38 Beachy Cove Road
Portugal Cove, NL

9 out of 10

I have as many compliments for this restaurant as the Executive Chef has tattoos...

Starting at the arm, moving to the leg:
1. The scenery. Step into the dining room and immediately be overwhelmed by a window spanning the length of the room overlooking Portugal Cove. As the sun sets over the course of the meal, the Belle Island ferry looks like a slow-moving candle on the dark water, making its way from shore to shore. As hours slip by, the ferry's crossings become the sole mark of the evening's passing.

2. The service. Polite, helpful, and respectful. Does that count for 3 tattoos? Not many servers are able to satisfactorily describe various cooking methods of the chef. Onion soubise, a béchamel-type sauce of slow-cooked puréed onions, to accompany pan-seared Nova Scotia sea bass with braised fennel, tomato confit, candied lemon and balsamic vinegar. Thank you for the balance between knowledgeable attention and respectful distance.

3. Devotion to local products. While Quebec isn't exactly close by, the elk and fois gras that grace the menu travel less than the New Zealand lamb that is found in most St. John's restaurants. Atlantica takes only baby steps outside of the city for theirs. Also, much of their produce comes from just down the road at The Organic Farm, the owners of which were present at this meal. They immediately identified their small pea tendrils being used as garnish on the plate of the maple-smoked duck breast appetizer. A verdict was not reached on whether the spaghetti squash that served as bed for the wild yellow fin tuna was theirs as well. My guess is that the farm's mint fell in love with the local lamb and ran away together to Chef Vardy's kitchen to be served in a spice-crusted rack of the meat with kalamata olives. The olives had a much longer journey to get to the kitchen.

4. Respect for tradition, with a splash of innovation. Beautifully-presented veal osso buco braised in red wine is updated by adding saffron to the sauce itself instead of the usual risotto accompaniment. In fact, Atlantica serves the meat instead with new potatoes. While the orange and yellow-hued spice loses its job of colouring the pool of risotto, it's a nice touch to see its presence maintained in the dish even if Vardy prefers to support the potato over the success of all the local rice paddies...perhaps a good choice.

5. Not a disappointment, despite the large shoes to fill. The exceedingly competent kitchen staff (who are respectfully listed on the menu alongside the Executive Chef) has, I'm sure, helped ease the restaurant's transition between departed chef Jeremy Charles and the man who inherited his kitchen. A unique shooter glass amuse-bouche still appears at the beginning of the evening, and the blind tasting menu is still featured with or without wine pairing, but Vardy's use of oriental flavours sneak into the meal when you least expect it (without pushing into the abused realm of Asian fusion), through the yuzu citrus sauce delicately gracing one of the three raw tuna offerings of the "cru" plate appetizer, the sriracha hot sauce that adds a kick of heat to the impossibly thin and flavourful venison carpaccio, and the beetroot and ginger pachadi that spins sweetness and spice into a Newfoundland chutney.

There are moments when I wish I could drink cream, like when the amuse-bouche is a layered shot of consommé and puréed celery root. The dairy-free version cried out for the sweet cream in which it was meant to drown, and cruel garlic, maybe lemon, and the natural bitterness of the vegetable won out. The beautiful layering of the glass was also lost, having no colour change or extra ingredient to separate the purée at the bottom from the broth at the top. Still, the effect of the liquid texture followed by the mash was different, though it made me think that shots of wheatgrass at organic juice bars should always be served with cream, as those at the table who could digest milk were very satisfied with the start of their meal.

6. The bread. Fennel and dried apricot. A gorgeous crust and refreshing flavour on its own, made even better by intoxicating olive oil and thick balsamic. Unfortunately I think the sweetness of the first thing to touch my lips made the celery root seem more bitter by comparison. Perhaps I wouldn't resent not being able to drink cream so much if the bread has been less good.

7. The wine list. I love it when I don't recognize many of the bottles. I also love a broad range of prices and a decent amount of options served by the glass. These are well-chosen bottles that form a list that I am no where near qualified enough to critique, especially not having tried the blind tasting menu with wine pairing ($80 for 6 courses, plus $50 for the pairing). I strongly doubt that a requested recommendation here would not be intelligently suited to your meal.

8. The appetizers. The aforementioned venison carpaccio seemed overly lemony at first, but with each bite the lemon relinquished control and in came peppercorns and the flavour of the meat itself. Thin slices of duck breast were outshone by their accompanying drops of beet sap (yes, sap, not juice) on individual drops of truffle oil that enhanced the earthy maple flavour of the breast. Of all the things cooked in fat that weren't duck, the pear confit was certainly the most unique, and was a smart combination with honey and mild sweetbreads. The tuna three-ways was incredibly fresh, but only the sauce of soy, sesame, sugar, karashi (crushed mustard seeds) and a myriad other ingredients could bring out any flavour in the fish itself. If only we lived on the other side of the country, this dish would have been spectacular.

Then, fois gras. The "control fed" duck had no idea how delicious it would become. Both Quebec and Atlantica certainly knew. No need for the accompanying poached pear, but a perfect choice with the pancetta chip for pork-based saltiness to complement the incredible smoothness of each bite as it disintegrates on your tongue.

9. The mains. Celery root comes back with the Black Angus tenderloin. Cultivated mushrooms inhale the reduced and then reduced some more veal and wine-based Bordelaise sauce. The osso buco and its oyster mushrooms have nothing on the concentrated flavour of this sauce. Throw in some truffle butter just in case you thought it wasn't ridiculously gluttounous enough as it was.
The sea bass was seasoned and seared. That was all. The strong accompaniments demonstrated the versatility of the fish, giving the option of combining each bite with acidic tomato (instead of sweet), sweet lemon (instead of acidic) or rich balsamic (sweet and acidic, yet a strong contrast from the tomato and lemon).

Again I found the tuna suffered, not through any fault of the accompanying flavours, but because of the fish itself. It was nicely torched on the outside and rare on the inside, and the simplicity and freshness of the meal are to be appreciated (photo at top).

Back to Asia with pork belly. Slow-cooked in sweet, Japanese sake-based liquid, the pork fat breaks down and locks the moisture into the meat along with the clean, alcoholic warmth of the rice wine. Atlantica's belly is given a crisp crust on top and bottom of the melting moisturizing layer and tender meat layer. The varying textures turn the dish into a savoury mille-feuille-style tiered pastry. The caramelized scallops are certainly not to be ignored in the same dish, but can't stand up to the salty sweetness of the pork. They do appear beautifully placed on sprouted lentils and topped with the Organic Farm's baby sprouts. Some may find the pork to consist of too much fat and not enough meat, and in this case the dish will happily win you over with the cardamom carrot purée. Light as a feather, this sweetness stands up well to the pork.
I really didn't need the elk sirloin in my dish of braised shallots, cabbage, parsnip and spaetzle. Like the "hand-crafted" gnocchi that accompanied the chicken breast and little grey snails, the "hand-thrown" spaetzle combined eggs and flour (without the potato) to create fluffy pillows of dough. I admit to knocking the elk off the other ingredients root out more shallots that had absorbed the meat's reduced tarragon-juniper sauce. I swear I don't even like gin and tonic but the juniper berry flavour was subtle compared to the sweetness that burst from the braised onions. I really don't understand how cabbage can taste that good. I would happily be vegetarian except that the meat's juices are what flavour the vegetables. Deep-fried shallot slivers to garnish were the only touch reminiscent of Asia in this dish, bringing me back to meals of Indian biryani and roasted leg of lamb. The elk, however, had nothing to do with long-stewed pieces of inexpensive cuts of meat, and everything to do with the North American dream of a lean, perfectly-cooked medium-rare steak.
10. Dessert. There are times when it's very nice to be lactose-intolerant. As much as I would have loved to try the Chef's favourite dessert, his lemon tart, I wouldn't have been treated to the only zabaglione I've ever been able to eat. The traditional combination of egg yolks, sugar and sweet wine is often made with cream. The traditional version presented this evening, however, stood true to its milk-free roots and only substituted champagne for the Italian prosecco. Who am I to complain? A very generous portion of the custard sat atop fresh blackberries, sweet strawberries and nice blueberries (I'm sure they would be from Newfoundland if it were summer). I knew egg whites could be light as air, but between the "hand-thrown" German spaetzle and Italian zabaglione I am impressed by what a good hand can do with yolks. Mayonnaise will feel like a waste from now on.

11. According to this meal, Europe and Asia are the royalty of cooking techniques, but Eastern Canada can be very proud of its local foods that emulsify so beautifully with the age-old techniques. New traditions and old. Contemporary and romantic.

I didn't end up getting a clear answer on exactly how many tattoos the Chef has. If he has any more than 11, or decides to get any more, I suppose I'll just have to return for another dinner.

Expect to Pay: $60-$90 a la carte, including tax, tip and a glass of wine; $117 6 course blind tasting menu, including tax, tip and a glass of wine; $169 blind tasting menu with wine pairing, including tax and tip
Hours: Tues-Sat, dinner only, reserve 2-3 weeks in advance
(709) 895-1251