In Newfoundland and Labrador, cod and culture are one. Here fishcakes, fisherman's brewis, salt cod and cod au gratin are both eaten in celebration and are staples on the common table. Traditionally, when a Newfoundlander mentions fish for dinner, he or she means cod.
But in recent years Newfoundland cuisine has embraced a more varied array of seafood delights. Newfoundland's coastal waters abound with Atlantic salmon, Arctic char, halibut, lobster, blue mussels, scallops … to name a few.
What makes seafood here special is twofold: Nowhere is the table any closer to the source. The bounty of the North Atlantic lies at Newfoundland's doorstep. You can watch fishing boats unload their catch from the window of many a fine restaurant. And no culture is closer to the sea both in geography and spirit: It giveth and taketh away. Newfoundlanders have lived and died by the sea for 500 years; chefs here cook from the heart. It's no surprise restaurants, inns and hotels here serve the best in Canadian seafood.
Bacaloa (literally translated from Italian as salt cod), a restaurant in the heart of old St. John's, has taken an innovative approach to seafood and Newfoundland cuisine. Foodies know Bacaloa ( bacalaocuisine.ca), and are giving it rave reviews. Bacalao's golden rule to preparing fine seafood is finding the shortest route from ocean to the table. Where else could one enjoy cod-tongue salad, snow-crab spring rolls and salt-cod fritters? Our favourites, though, are halibut pan-seared with gremolata crust, and a medley of seafood (scallops and shrimp) in a saffron risotto garnished with steamed mussels and a tender lobster tail.
Downtown St. John's abounds in fine-food establishments. Blue on Water ( www.blueonwater.com) has been described as sophisticated, urbane and cool. Delights include seafood bouillabaisse, blackened salmon, as well as the more traditional cod tongues, scrunchions and tartar sauce. Scrunchions are small cubes of salted pork fat rendered out for pan frying, and are usually served scattered over fish or meat. Amazing with tongues, cheeks or pan-fried cod, restaurants all over Newfoundland will oblige a not too health-conscious patron with scrunchions.
At Nautical Nellies ( www.nauticalnellies.ca), an English-style pub and eatery next to the harbourfront on Water Street, the crab spring rolls alone are worth the airfare to St. John's.
If you stroll the streets of St. John's and ask the locals where to eat great fish and chips, you will undoubtedly be pointed in the direction of Ches's. Now with five locations, Ches's Fish and Chips ( www.chessfishandchips.ca) is an institution. Fish can be served no fresher - the cod is fresh from Newfoundland's pristine waters. Jen, Ches's granddaughter and a classically trained chef, buys her fish from local fishermen, scouring the docks with her father to hand-pick the best fish to be deep-fried in a batter recipe kept secret for 50 years. The same attention to detail is given to the potatoes. This exacting attitude affirms itself on the plate: The generous slabs of lily-white cod loin are always moist and tender.
All food that lies within the concrete walls of a shopping mall isn't necessarily bad. Fog City (709-726-4949) is smack dab in the Avalon Mall; it's here you'll find the best cod-tongue platter on the planet. Brought to your table in a small cast-iron skillet, still sizzling in fat pork scrunchions, these succulent morsels will send you to culinary heaven. This is definitely not typical food-court fodder.
And, as they say in Newfoundland, "There is life outside the overpass." Not all the best dining is in St. John's. There are nooks and crannies all over this fair island where the palate might find titillation. At the Friendly Fisherman Café near the Rose Blanche lighthouse on the South Coast, sensational fish and chips, gargantuan portion size, exceptionally friendly staff and a breathtaking view might entice one to homestead ( www3.nf.sympatico.ca/rbellard/ffc/ index.htm).
In Bonavista, the fishcakes at Skippers Restaurant in the Harbour Quarters Inn ( www.harbourquarters.com) are second to none. And on the Great Northern Peninsula where the Vikings settled long before Columbus sailed from Spain, a sophisticated little establishment called The Daily Catch in St. Lunaire-Griquet ( www.thedailycatch.ca; 709-623-2295) is an oasis of finely prepared seafood. The basil-buttered salmon is on par with the very best in Water Street dining.
For the hard-core adventure seekers, there's always the catch and grill option. Newfoundland's lakes and rivers abound with salmon and trout. Because wild Atlantic salmon is no longer served in restaurants in North America, angling is your only chance at consuming the once ubiquitous fish. Most salmon-fishing camps will accommodate a riverside cook-up (check Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism for a list of guides and outfitters; www.newfoundlandlabrador.com/Fishing/Default.aspx). If it's cod you're after, Island Charter Tours in historic Carbonear will take you jigging for cod in season ( www.islandchartertours.com) -there's nothing sweeter than cod, minutes from the ocean and boiled in seawater. You can also dive for scallops and pan fry them on the spot.
Even the swankiest of restaurants can't match the aroma of scallops, garlic, butter and salty sea air.
Fly fisherman Paul Smith lives on The Rock. His daughter Megan is a chef.
Special to The Globe and Mail