Restaurant Portrait: The Story of Mallard Cottage

"All of our protein and vegetables are top-quality, fresh food items, from right here in Newfoundland."

The perk of Mallard Cottage co-owner Stephen Lee being a sommelier, is that he thinks about food the way European winemakers think of wine: let great grapes speak for themselves on the palate. Nothing flashy and unnecessary is added to old-world wines, and Lee translates this mantra into a food philosophy for Mallard Cottage.

“We let the core flavours of our dishes and drinks speak for themselves.” This wine analogy is built into every aspect of the Mallard Cottage dining experience, from the naturally stunning decor, to the mouth-watering menu.

The awe of this restaurant begins before you’re even given a menu. Walking into Mallard Cottage feels like walking into another era, another time, a better time, where careful craftsmanship matters in both the food and the building itself.

Their building is in fact a National Historic Site; it’s one of the oldest residential homes in Canada. While regulations only required them to maintain the look of the building’s exterior, Lee and co-owner Todd Perrin went the extra mile and spent two years meticulously fashioning the interior of the restaurant, taking out its boards one at a time, refinishing them, and re-installing them.

“It was a painstaking amount of work, and money, and time, but we weren’t going to buy and run a place that’s this unique, and has this much historical significance in the province and country, without doing it properly.”

For Stephen and Todd, going the route of standard contractors simply wouldn’t do. They hired a fourth-generation boat-building family from Trinity to take their time and do it with care. It was the same family responsible for the restoration and general look of Trinity itself. It drastically increased their set-up time and cost, but as Stephen says laughing, “I’m only going to do something foolish like this once. So I did it right.”

Lee’s business partner is chef Todd Perrin, whom many will recognize from his time on The Food Network’s Top Chef Canada in 2011. “The constant in our operation is the strength of the partnership and shared vision Todd and I have. We haven’t even so much as had an argument.”

The amount of care they put into restoring the building set the tone for the amount of care they would put into their food menu.

“There hasn’t been a piece of beef or chicken served here. It’s not because we don’t want to serve beef or chicken; it’s because we’re only going to serve things when we know the product is fresh and first-rate. If we can get a nice piece of well-marbled beef, then we’ll serve it. But all of our protein and vegetables are top-quality, fresh food items, from right here in Newfoundland.”

He says the only thing they serve that isn’t entirely local is the bacon, but that’s cured in house. “Everything else is Newfoundland grown and hunted,” he promises.

Newfoundland is one of two Canadian provinces allowed to serve wild game, and Mallard Cottage is taking full advantage of that. “We can serve rabbit and duck. My buddy can come in with a moose he just caught, and I can buy that, fresh, and serve it here. We have a dozen people out there hunting things and bringing it in, which is why the menu changes all the time,” he laughs, “We don’t know who’s going to get lucky.”

The ever-changing, always fresh menu is part of the restaurant’s appeal. As Lee says, “The only thing that’s constant about our menu is that it’s not constant. Except,” he says, “Our ‘meat and eggs’ brunch option. We’re making our own pork belly bacon, we’re making our own peameal bacon, we’re making our own sausages. How
do we make people choose between those?” So they don’t: when you order “meat and eggs” at Mallard Cottage, you get all three.

As mentioned, the menu at Mallard Cottage is based on traditional local foods. It’s all local game, local berries, local vegetables, foods that expose the terroir – a wine term Lee applies to food – of our province. Stephen speaks of a recent awakening to what’s around us.

“The broader food culture movement, here and everywhere, has been to eat local, eat farm-to-table.” This sustainable model is something Mallard Cottage wholeheartedly adheres to.

“Newfoundlanders were organic farmers before organic farming was a thing. We knew that putting some pig dung in our garden meant that potatoes would grow better next year. It’s just coming back full circle. That kind of lifestyle is just attractive now.”

Lee and Perrin’s vision for Mallard Cottage extends beyond the food to the dining experience itself. They wanted to “create a place where everybody could come and feel comfortable, because the typical fine dining environment isn’t for everybody, but, access to good food should be.”

Mallard Cottage offers mid-range pricing for first-rate food. “We have a cake table, for example. It’s all-you-can-eat cake and coffee for eight bucks. We’re breaking down the barriers that good food and wine needs to be something you get into a suit and tie to enjoy.”

Walking into the place certainly feels like walking into an old friend’s living room. The dining experience is so cozy it’s a wonder they can get people to leave their tables after a meal.

To give a glimpse into their menu, Lee’s favourite dish they’ve served is the cassoulet. “It’s basically a big hearty bowl of white bean stew with duck confit and bacon and sausage. Think pure flavour and comfort, and the guys here do a great job of it.”

Lee’s sentiment is that a lot of chefs put too much of their personality into their dishes, which overwhelms the underlying base flavours.

“Our kitchen staff aims to let the food speak for itself. Why douse things in sauces or over-season, or serve drinks with fifteen ingredients, just to sound wild, when it’s in fact doing a disservice to the food on the plate? It’s why old-world wines are my favourite, they don’t mess around with the product. They let the terroir and the grapes shine, without dumping in oak chips, or something, for dramatic appeal.”

They apply this food philosphy to their appealing drink menu as well. Even the marshmallows in the hot chocolate are made in the kitchen. They make their own in-house Irish coffee out of chocolate melted with cream, whiskey, a ¼ pint of steamed Guinness, and other delicious ingredients.

“Our mimosa goes over huge too. We juice carrots from Lester’s Farm and add sparkling wine, which gives this really beautiful, vibrant orange colour that turns heads as staff bring them to people’s tables. Our cocktails
need to carry the same philosophy as our food.”

You need to experience this place for yourself to really appreciate what a gift it is to food culture in St. John’s. And it’s certainly the place to be Sunday afternoons. In addition to the best food in town, some of the best musicians in town sit at a table playing live music, in between sips of coffee and bites of baked goods.

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