A foodie’s worst nightmare descended upon me.
Covid, or one of its bad-ass alphanumeric sub-variant cousins, stole my appetite.
However, these viruses lacked the virility to infect my memory of food. Though maybe they were responsible for my mind’s compulsive drifting, over and over, to lunch at Mallard Cottage in Quid Vidi, St. John’s.
The lunch that so enthralled me began with a long walk from Signal Hill through the forested pathway along Quid Vidi Lake. The June air was fresh with the bracing fragrance of newly green leaves. A yellow warbler darted along with us. Wildflowers bloomed along the gravel trail. And then, the fishing hamlet and its picturesque old homes. Even though I’d been to Mallard Cottage before and knew what it looked like, the setting is so engaging, we walked right by it.
Mallard Cottage is a special place. It’s on a very short list of the earliest known houses in Canada and might be the oldest structurally unchanged cottage in North America. Some say it dates back to 1750; others say the first half of the 19th century. Parks Canada has declared it a National Historic Site.
The house was owned and lived in uninterruptedly by the Mallard family for many generations, going back to a registry of deeds in 1803. Fishers and farmers, the first Mallards came from Ireland, bringing farm animals and raising sheep, poultry, swine and dairy. In the 1970s, you could still buy fresh unpasteurized milk from Agnes Mallard, who grazed a cow or two by Quidi Vidi Lake and worked as a chambermaid at Hotel Newfoundland, walking to work every day. In 1985 Mallard Cottage was purchased by Peg Magnone. She, and later her granddaughter, operated an antique store out of the premises. When he was growing up, Todd Perrin, one of the three owners of Mallard Cottage today, could see this landmark house from his family’s front door.
Todd went to cooking school in Prince Edward Island, then worked at restaurants across the country and around the world, including a Swiss resort. Returning to his roots in Newfoundland, Todd became a local celebrity when he appeared on Top Chef Canada. In 2011, Todd, his wife Kim Doyle and sommelier Stephen Lee bought Mallard Cottage, then spent two years restoring the village treasure to a 65-seat, home-away-from-home restaurant.
The original living room with its low ceilings is what you’d imagine a cozy outport home’s front room to look like while the bright back room, where we sat at the bar, has a soaring ceiling spanned by exposed beams and reminds you of a hunting lodge.
The décor is warm, rustic and homey. Todd made the wooden tables himself. Craft beer is poured from taps made with deer antlers for handles. Jars of hand-labelled pickled mushrooms jostle for space overhead. The back room is large enough to accommodate Todd’s musician friends who often provide Sunday entertainment.
The menu focuses on local wild game and seafood and garden-fresh produce. It changes daily and is never printed, just listed on chalkboards. Todd likes cooking local seafood: cod, halibut, whelks, snow crab, surf clams, mussels, scallops, shrimp, turbot, sea urchin, lobster, salmon and trout. And wild game: partridge, spruce grouse, ptarmigan, moose, caribou, bear, rabbit and hare. And foraged wild edibles: beach peas, Scotch lovage, partridge berries, cloudberries, morels, chanterelles, oyster plants and caribou moss.
And here’s something else—Todd, and restaurant chefs throughout Newfoundland, can buy wild game and seafood directly from local hunters and fisherfolk and put it on their menus—the only province in Canada where this is allowed. Unlike, for example, in BC, where halibut caught in Haida Gwaii must got to Prince Rupert for inspection before it returns, days later, to be served in a Haida Gwaii restaurant!
“When cod fishing season is underway, we’re more able to get fish that was caught within a few hours, certainly up to a day, because we’re close to the source,” Todd explained in a review of Mallard Cottage, saying that
For me, when you’re in Newfoundland and Labrador, cod fish is really the reason we’re all here. A good fresh piece of cod is a beautiful thing.
And oh, was it special the day we were there.
Cod chop, hung for seven days like a good steak. Firm and meaty, it reminded us of grilled fish heads we ate in the fishing town of Getaria in Galicia, Spain. Only better. The flesh dense, the pure flavour of cod intensified. A shared serving was generous enough to satisfy us.
Don’t make the mistake we did and show up without a reservation. It was pure luck that we got two seats at the bar. Which is where we recommend you sit for a view of the kitchen and local knowledge from the excellent staff. Like the recommendation to have the curried parsnip soup while we waited for the cod. And a glass of orange wine from La Mancha to accompany the fish. And where to go for a coffee later in the afternoon back in St. John’s.
People travel to Newfoundland for many reasons: incredible scenery, whale-watching, giant icebergs, local music, geological history, friendly people and, increasingly, the local food. (Anthony Bourdain visited Mallard Cottage when filming “Parts Unknown.’)
As Todd said,
There’s not many places in the country where you can eat in essentially a national historic site which is an old Irish vernacular cottage, which is on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean, which is in a quaint little fishing village with fishing boats and stages on the craggy cliffs, but you’re basically in the heart of downtown St. John’s.
“Why foodies are flocking to Newfoundland and Labrador.” Canada for Glowing Hearts.
The Canadian Press. November 13, 2018.“Newfoundland’s booming culinary scene under the spotlight since Bourdain visit.”
Siddell, Amanda. “Todd Perrin of Mallard Cottage in St. John’s: Maverick Chefs 2018.” Quench Magazine. October 10, 2018.
“Q&A with Chef Todd Perrin.” The Yellow Table. November 9, 2011.