Tuesday 3 June 2014

A Tribute to Newfoundland at Raymond's

95 Water St, St John's, NL A1C 1A4
(709) 579-5800

Tastiness Factor: 10/10

Atmosphere: 5/5

Service: 5.5/5

Locavore Approved? YES- Raymond's does Newfoundland proud by showcasing the very best of its land and sea.  From Lester Farms kale to foraged mushrooms to freshly caught fish, this is a locavore's dream come true.  Although Newfoundland is sometimes considered inhospitable to the growth of produce, Raymond's draws attention to all of the wonderful food that are island can procure.  And who better to show off Newfoundland than Chef Jeremy Charles.

Raymond's has won an impressive number of accolades since its opening its doors in November 2010, including En Route Magazine Best New Restaurant 2011 and, more recently, #1 on the 2014 Vacay.ca Best New Restaurant List.  

And after visiting Raymond's for the first time last weekend, it is quite evident what all of the hype is about.  Raymond's ranks up there with any renowned restaurant I have been to in Canada and the US, and then some. To think that a city in Newfoundland of all places would have one of my favorite meals ever may sound like a bit of a stretch, but let me assure you, it is true.

My first clue that this was going to be a great experience came with a phone call from the restaurant after I had left a message requesting a pescatarian tasting menu.  They called back as soon as they opened that evening, only too happy to make me a custom tasting menu, and to offer it despite the fact that my parents wanted to stick with the a la carte menu.  I was ecstatic.  

When we arrived at 7:30 on a Saturday night, the place was packed, including the bar room near the front of the restaurant and the main room at the back.  Fortunately, I had made my reservation a month and a half prior, and reservations have become even harder to come by since they won the Vacay.ca award.  

Upon arriving, we were invited our table at the back near the windows overlooking the water which was perfect, but really any table in this beautiful room is great. The high ceilings, white walls and black leather chairs make the room elegant and impressive.  That being said, it never felt pretentious or “stuffy”, likely due to the very warm and inviting atmosphere created by the staff.  Although there is no dress code, most men wore jackets and women wore dresses or pant suits.

Service at Raymond’s is second to none.  From the start, our server was attentive and very warm.  She stopped at our table to chat with us on a number of occasions, making us feel like her only guests.  She was impressively knowledgeable about the dishes and all of the ingredients, including where they were sourced from.  She was assisted by other servers who effortlessly brought our plates and whisked them away again without a sound.  My parents, who did not want to do the tasting menu, were very pleased with how their two dishes were served in relation to my seven.  Our meal lasted over 3 hours and we never were made to feel rushed.  I could not have been more impressed with the caliber of the service. 

Speaking of amazing service, our sommelier for the evening, Erin, deserves recognition for her work that evening as well.  At first, I was disappointed to see that the regular sommelier, Jeremy Bonia was not in that evening but as soon as Erin began her service, I knew we were in good hands.  She was extremely professional and knowledgeable and her enthusiasm about wine was infectious.  Just like our server, she made us feel like the only guests in the restaurant by speaking to us at length about her travels to Ontario wineries to meet the winemakers and to talk with me about BC wines.  When she realized that I was a locavore, she purposely chose some Canadian pairings, which I really appreciated.  She seemed very comfortable choosing wines “on the fly” for my pescatarian menu, and I really appreciated the great variety of wines that I was offered.  I highly recommend getting the wine pairings, especially if it is your first time getting the tasting menu, as it brought my already outstanding meal to an even higher level.

The menu at Raymond’s changes regularly based on the availability of local ingredients.  They also offer a number of additional dishes each night including a pasta appetizer course.  As mentioned, my parents chose the a-la-carte option (appetizer and main) while I chose the 7 course tasting menu with wine pairings.  There is also the option of a 5 course tasting menu. Although I certainly do not regret ordering the 7 courses, I should say that the portions are larger than other tasting menus I have had and I was absolutely stuffed by the end of my meal.  Those with smaller appetites would undoubtably be satisfied with the 5-course option.

Here is a recap of the food that we enjoyed, starting with my 7-course tasting menu:

Smoked oyster, scallop ceviche, pickled vegetable with quails egg, smoked char crostini- This seafood starter was equally as visually spectacular as it was delicious.  If I had to choose a favorite, it would be the scallop ceviche by the slimmest of margins (I loved the potato chips on top that gave a hit of salt and crunch). What a light and refreshing way to begin a tasting menu. 

Lester's Farm Beet and Kale Salad- I was very jealous when my mother ordered this as her appetizer and had my fingers (and toes!) crossed that it would be part of my tasting.  I almost squealed when it was put in front of me!  This salad looks deceptively simple, but it was actually quite complex, with layers of different flavors that married together perfectly.  I am a beet salad fiend and can confidently say that this was the best one I have ever had.

Seared local scallop, scallop roe with parsnip puree- When our server asked me at the end of the meal what my favorite dish was, I had great difficulty choosing one but in the end, I chose this one.  This massive scallop (local, of course) was seared to perfection and served with scallop roe, something that I had never tasted before (I loved it!).  And that parsnip puree?  I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

Seared local halibut, clams, rapini and local dandelion greens- I just loved all of the accompaniments to this very generous portion of perfectly cooked local halibut, especially the bitter rapini that added a real kick to the dish.  One minor comment is that they added house-smoked bacon to the dish in a pescatarian menu (pescatarians eat only seafood and produce, no meat/pork/poultry). Although I ate the dish anyway, a stricter pescatarian may not have done so.

Cavetelli with mushrooms, peas and truffle- After all of the fish, I was pleased to get a vegetarian dish for the 5th course.  I just loved the meaty mushrooms (locally foraged) and the hint of truffle to accent the exceptional handmade cavetelli.

Local cod, peas pudding, carrots, cabbage, roasted shallot- For my last savory course, it was back to fish.  It was nice to end with cod, which has such history here in this province.  This was a miniature version of my mom’s main, and was a play on traditional Newfoundland Jigg’s Dinner (find out more about Jigg's dinner here)  I really appreciated how Chef Charles was able to elevate the simple Jigg’s dinner while staying true to its basic ingredients and flavors.  A real treat for locals and tourists alike! 

Ice cream and chocolate ganache- By this time, I was stuffed, but my parents were happy to take one for the team and share it with me.  This simple, elegant dessert was the perfect end to a perfect meal.  I should also note that, because my parents were “helping me” with dessert, sommelier Erin kindly served them a taste of the dessert wine at no cost.  Now that is service!

Here are the a-la-carte items that my parents enjoyed:

Seafood soup- This “soup” was actually more of a stew, chock full of seafood of every variety.  It was lightened by a delicious tomato broth instead of a rich cream base.  My dad loved it, and eagerly soaked up the remaining broth with the housemade bread that we were served at the beginning of the meal.

Duck breast- My dad had originally wanted the halibut but unfortunately the last piece was sold just as he ordered his.  His sadness was short-lived though as he loved this duck dish.  The portion of duck was very generous and he loved the accompanying duck sausage. 

My mom had the Lester's Farm Beet and Kale Salad and the Newfoundland Cod, which were larger versions of those in my tasting menu (see above).  She loved every bite.

As a last little treat to finish off this exquisite meal, we were offered 3 little bonbons with our bill.  Finesse from start to finish.

After all its accolades over the past few years, I figured that Raymond's ought to be good but my experience there soared high above all my preconceived expectations.  I honestly could not have been more impressed.  Raymond's is at least as good as any restaurant that I have been to, including those with Michelin stars.

St. John's may seem "off the beaten track" in terms of popular foodie destinations, but Raymond's is a first-class dining experience by any standards.  As word continues to spread about how special Raymond's is, I hope that foodies from far and wide will come to discover what they have been missing out on.

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