If you want to know just how much Saint John’s food scene has changed, ask Thane Mallory. A former resident of the New Brunswick city, Mallory now lives about an hour north in Gagetown, where he owns and operates Gulliver’s World Cafe, a favourite dining spot among people of the province. It’s not just the restaurants that have progressed, Mallory points out, but the palates of Saint John’s citizens as well. He often guesses where his patrons are from and recently has been surprised by the answers he has received.
“People from Saint John would want the meat and potatoes. That has been the case for years, decades. But if they were from Moncton, where there is a real French influence, they would order some of the more interesting things on the menu. Now, it’s different. I’ll ask people where they’re from and it will be the people from Saint John who are trying the more unusual dishes,” he says.
Moncton and the northern areas of the province are heavily influenced by the Acadian culture and Quebec’s gastronomy. Saint John’s history has been more tied to British flavours and it took some time to propel it forward. Mallory credits restaurateurs such as Jesse Vergen and Peter Stoddart of the Saint John Ale House for pushing the city’s scene in a direction that is more sensible, and oftentimes more sophisticated than it had been.
Vergen has been the kind of passionate, pioneering influence any city needs to spearhead its culinary movement. Calgary has done it with the likes of John Jackson and Connie DeSousa of Charcut, Marc Lepine in Ottawa pushed the nation’s capital into modernistic cuisine at Atelier, and Jeremy Charles of Raymonds in St. John’s was an ambassador for Newfoundland’s flavours before the province’s food reputation was transformed. Closer to New Brunswick, Michael Smith has become a magnet for foodies, attracting aficionados to Prince Edward Island and his Inn at Bay Fortune.
Although the cuisine at the Saint John Ale House is more elevated pub food than fine dining, Vergen is still very much in the mould of chefs like Smith and Charles, Atlantic Canadian stars who have championed their local food producers and generated community pride around food culture.
Vergen owns a farm himself and uses some of its produce in his recipes at the restaurant, including beets, heirloom tomatoes, micro-greens, sunchokes, and berries. He and his wife, Kim Osepchook, also educate children on sustainability, food waste reduction, and the importance of knowing where food originates. Their program, organized through Osepchook’s Axil Gardens, provides summer camps for kids and helps schools develop a nutrition-focused curriculum. Axil Gardens is among the grass-roots movements that has built a small but strong food-awareness circle.
Along with Saint John Ale House, here are a few other restaurants and experiences to put on your list when you check into this marvellous little city on the Bay of Fundy that ranks among the Vacay.ca 20 Best Places to Visit in Canada for 2020.
Port City Royal: Chef and owner Jakob Lutz is a former apprentice under Lepine at Atelier in the nation’s capital, and his creativity is on display at this restaurant that is replete with character. Built in the Trinity Royal Heritage Conservation Area, a 10-block district of historic architecture that has helped boost the city’s appeal for visitors, Port City Royal is a tiny stone-and-beam gathering spot with a short menu that allows Lutz to make the most of the local ingredients he collects. The plates can be enjoyed with excellent cocktails that add to the cosmopolitan appeal of the restaurant.
East Coast Bistro: Classic French flavours meet delicious Atlantic fare in this lovely space at the edge of the Trinity district. The chefs have worked at restaurants around the world and handle the ingredients with the subtlety fish and seafood demand. Start your meal with oysters from the Bay of Fundy and let your desires dictate the rest.
Picaroons General Store: The city’s craft-beer scene is thriving and Picaroons is one of the notable places to enjoy a pint. Visitors will find it especially novel because the brewery and dining room are housed in a revamped garage. Even the industrial, pull-up metal doors remain, adding a picturesque touch when they’re closed and allowing for refreshing bursts of fresh air in warmer months when they are rattled open. The beer is delicious and diverse, with a number of taps constantly rotating in new and seasonal creations.
Acadian Sturgeon Tour: While it’s natural to think of oysters and lobster as the cuisine to savour in New Brunswick, a Romanian immigrant and his family have created one of the finest and most outstanding food finds in the province. Cornel Ceapa and his wife, Dorina, started Acadian Sturgeon in 2005 with the idea to produce caviar sourced from fish in the Atlantic Ocean and Saint John River. The Ceapas offer tours of the facility and even a “sturgeon safari” in July where guests can help catch the fish and harvest the eggs. The caviar is delectable and the process is educational and built on a concern for maintaining the sturgeon species.
Vacay.ca Managing Editor Adrian Brijbassi was a visiting journalist of the Eating Harvest Symposium, as well as Destination New Brunswick, Visit Saint John, and Fredericton Tourism. This article is the second in an ongoing series on tourism in the province.