Raising the Bar

Martini, by Susie Wind. Courtesy of The Sportsman’s Gallery, LTD., Charleston, South Carolina.

by Martin Mallet

Craft cocktails from St. John’s

I’m not usually one to follow fads, but one culinary trend I’m thankful for is the return of the craft cocktail. Gone are the neon-colored sugar-bombs of the 1990s, served in comically oversized martini glasses. Instead, good bartending has made a comeback, radiating from its epicenter in New York (where else?) and chronicled by Robert Simonson in A Proper Drink: The Untold Story of How a Band of Bartenders Saved the Civilized Drinking World.

We now have a host of skilled and creative mixologists who constantly create and tinker with a seemingly limitless palette of tinctures, bitters, infusions, and garnishes. Some, like Sam Ross’s Penicillin cocktail, have already become modern classics. Neither content to merely repeat others’ successes nor immune to wider food trends, many bar managers now seek to incorporate local foods and seasonality to evoke a sense of time and place. Poorly done, it can rapidly devolve into cliché—think pumpkin-spiced anything—but a well-executed drink can teach you about a place and its people.

I learned a lot while in St. John’s, Newfoundland. In retrospect, it seems foolish to have been surprised, but there really are several excellent bars inSt. John’s. As a teenager, I backpacked through Gros Morne National Park, following caribou trails, eating cloudberries, and boiling Labrador tea in the morning. For the sportsman, it’s impossible not to think of legendary salmon rivers like the Exploits or Humber or the highest moose densities in the world, excellent ptarmigan hunting, and double-digit sea-run brown trout. Indeed, the image of Newfoundland is most often one of natural beauty and richness, of quaint towns and simple folk.

On a recent return trip, I was surprised to also find a mecca of impeccable food and drink. Newfoundland isn’t just screech and fried cod. St. John’s sustains a seemingly impossible density of excellent restaurants, with many receiving national and international attention. One of the keys to their success is the incredible solidarity among different establishments. They often share supplies and even labor, aware that a critical mass of quality is needed to keep customers coming.

The cuisine shows strong local influences, but because the soil is so poor and the growing season so short, the emphasis isn’t just on local produce but rather on wild or foraged foods besides. It’s one of the only places in North America where you can find truly wild game on the menu: moose is fairly ubiquitous in season, but you’ll also find other species like caribou, muskox, bear, seal, ptarmigan, hare, and even some seabirds like murres (which Newfies call turrs). Berry pickers and foragers add a variety of wild plants to the mix, providing a well of inspiration for the local bartender. Where else could you order a cloudberry sour, or a Labrador tea mojito? I asked a few St. John’s restaurants to share some of their cocktail recipes, which they graciously accepted.

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The Adelaide Oyster House

The Adelaide Oyster House is probably St. John’s coolest  restaurant. It is run by a group of avid  surfers, and the music is loud, the food is delicious, and the oysters are fresh. This is the perfect place to go out with friends, and an evening there will be punctuated by chants from the open kitchen as patrons buy them rounds of beer. (It’s actually on the menu.) The place gives off a fun and easy-going vibe, but the food, drinks, and oysters, all of which change on a regular basis, are the product of serious and focused effort.

Labrador Tea Mojito

Labrador tea is a member of the heath family and commonly found in peat bogs and acidic soils. New leaves, best for tea, are picked in early spring and dried, but fresh ones are available later in the season. It has been said that Labrador tea can cause distress in large doses, but then again, so can gin.

3 lime wedges
a small handful of Labrador tea leaves
1 ounce Labrador tea syrup +
cocktail ice
2 ounces Ungava Gin soda water

In your glass, add two of the lime wedges, the Labrador tea leaves, and the syrup. Muddle. Add ice, the gin, and top with soda water. Stir, then garnish with the remaining lime wedge and a sprig of Labrador tea.

+ Labrador tea syrup

2 cups water
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup Labrador tea leaves

In a medium saucepan, bring the water, sugar, and Labrador tea to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes, until the sugar has completely dissolved. Remove the syrup from the heat and allow it to cool to room temperature before straining. Discard the solids.

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The Merchant Tavern

The Merchant Tavern is a more casual off-shoot of St. John’s celebrated Raymonds restaurant, whose chef happens to be an enthusiastic fly tyer and salmon fisherman. The Merchant Tavern is a fine place to drop by for an afternoon drink and some stellar house-made charcuterie. This cocktail is made with Nova 7, a Nova Scotian sparkling wine that has been a runaway success, becoming the best-selling wine over all imports.

1 ounce vodka
1 ounce pineapple weed syrup +
1/2 ounce Third Place Tonic (or other high-quality tonic water)
1/2 ounce rhubarb juice
1/2 ounce lemon juice 3 ounces Nova 7 blueberry water ++

Combine the vodka, pineapple weed syrup, tonic, rhubarb juice, and lemon juice in a shaker. Shake with ice and pour into a glass. Pour in the Nova 7; then carefully float the blueberry water by pouring over the back of a spoon until the glass is full.

+ Pineapple weed syrup

1 cup water
1 cup sugar
¼ cup pineapple weed flowers
1 lemon peel, cut into strips

In a medium saucepan, bring the water and sugar to a boil and simmer 5 minutes, until the sugar has dissolved. Add the pineapple weed flowers and lemon peel, remove from the  heat, and pour into a sterilized mason jar. Store covered in a cool place for 72 hours before straining.

++ Blueberry water

¼ cup blueberry juice
¼ cup water

Combine the blueberry juice and water in a cup or small bowl.

Martin Mallet is happy to have stumbled into, and out of, St. John’s.