Saturday 31 May 2014

Pizza perfection in St. John's at Piatto Pizzeria

377 Duckworth St, St John's, NL A1C 1H8
(709) 726-0909

Tastiness Factor: 8.5/10

Atmosphere: 4/5

Service: 4/5

Locavore Approved?  Not so much their thing- Their claim to fame is being the only VPN-certified pizzeria in Atlantic Canada (they also have a restaurant in Halifax) so they specialize in authentic Italian ingredients.  VPN (Verace Pizza Napoletana) standards are pretty stringent (read more here) and sticking with the rules is a "must" to keep your status.

It was a very rainy, very windy and very foggy day that I arrived in St. John's, weather that those living here are quite accustomed to.  I grew up on the West Coast of Newfoundland, in Corner Brook, but my parents now live in St. John's so I was paying a much-anticipated visit to them.

On the night that I arrived, I was pretty exhausted from the long flight and the time change, but eager to try out a new restaurant on my St. John's "to-go" list.  Having been to Pi on my last visit (see my review here), I wanted to check out the other popular pizza spot in town, Piatto.  My parents had been there many times and highly recommended it, so off we went!

Piatto is located in downtown St. John's, renowned for its many bars and pubs (opened until the wee hours of the morning) and its friendly locals.  We went on a Tuesday night and were surprised to find Piatto almost full when we arrived.  The restaurant is small but cozy, with a large wood-fired oven (in accordance with VPN standards) at the back.  There is also a bar near the front where guests can sit to wait for a table, or where they can stay to enjoy their pizza.

We had a new server that evening who was excellent.  Friendly service is a must in Newfoundland and she delivered on that.  She explained the specials that evening and took our orders quickly without making us feel rushed.

The menu includes a small variety of antipastis, salads, calzones and pizzas.  As mentioned, the dishes are fairly simple, including the pizzas which have only a handful of toppings in keeping with traditional Naples pizzas.  There are both rosse pizzas (with tomato sauce) and blanche (no sauce, or cream sauce).  They also have a decent wine list, and actually have a tasting lounge upstairs.

We started with two salads- the Mista, with cherry tomatoes, artichokes and roasted red peppers, and a Caprese salad.  Both were simple, yet fresh and a nice light start to the meal.

Then it was onto the main attraction, the pizzas.  My mom enjoyed a Margherita, with added roasted red peppers and caramelized onions, while I had a pie with artichokes, olives and basil.  My dad went for a simple pizza with hand-sliced pepperoni.  All of them had a generous helping of fior de latte mozzarella.  Most importantly, the crust was bubbly and crispy on the outside and thin and soft on the inside.

Having been to other VPN establishments in Vancouver (Nicli Antica, Via Tevere), I must say that I was quite impressed with the pizzas at Piatto and thought they stood up well to those at the other establishments. I definitely recommend Piatto to any pizza-lover living in, or visiting, St. John's!

Piatto on Urbanspoon

Sunday 25 May 2014

A Whole Lotta Hype for Pasta at Ask for Luigi

Tastiness Factor: 8/10

Atmosphere: 4/5

Service: 3/5

Locavore approved?  The local movement is not exactly their thing, but I did notice that many of their ingredients (peas, arugula and mushrooms in their feature dish) are certainly seasonal so it is likely that they might source locally in addition to importing some of their more authentic ingredients.  One thing I noted that was really awesome was their support for local charities.  They offer still and sparkling water on tap, with proceeds going to to support a different local cause each month.

Ask for Luigi has been on my to-do list for a while now but, with reported wait times of up to four hours when they first opened, I thought I would wait until the hype died down a little before checking it out.

When my friend and I showed up at about 7:45 on a Saturday night, we were pleased to hear that we would only have to wait an hour for a table (for those of you not from Vancouver, this is a pretty average wait time believe it or not!).  Since there is no bar or any other place to wait in the small room, they are happy to take your phone number while you wander around the area.

Fortunately, there are many great places nearby pass the time while you wait.  The place that I highly recommend is the Vancouver Urban Winery which is a quick 1 block walk from Ask Luigi.  There, I enjoyed a wine made on-site  (a lovely Pinot Gris) and my friend and I shared a beet and goat cheese dip from Belgard Restaurant which is affiliated to the winery.  We were very impressed with how beautiful the room was and look forward to returning on another occasion.

Just as we were finishing up at Vancouver Urban Winery, we got the much anticipated telephone call that our table was just about ready.  We hurried back to get to our table just as it was being set.  As mentioned previously, the room is very small so do not expect much space between tables and quite a but of noise.  Having said that, I quite enjoyed the energy of the room and the "hominess" that came with it.

If I could describe the service it one word it would be "efficient", which is necessary in such a small, busy restaurant.  I would not necessarily use the word "warm" in describing our servers, but they took care of all of our needs and got all of our dishes to us quickly.  With all of the hype this place has built up in its short lifetime, I can understand why there is the need to get people seated, served and out the door but I wished that the hominess that the room exuded has come across a bit more in the service.

Ask for Luigi is serious about its wine and spirits and recommends that its dishes be enjoyed with wine, particularly white wine.  In true Italian style, they also offer a range of aperitifs and a prosecco on tap.   Wine on tap is available in a half litre which we felt was the perfect amount for the two of us.  Only a couple wines are available by the glass, but if you commit to drinking at least 2 glasses of the same wine for the table, they will open a bottle for you.  After they have opened a bottle, a bell will ring to draw your attention to the wine board that will be updated to let patrons know that this new opened wine has now become available by the glass.  Pretty cool, hey?

The menu is short and sweet, with about 10 antipastis (appetizers) and 6 different pastas.  There are also a few daily specials.  Their website says that dishes are meant to be shared family-style.  My friend and I shared two antipastis but then decided to get our own pasta dishes and this worked out just fine.  Here is a look at our meal:

Arugula, endive and goat cheese salad- This truly was the perfect start to the meal and the generous portion made it good for sharing.  The arugula was was tender, fresh and perfectly dressed.  It was complemented by sliced endive, goat cheese and particularly yummy hazelnuts.

Eggplant involtini- Again, this was a great sharing dish and may have been a bit heavy had a had the whole plate to myself, especially with a pasta course coming next.  The thinly sliced eggplant was rolled around a cheesy filling and served with a perfectly seasoned tomato sauce overtop.  Even those who think they dislike eggplant are bound to love this dish.

Ricotta ravioli, peas and marinated tomatoes- This was one of two vegetarian pasta dishes on the menu.  The homemade pasta exterior was delicious and cooked el dente.  The interior had a generous amount of ricotta filling and there was a very light butter sauce over top.  Tender peas added a bit of "pop", both in texture and in colour.  I loved the marinated tomatoes and wished there were more.  Some have remarked that the pastas are quite salty but I felt that mine was seasoned just right.

Papperdelle and duck ragu- This was my friend's choice of main and she enjoyed it immensely.  The papperdelle was piled high on the place and tossed with duck and a light tomato sauce.  

After visiting Ask for Luigi, I can certainly understand why people like it here so much.  It is casual and fun and, most importantly, the food is pretty great.  I have a feeling that this place will get even better when things get a little less hectic and the staff have the time and energy to to create the homey and inviting atmosphere that this little gem was meant to have.  I will certainly be back with friends and family over the summer for another great meal!

Ask for Luigi on Urbanspoon

Ask for Luigi on Urbanspoon

Saturday 24 May 2014

Lunch with Heart at Lost + Found Cafe

"Where creativity and philanthropy meet".

This quote, taken from the homepage of Lost + Found's website is really the essence of what Lost + Found is all about.  This expansive space, located on Hastings St. in Gastown was opened by Kane Ryan, a world-wide traveller who is the brains behind the "Dirty Wall Project", a non-for-profit organization that assists with immediate needs of people in the countries he travels to (click here for more information).  

The space serves a number of purposes.  There is a retail space, filled with items from all different parts of the world, with all profits going to charity.  All are invited to come in for coffee or chai and peruse travel books while watching documentaries on a large screen at the back of the store.  At night, the space is transformed into a venue that can fit 150 people for art shows, guest speakers and others community events.  

Lastly, they also do a full-service lunch which is what brought myself and two friends to Lost 
+ Found this week.  Their menu, written up on a floor-to-ceilings white board of sorts, changes at intervals but always includes a variety of sandwiches and salads.  They also have a daily soup, a few smoothies and an array of baked goods to choose from.  Their specialty is their house-made buns which are a twist on the owner's Grandma's bread recipe, which come in both sweet (think cinnamon buns) and savoury varieties.  There is certainly no reason to leave this place hungry!  

They also serve up great coffee and other caffeinated beverages which you can find out more about by visiting my previous blog here.

Service is friendly and also quite efficient.  Orders are placed at the counter and food is delivered to your table.  We easily had our food within 5 minutes of ordering, making this place great for those grabbing a quick bite on their lunch break.  We were in less of a hurry and felt quite welcome to stay and chat for over an hour.  

We sampled a nice variety of their lunch items and their baked goods.  My friends both enjoyed a sandwich, made on a savoury bun of their choice.  One paired it with a soup and the other, a salad.  I chose a lunch salad, complete with lentils, quinoa, sunflower seeds and a generous helping of goat cheese feta (sorry, it was so yummy I gobbled it down before taking a pic!).  We also treated ourselves to some baked goods, which were all yummy.  I loved their giant oatmeal chocolate chip cookies which were soft, chewy and choc-full of still-melting chocolate chips.  Yum!!!

So if you are getting tired of your brown-bag lunch, I definitely recommend Lost + Found Cafe for food that is fast, affordable healthy and, most importantly, delicious.  While you are there, you can also check out all of the other great stuff that they have going on.  You may find yourself leaving with not only a full belly but also a full heart and spirit.  

Friday 23 May 2014

A Unique Tasting Menu Experience at Hitchcock

Tastiness Factor: 8.5/10 (range 6/10- 10/10)

Atmosphere: 4/5

Service: 5/5

Locavore Approved?  YES- Chef Brendan McGill, winner of the 2013 "People Choice" best new chef by Food and Wine Magazine, is a locavore through and through, so much so that farmers in Bainbridge  reportedly banded together to support Mcgill in his quest for this prestigious award.  He only uses the produce, meat and seafood sourced on/around the island and he operates under the "nose-to-tail" philosophy.  His genuine devotion to locally-sourced ingredients is enough in itself to make him deserving of his award!

First of all, I must start by saying "thank you" to Hitchcock for being the hook that lured me to beautiful Bainbridge Island.  Chef Brendan McGill earned himself quite a bit of fame by winning the Food and Wine "People's Choice" award and this is indeed how he, and the existence of Bainbridge Island, was brought to my attention.  McGill now has two venues on the island- the original Hitchcock for which he won the award and also Hitchcock deli right next store.  On this visit, we had the pleasure of dining at Hitchcock and, although we missed out on the amazing looking sandwiches offered by the deli, we did try their ginger-pistachio biscotti and their ooey-gooey salted chocolate cookies (both were great, especially those cookies!!!).

Hitchcock is located along the "main drag" of Bainbridge on Winslow Way.  Its storefront is quite unassuming so you really need to keep your eyes peeled to find it.  Immediately upon entering, there is a long bar with booths on the opposite wall.  The open kitchen, equipped with a large brick oven, is located at the back.  We really liked our seat at the rear of the restaurant where we could watch all of the action in the kitchen.

Although the overall feel of the restaurant is quite relaxed and "laissez-faire", the service is quite the opposite.  Our server was very polished in both his delivery of our dishes and his impressive knowledge of every single component on the plate.  His passion for the food really came through.

We started the meal by ordering a bottle of wine to share. We chose a 2012 Pinot Gris from Rolling Hills Winery, located on Bainbridge Island.  I appreciated how they included 8 different wines from the island itself, as well as a number of other choices from Washington and Oregon.  They also had an entire cocktail menu with some unique cocktails.

The thing that really peaked my interest in Hitchcock to begin with was their "name-your-price" tasting menu.  The chef will design you a unique menu at your set price point, taking into account your likes/dislikes so that every diner may get a different set of dishes.  I just love this idea!  I am pescatarian while Hubby is a carnivore and they were only too happy to accommodate our tastes, swapping out his meat dish with a totally different fish or vegetarian dish for me.  It was very fun to wait for the "surprise" of what was to come next!  If tasting menus are not your thing, you can also order off the a-la-carte which includes hot and cold sharing plates.  Some of our tasting menu dishes were also items on the a-la-carte menu while others seemed to be impromptu creations.

We started by asking the waiter what the normal range of tasting menu was and he named $50 as an upper price point.  We were willing to go higher than that, but he honestly suggested that, because I would be getting a number of vegetarian dishes, it would be difficult for them to make me something worth more than $50.  We found that the $50 tasting menu was a pleasant amount of food (especially with the delicious complimentary baguette) with a great variety of dishes.  If you do plan on doing a more expensive tasting menu, I would advise dining earlier in the evening as we started dinner at 8:30pm and were pretty much the last ones in the restaurant when we finished at around 10:15pm.

Between the two of us, we enjoyed a total of 14 different dishes, including a palate cleanser, a cheese course and dessert.  Here is the play-by-play:

Oysters- These local beauties were served with 3 different garnishes including tomato-celery, spicy cayenne and a shallot mignonette.

Salmon gravlax- The perfectly cured gravlax was elevated by creme fraiche and stunning fiddlehead ferns.

Duck confit torchon- This was Hubby's next dish and he went wild over this torchon finished off by house-cured bacon and hot sauce gastrique.

Heirloom radishes- This was the only dish that was a miss for me.  The thinly slices radishes were served with a hunk of cold butter (albeit house-churned).  I found it quite difficult to blend the two, and therefore ended up eating a bite of radish and then a bite of pure butter.

Flageolet bean soup- Hubby's next dish was an interesting concoction of bean, bacon, halibut and oyster, all served in a mini teacup.  It is pretty incredible how the chef could mix all of those flavours into such a tiny vessel!

Romanesco- I quite enjoyed this very simple vegetarian dish composed of this cousin of cauliflower accompanied by a lovely bagna cauda.  It is only the most talented of chefs that can elevate the humble vegetable in this way!

Halibut collar- This was Hubby's next dish and, although it did not work for him (the fin turned him off a bit), I thought it was tasty and certainly very innovative.  I guess it shows that nose-to-tail dining can also apply to fish!

Manila clams- These local treasures were elegantly prepared with chickpeas and a simple broth to really  showcase the clams.

Elderflower sorbet- This uniquely-flavoured sorbet made for the perfect palate cleanser.

Pork with pancetta- Hubby was completely blown away by this dish and readily names it his favourite dish of the year.  The incredible pork was served with pancetta (more pork!) over a bed of beans.  He is still salivating over this one.

Halibut- I was equally impressed with my next dish, with freshly caught, local halibut fillet and cheeks over bok choy, finished with asian flavours in the sauce.  Wow.

Cheese course- The two varieties of cheese were served with nuts, a dollop of honey and delicious flatbread.

Chocolate terrine- Our first of two desserts was a truly sinful, decadent chocolate terrine with a creamy anglaise and pistachio brittle.  Holy moly chocolate yumminess!

Creme brulee- Our second dessert was a luscious creme brulee, one of Hubby's favourite desserts.

As you can likely tell, we throughly enjoyed our custom tasting menu at Hitchcock.  If you love the freshest of ingredients, prepared by an extremely talented chef and served in a casual environment, I would strongly recommend hopping on the island over to Bainbridge Island this weekend!  Trust me, you are in for a treat:)

Hitchcock on Urbanspoon