22 NOV 2018: You might not think of Newfoundland as a culinary destination, but you should. What’s on the menu is often locally foraged, hunted or fished and based on authentic traditions. On my recent road trip around the province with my husband, we dined well. While the top inn we visited is worthy of everyone’s bucket list, no matter how much scrimping and saving it takes, the other spots all had their own particular charms.

The Rock is one of the few places in Canada where you can get wild game. Newfoundland's regulations allow chefs to get a free annual permit to buy game from hunters. In most other provinces it is illegal to sell wildlife in restaurants. What is called game on most other Canadian restaurant menus is actually farm-raised animals, including venison, rabbit and ‘wild’ boar.

The abundant bogs, barrens and rocky outcrops of the province are also great grounds for the growth of wild berries, mushrooms, wild herbs and wild greens of all sorts. Then there’s the ever present ocean with its harvest of crustaceans, fish, seaweeds and other delicious edibles. Today with a growing list of chefs with the talent and skill set to capitalize on this bounty, a road trip on The Rock can be a foodies’ delight.

We started our trip in the vibrant and colourful provincial capital city of St. John’s. The hotel we picked was a boutique property right downtown on Water Street, called The Luxus, just opened about two years ago. From the outside this tiny six room hotel looked quite ordinary. Once we stepped inside however, we saw immediately it was a hotel with a difference. The check-in spot was actually a bar and we were immediately offered two free cocktails along with our room key. www.theluxus.ca

The list of drinks was inventive and fun. For example, the Newfie Mule Arse on Dat (a take on the classic Moscow Mule cocktail) mixed Newfoundland Distillery rhubarb vodka with rhubarb and ginger syrup, soda, lime and grapefruit. Danny and Tristan who served us said they enjoy using fresh ingredients and Newfoundland spirits in their cocktail creations.

Our room, which had a partial view of the harbour, was super impressive. Large and luxurious, it boasted two bedrooms, a very fancy bathroom with a multifaceted Toto toilet, and two flat screen TV’s, one which was enormous. The assortment of snacks and soft drinks in the room all were complimentary.

Across the road from the hotel was Raymonds, an internationally acclaimed restaurant which offers locally hunted game, wild foraged edibles and seafood. I’ve eaten here before and it deserves its “best restaurant” accolades. However this trip, I wanted to check out their sister restaurant, The Merchant Tavern, which was just a few blocks further along Water Street.

The Merchant Tavern, which offers more casual dining and a great beer, drink and wine list was so popular that there was no chance of reservations that evening. We waited for seats at the bar and ended up having a wonderful time chatting with locals as we dined on mussel and shrimp linguini, pan roasted cod with pease pudding purée, duck breast with local chanterelle mushrooms, Atlantic shrimp and whelk salad and other locavore type dishes. Our newly made St. John’s friends, insisted for dessert we order the vinegar pie, a traditional classic. (It’s a 1920s dish invented because lemons were too expensive at the time.) The Merchant Tavern’s updated version had a buttery sagamite (heritage-corn) crust and a filling that combined apple-cider vinegar with maple syrup and sweet cinnamon, resulting in creamy, custardy deliciousness. http://themerchanttavern.ca

From St. John’s we drove to the Bonavista Peninsula and the Discovery Trail so named as the New World was discovered when John Cabot landed in Bonavista in 1497. The drive around the peninsula was lovely with breathtaking ocean views as we entered some of the picturesque outports such as Port Rexton where our hotel, Fishers’ Loft Inn awaited us. http://fishersloft.com

I first heard of the inn when The Shipping News, based on E Annie Proulx's Pulitzer prize-winning novel, was filmed in Trinity Bight in 2001. The stars of the film, Dame Judy Dench, Cate Blanchette, Kevin Spacey and Julienne Moore all stayed and dined at Fishers’ Loft. The Fisher family still owns and runs the inn with family members also helping with the cooking and the serving of meals.

Dinner is always a set menu based on fresh produce from the kitchen garden and greenhouse, local fish and seafood in season and berries and mushrooms foraged from surrounding hillside meadows and forests. We very much enjoyed our home style four course meal of fresh baked bread, red pepper soup, local garden greens, cod with roasted vegetables and wild berries with whipped cream.

We had a few more tasty adventures on our way to our ultimate destination, The Fogo Island Inn. This inn, a 45 minute ferry ride from Farewell on Newfoundland’s northern coast, is spectacular and the bucket list spot of the province. Situated along Iceberg Alley, all 29 suites feature floor-to-ceiling windows with uninterrupted views of the wild, powerful Atlantic Ocean. A room at the inn is pricy, but it includes all meals and all operating surpluses are reinvested in the community through the charity foundation Shorefast. www.fogoislandinn.ca

Our meals, based on foraged and fished local fare, along with meats sourced from within the province, were as remarkable as the architecture of the inn and the views. At the helm of the kitchen is Chef Jonathon Gushue who joined the Inn's culinary team in February of this year, marking a return not only to his hotel roots, but also to his home province of Newfoundland and Labrador. (He started his career with Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, then was executive chef at Ontario’s Langdon Hall and most recently was co-owner and Executive Chef of The Berlin Restaurant in Kitchener.)

On the menu while I was there were such dishes as cod cheeks and tongues (a local delicacy), salt marsh lamb, turbot, cod, wild chanterelles, deep water shrimp, heritage hen and duck – all local – and all prepared with perfection and plated with artistry. Accenting the dishes were foraged wild plants such as goose tongue, fireweed, burdock and sandwort. Desserts too had foraged edibles such as partridgeberry, crackerberry, rowanberry and bakeapples.

Just opened this year is The Shed, a separate building by the main inn, set up for boil-up dinner parties. As guests we just had to sign up for a buffet style meal served at a long picnic table. Boiled crab fresh from the ocean was the featured protein, but there was also grilled chicken, baked beans, pasta casseroles, scalloped potatoes, salads and much more.

Eating on The Rock really rocks.

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Margaret Swaine

Margaret is a nationally published wine, spirits, food and travel writer, who has authored thousands of articles on these subjects for magazines and newspapers.

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