods birch sap wine, mostly out of curiosity about how a wine made from birch would taste. To be honest, I found it fairly watery and lacking in flavour, so it’s not really my cup of tea. But I’m glad I tried it.
After our hostess took the time to check how we enjoyed our first visit, and was genuine grateful for our praises, we were brought the check, which worried me a bit since the menu we had seen on the website did not mention prices. But I had a very pleasant surprise when the whole meal (two apps, two mains, two desserts and three glasses of wine) came to $150.01. For the quality of the food, the fact that the dishes are lovingly crafted, the amazing service and the cozy decor, it’s a good deal indeed. Of course you wouldn’t eat there every day, but for special occasions you can definitely pay more elsewhere and not get anywhere near the same level experience. It was worth every penny!
As a very sweet touch, our hostess brought with the check two elegant invitation-style cards that could be redeemed for free desserts in a subsequent visit. She said it was a small anniversary gift on the house. This little gesture made us feel very valued as guests, especially that Tracy actually paid attention to our talks and made a note to highlight our anniversary. That just made us loyal customers for life!
If there is one small thing to criticize, it is the noise level. The concept of four small dining rooms of four tables makes the place intimate and cozy, but it also means that you end up with a dozen people in a room the size of an average living room. If a group is seated in your dining room, their voices will resonate in the enclosed space.
To be fair, however, I see no way of solving that problem without redesigning the place, and I feel that it would lose something if the look and layout was different. I think of it as an unavoidable consequence and a small price to pay for everything else about Bacalao. Until they invent Get Smart‘s Cone of Silence, I can’t fault Bacalao too much for the noise.
Overall, what we take away from our experience at Bacalao is that it’s a restaurant run by people who truly have a passion for food and for Newfoundland. The fact that they create their own original dishes and desserts by experimenting, and the fact they put such a great emphasis on local products gives you something you won’t find in many places.
So save up some scratch and make it a resolution to try Bacalao this year, loyal reader!
Addendum, September 2nd, 2012:
Read about our extraordinary second visit to Bacalao and why you should go as soon as possible!