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Fork, Witless Bay, Newfoundland
My meal at Fork may well list among my favourites of 2018. Highly recommend. -JRS
To set the scene: Witless Bay, Newfoundland. A small, scenic community situated some thirty-five kilometres south of St. John’s. Here you find Fork, a squatter of sorts, or permanent pop-up: The restaurant resides in the Irish Loop Coffee House, a cafe situated in a small, house-like structure right next to the main road. The space is comfortable, homey, with a slight 50s diner vibe (vinyl chairs of various colours; Formica tables). Essentially, what you’d expect of small cafe, a small town.
The highlight here: the view, framed in floor-to-ceiling windows. By day, it makes for quintessential Newfoundlandia—a curve of land and rock, a vast scoop of sky, a sweep of endless sea. As light fails and the view fades, you stare instead at an immense blackness, punctuated at the periphery by points of yellow and white light that waver in the dark water. This, combined with the low light in the cafe, renders the setting all the more special, cosy.
Turning to the menu, it comprises two sections, some ten or so small plates ($10-18) and four large ones (about $30). Stylistically, the food runs a gamut, from conventional Newfoundland cooking (pan-fried cod, salt beef, molasses baked beans) to ingredients and techniques very unfamiliar to the outport community (gochujang, pico de gallo, ceviche). What ties this diverse menu together? A standard for well-prepared, properly seasoned food. On the night, everything I tasted, almost without exception, was delicious.
Atop the list of dishes lies an optional bread course. which you must order. “Nan’s bread”, Fork calls it—because that’s what it is, the homemade bread of my grandmother’s generation, which, in a time before whole wheat or an obsession with carbohydrates or gluten, served a very practical purpose and was served with every meal. (My mother tells me that her mother baked bread every morning, which probably explains why Nan could strangle you with a hug).
Most recipes for old-school Newfoundland bread use milk in some form (e.g. scalded, tinned), which lends the bread a typical sweetness. It is a very basic, functional, yet delicious bread and Fork’s version is no different—though, in all honesty, it’s probably better than Nan’s (yours or mine); served warm, with a great, flavourful crust—the perfect vessel for the whipped, salted butter that comes with. Delightful. $3 (!).
PEI oysters Fork serves with a warm gochujang butter and marinated cabbage (think kimchi; gochujang is a Korean chilli paste made partly from fermented ingredients). How good were these? By way of example, my dining companion does not care for shellfish and, when I offered them the third and final oyster in a token gesture of generosity, they quickly took it, laughing at the look of disbelief and disappointment that flooded my face. Delicious. Three for $10.
The chowder with a clamato broth, root vegetables, cod, mussels and ice shrimp: Handily the best fish soup I’ve tasted in years. More cioppino (an Italian-American soup that originated in San Francisco) than conventional chowder, this dish had a beautiful tomato-based broth, balanced and bright, slightly spicy, masterfully seasoned. Exceptional—clearly this kitchen can cook. $16.
Chanterelles came on toasted bread with creamed spinach, sunny-side up egg and parmesan. Things on toast rarely excite or interest this writer—it’s toast, people—but Fork’s proved delicious, full of flavour, with the nutty mushrooms, a richly seasoned sauce from the spinach, and good bread. Delectable. $16.
Other great small plates: cod tongue tacos (cod tongues, a Newfoundland delicacy, are meaty and slightly gelatinous in texture; the delightful stuff of my youth); tuna poke with avocado and pineapple; cauliflower and chickpea korma—a stunningly wonderful dish, deep with rich and complex flavours. Each plate cost $16 or $18.
Only one course did not work, the scallop ceviche with grapefruit, cucumber, apple, radish and jalapeno. The shellfish were fresh enough, sweet enough, but the seasoning fell flat—perhaps grapefruit made for a poor choice of citrus, bitterness being the dominant taste. $16.
Desserts did not disappoint, however: of the two I tasted, my favourite was the beer brownie with banana ice cream: a slightly warm brownie, dense and moist, countered by the cold, creamy ice cream, light in banana flavour (would have been easy to overdo it here), everything carefully sweetened, and properly—i.e. not excessively—portioned. Do not skip dessert. $8.
With respect to drinks, Fork serves a few wines by the glass or bottle, several beers and some very excellent cocktails. As for the total price of your visit, depending on how much you order—and I recommend you order as much as possible—you can expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $75 per person, before tax and tip.
Fork is no backed-by-a-billionaire business, as is probably clear. What they lack in resources, however, they make up for in passion and talent. The name says it all, really: none too fancy, focussed on food and fundamentals: product, technique, seasoning. In short, proper cooking.
In a post on social media following my meal at Fork, I mused that the minds behind EnRoute Magazine’s Best New Restaurants missed a spot on this years’ longlist; a few weeks on, I stand by that claim. In the opinion of this writer, Fork merits a place on the growing roster of stand-out Newfoundland restaurants (Raymonds, Mallard Cottage, Merchant Tavern etc.) and I hope they attract the attention they deserve.