2017-07-19 08:15:03
Pursuits: Moose, Anyone? In Newfoundland, Food Both Rustic and Sophisticated

You think a lot about moose in Newfoundland. You are frequently reminded of their hidden presence by silhouettes printed on yellow hazard signs. You are startled by their actual presence while speeding sleepily down remote stretches of road. They appear as burgers or steaks on the menu at local diners. But you don’t think of them as carpaccio — until you eat at Raymonds restaurant in St. John’s, the rugged, multicolored capital city, perched on the Canadian province’s east coast.

There, in the orange-red brick building of the old Commercial Cable Company, where telegraph cables from London and New York once snaked up through the floor, rosy medallions of moose tenderloin, lightly seared on the outside and sliced paper thin, arrive nestled in a circle of green spruce branches and blue juniper berries, set on a ringed cross-section of an aspen tree.

It doesn’t stop there. The moose is garnished with flecks of pickled winter chanterelles, dark bittercress leaves and crisp, celadon-green caribou moss. A dab of aioli, flavored with powdered young pine needles, sits in the middle, and the whole thing is drizzled with sunflower oil and white birch syrup. Amazingly, the result is as stunning to the palate as it is to the eye.

It’s this sort of beautiful pairing of rustic and sophisticated, local and cosmopolitan, whimsical and serious that makes Raymonds such a celebrated spot and anchors this aged seaport as an unlikely culinary destination far from the studied poses of Toronto and New York.

“I was trained classically, but we use local ingredients,” said Jeremy Charles, 39, the restaurant’s visionary chef and a founder. “Everything on the table is from here.”

Making the dish even more remarkable is that Mr. Charles shot, skinned and butchered the moose himself just days earlier near Red Indian Lake in central Newfoundland.

Mr. Charles is an unassuming man, dressed like the men he grew up around while summering on Newfoundland’s Trinity Bay. He has a sturdy beard and fisherman’s squint and favors watch caps. But he exudes the quiet confidence of someone who knows he has the touch, the taste and the eye to turn parochial products into plates of world-class food.

Born to a mail carrier and a homemaker in this largely working-class town, he says his love of cooking came from his grandmother, in whose kitchen he learned the basics during the summers. When it came time to go off to school, he chose Saint Pius X Culinary Institute in Montreal. From there, Mr. Charles went to work with the Quebecois chefs Claude Pelletier and Michel Ross at the upscale Montreal supper club Mediterraneo, now closed.

But Mr. Charles’s big break came when he took a summer job cooking for the famous Canadian beverage families Molson and Bronfman at their private fishing retreat on a river in Quebec. There, he met a wealthy Chicago couple who eventually took him to cook for them in Los Angeles. After what Mr. Charles calls a “magical five years,” he had seen enough of the world to make his mark back home.

He returned to St. John’s in 2006 and helped found Atlantica in nearby Portugal Cove, one of Newfoundland’s first serious restaurants in a province better known for boiled dinner. The seaside spot, which focused on farm-to-table, was named Canada’s best new restaurant in 2007 — the first such recognition for any Newfoundland establishment — adding momentum to an emerging restaurant culture.

Though it has also closed, Atlantica’s success encouraged others in town. Michelle LeBlanc and Shaun Hussey created Chinched Bistro in town, serving cod tongues and other local specialties with an attention to detail that transforms Newfoundland comfort food into fine dining from simple diner fare. (“Chinched” is Newfoundland slang for being full.)

Todd Perrin, another chef who looks as if he popped from the pages of a Herman Melville novel, had returned to St. John’s a decade earlier after cooking at a Swiss resort and other restaurants around the world. In 2013, he opened a cozy restaurant called Mallard Cottage in Quidi Vidi, a picturesque fishing port over the hill from St. John’s. Mr. Perrin follows a similar philosophy to that of Mr. Charles: local ingredients and a menu dictated by the larder.

St. John’s is now full of inspiring or at least aspiring restaurants, including Mr. Charles’s second venture, Merchant Tavern, and Adelaide Oyster House down the road.

“We have all these beautiful ingredients that come from the ocean — stuff like sea urchin and whelk — that weren’t being showcased or celebrated,” Mr. Charles said over an after-hours glass of wine at Merchant Tavern. “It’s been a lot of fun to educate people like my grandmother who never see this stuff because everything is landed, frozen and shipped to New York or Asia.”

In fact, getting their hands on local seafood is a challenge for chefs like Mr. Charles and Mr. Perrin. Despite living on an island full of fishermen, government regulations require most of the catch to be sold to processors, who have little interest in selling small quantities.

“The variety of species caught off Newfoundland is vastly different than what’s available here,” said Mr. Perrin, relaxing at Mallard Cottage before brunch service began. He gets an occasional bluefin tuna thanks to a friend’s charter boat with a license to keep and sell a few every year. But despite Newfoundland’s big turbot fishery, he sees that fish only occasionally. Monkfish and flounder are also rare.

As a result, both Mr. Charles and Mr. Perrin have gradually built up informal networks of foragers and fishermen, hunters and trappers.

“It’s amazing how far we’ve come,” Mr. Charles said, adding that the network has expanded yearly. “People are now beating on the door with a lot of wild edibles, mushrooms, different things from the ocean.”

Raw scallops were on offer at Raymonds during a visit last year, straight from the ocean floor, where a diver had gathered them just hours before. These weren’t puny bay scallops, but big, golden Atlantic scallops thick as a stack of four poker chips.

“I have three or four friends who dive 60, 80 feet and handpick them,” Mr. Charles said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”

Mr. Charles serves them naked with just a squirt of lemon and a sprinkle of sea salt. And even that salt is made in-house. Peter Burt, a sous-chef, boils down highly saline seawater from a research lab that draws it from a pipe running into the denser deep of the sea. After reducing it to a glacier-white crust, Mr. Burt roasts some of the remaining salt over a juniper fire to give it a delicate smoky flavor.

One of Mr. Charles’s favorite creations is grilled whelk on a skewer of Labrador tea, a fragrant, medicinal plant used by indigenous peoples. The whelk is strewn with grated seal bresaola, made from seals killed by local hunters.

On that day, though, Mr. Charles was particularly excited about arctic hare; 30 had just been dropped off that morning. He takes out the loins, poaches them and then lightly caramelizes them over a fire of juniper or birch before wrapping them in house-cured bacon. He uses the rest of the hare to make stock, which he reduces to a sauce and finishes with toasted yeast or Labrador tea to give it “woodsy notes.”

He also serves breast of rock ptarmigan and breast of spruce grouse, roasted over an open fire and served together on a plate drizzled with wild partridgeberry coulis. It’s a surprising contrast: The ptarmigan is beef red and the grouse is chicken white. Both are full of flavor.

Mr. Charles even has a trapper who brings him beaver, which Ross Larkin, the chef de cuisine, cooks in a pouch and shows it to the flame before serving it beside its jus cupped in brussels sprouts leaves.

Moose, hare and beaver have a subtle difference in taste, but all are sublime. “These animals have similar diets — twigs and berries — so they have a natural clean flavor,” Mr. Charles said.

The plating and presentation at Raymonds is as impressive as the food. Mr. Charles and his team gather greenery and wood from the wild and combine it in creative ways on the table. The plates are from a local potter, Alexis Templeton.

Accompanying it all is a wine cellar stocked with Canada’s best vintages by Mr. Charles’s partner, Jeremy Bonia. Kim Cyr, the sommelier, explains and pairs the wine for diners with a refreshing lack of pretension — from a premeal sparkling Benjamin Bridge brut to a postprandial ice-wine by Domaine de Grand Pré.

“It’s all about creating a sense of place,” Mr. Charles said.