St. John’s, NL
8 out of 10
Note: This restaurant has closed…see below.
This marks my first St. John’s restaurant review! The city is a burgeoning culinary scene of both fine-dining and ethnic eateries. Where once food quality topped out at fi’ and chi’ (nothing wrong with it), now the city boasts a handful of prestigious restaurants that any food snob would enjoy, as well as your neighbour, his sisters, their second cousin twice-removed, her four kids, and their Poppie.
Now there are the city’s newcomers – locales like Sun Sushi, International Flavours, A Taste of Thai, India Gate, City Lights, Asian Taste, and the Multi-Ethnic Eatery in the Torbay Road mall that are all helping make St. John’s a global city. What’s the attraction to these new restaurants? They’re exotic and affordable. As much as Newfoundlanders are skeptical of raw fish, there were enough adventurous folk and returnees from Toronto to convince the city that Sun Sushi, the original St. John’s sushi spot, was worth a try. Years later they’re still going strong.
The newest addition to the downtown restaurant scene is Gourmet Garden. It’s what most would call Indian, but the owner, Iftikhar Ahmed, is actually Pakistani and while the food in both India and Pakistan is different from region to region, what most people think of as ‘Indian’ food makes up the majority of the menu. A few big differences include the abundance of kebabs (skewers of meats like beef, lamb and chicken), which constitute the most popular food business in Pakistan. Newfoundland has fish and chips places, Pakistan has kebab houses. We have Ches’s, they have Al-Hamra Restaurant. Now we have Gourmet Garden, so I maybe don’t need to justify a trans-Atlantic journey.
No kebab is created equal, though, in the same way you’d argue over your favourite chips. Pakistani kebabs are also closely related to Afghan kebabs, the country’s neighbour to the west, so a good way to get accustomed to these snacks would be to try the ones at Goumet Garden and their neighbour to the east, the Afghan Restaurant, to compare their versions. Despite the proximity of the countries, the two countries’ food, and the two St. John’s restaurants, are very different, yet delicious experiences.
Be warned, the kebabs don’t come in the ridiculously reasonably priced lunch buffet ($11, tax included), so you’ll want to make a few trips. You probably won’t mind. The buffet is a great introduction to the restaurant and the cuisine, so before word gets out on how great this place is you might even get the whole place to yourself. A lunch buffet where you’re the only guests could be a recipe for disaster – visions of un-eaten, lukewarm, over-cooked meat and vegetables sitting in chafing dishes full of oil. Not so here. Since the amount of guests was expected to be low, only a handful of dishes were served in the buffet itself. Extra complimentary items that couldn’t sit and wait to be eaten, like home-made samosas, a beautifully rich stewed lamb dish, coriander, tomato and onion chutney, and naan came directly to the table without a pit stop in the buffet.
The options in the buffet itself included a beef biryani, a chicken leg biryani, a spiced potato dish with red peppers, spinach and carrots, a soup-like lentil dal, salad with lettuce, tomatoes, croutons and cheese (I don’t think Caesar ever quite made it to Pakistan…but England did), and a simple boiled and fried potato dish in a spice blend masala. My only complaint was that the beef and chicken in the two biryanis was dry. Biryani is a very hard dish to make and the two at Gourmet Garden would have been great if they hadn’t been waiting for customers to arrive, which was proven to me on a return visit for dinner where the seafood biryani was incredible. Biryani takes an age to make and boasts a list of ingredients longer than the grocery list you take to Sobeys on a given Saturday. It’s a baked rice dish often served at celebrations, but it can be a meal in itself. Saffron is soaked in warm milk to give the rice its traditional orange flavour, though it can be replaced by food colouring. I’m pretty sure this version used saffron, and they definitely didn’t skimp on meat. For all the spices in the dish, it actually tastes very mild, so if you’re not a fan of spicy food and what you would normally think of as Indian and Pakistani cuisine, you’ll probably like this dish when it’s made-to-order, or fresh into the buffet.
As it was, the buffet biryanis just couldn’t compare to the incredibly tender and fresh lamb brought hot to the table (pictured above). The fresh spices of fennel and mustard seeds made for succulent, savoury mouthfuls to highlight the lamb’s natural flavour.
When the samosas came, I knew this as going to be a good meal. They were made of a surprisingly thin hand-shaped dough surrounding a very mild potato filling. With the salty cilantro chutney, the flavour popped out of its dough comfort zone. The dough itself was also refreshingly crisp since it hadn’t been left cooking in the hot oil too long.
The dal dish and the potato dish with red peppers in the buffet competed for top vegetarian marks. The dal was a mildly sweet, nicely chewy, and very salty blend of mouth-calming comfort after a bit too much of the cilantro chutney. The potato tasted like cheese, so I suspect creamy yogurt was added, like it is in biryani, to coat and thicken the dish. It’s a small point, but care was put into how every potato was chopped. This was not a quickly-thrown together side dish. There was precision and expertise involved. The chef later explained to me that she used organic yogurt and fresh spices, which I believed since I tasted every whole cumin, fennel and coriander seed in the dish. The flavour did not come from pre-ground spices or commercial spice blends, and obvious effort was made to make the dish as fresh as possible. I’m also very happy to say that none of the buffet items had my nightmare pools of grease. That’s not to say that this is low-fat food, but the health benefits of the spices (turmeric, cinnamon, and fennel for digestion, ginger for the immune system) were not out-balanced by the amount of oil, as is often the case with South Asian restaurants.
There was a lot of potato, and there was a lot of rice. Add the naan and more potato in the samosas, and this was a starch-heavy meal. That’s not to say that there was a lack of meat. Pakistani cuisine actually involves more meat than most Indian cuisine (perhaps because of the abundance of kebabs and fewer dietary restrictions?), and with the additional lamb dish and dal, there was more than enough protein on the plate. It would have been a struggle to go back for seconds. I certainly felt like I had gotten my money’s worth, even though the buffet was relatively small. Only two other dishes would complement the buffet – another vegetable dish without potato, and a yogurt dish to cool the palate. Once lunch business picks up expect the buffet to grow, but if the lamb is any indication, dinner and a la carte ordering will be your best bets. Also, at dinner, the chef makes fresh naan bread, and you won’t be disappointed that gulab jamun (deep-fried dough soaked in sweet syrup) and home-made, honey-drenched baklawa doesn’t come with the buffet.
St. John’s is lucky, indeed. So often a new Pakistani take-away in Toronto’s Little India sells the cheapest food it can to make a profit. Vietnamese places in Montreal mostly will use MSG to flavour the food instead of relying on fresh spices and home-made broths. The city sets the standard and new restaurants need to adapt to compete in a tough marketplace. St. John’s may not have the variety of larger cities, but what we have is quality. Gourmet Garden International Cuisine is a great example of why we can be proud of this city.
Expect to Pay: $12.50 lunch buffet, including tax and tip; $15-$25 for supper
Hours: 11am-10pm daily, lunch buffet everyday