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The beef tartare at Mallard Cottage is accompanied by crunchy homemade chips, a clever alternative to everyday bread.
All the noodles at Mallard Cottage are homemade, like those used in this lobster linguine.
Mallard’s cod cheeks with signature smoky aioli are a mainstay on the menu.
The roasted pork loin with garlic scape chimichurri.
The chocolate pudding at Mallard Cottage is an elevated classic.
The vibe these days in the Quidi Vidi Village restaurant is anything but the 'new normal’
Mallard Cottage has made some big changes. Like all St. John’s establishments, the Quidi Vidi restaurant has made alterations post-COVID-19 lockdown
The changes to the physical space are evident. There are fewer tables in the dining room — which now has a beautiful burgundy banquette — and those remaining are well-distanced and divided with wooden panels that maintain the iconic rustic vibe.
But the other transformation is one you feel. When I was seated for dinner with my husband one Thursday, I sensed the optimism. A sense of happiness emanates from the staff at Mallard now; they are happy to be back at work, happy for the new normal, happy for a living wage.
In early July, chef-owner Todd Perrin announced Mallard Cottage was shifting to a no-tipping model to guarantee a living wage for its staff, and a consistent income. This decision has garnered a mixed response. But let’s get a few things straight: a living wage doesn’t mean the staff get a couple of bucks extra an hour, or that the restaurant raises prices and pockets the profits.
The staff now make a higher wage to live a higher quality of life. I spoke to a few during my visit who disclosed a significant pay increase (almost double) and in a CBC Radio interview, Perrin said the starting salary for an employee at Mallard was in the $40,000 to $50,000 a year range.
Traditionally, tipping in restaurants has led to a major wage gap between front of house and back of house, with servers kicking back a small portion of their tips to the cooks and dishwashers. There are also studies indicating the amount of tip is weakly connected to the service provided, and that tipping makes servers more vulnerable to sexual harassment. Perrin aims to move away from all this.
Mallard Cottage is the first establishment in the province to enter the no-tipping sphere, but it’s not unheard of in Canada. Chef Michael Smith’s Inn at Bay Fortune in P.E.I. includes gratuity in its FireWorks Feast pricing, while Hemant Bhagwani, who operates restaurants under the Amaya Group in Toronto, did away with tipping in 2015.
As I perused the menu sipping a French 75 ($12) that evening, the prices didn’t feel much higher (upon later comparison with pre-COVID-19 menus, some dishes cost $5 more, while others cost less). My eyes landed on the set menu ($125) which includes a choice of appetizer, a pasta, a protein, two sides, dessert and an aperitif and I asked our server Simone for clarification. She indicated the menu was meant for one person but we felt like it was a lot of food, so she suggested supplementing the set menu with a few extra dishes and sharing it, which is what we did.
The amuse bouche came first. This particular evening it was a hefty slice of headcheese (courtesy of sister restaurant Waterwest) with grainy mustard and mushrooms. Simone also brought bread to the table, which used to cost $1.50 a person and now comes with the meal — a fluffy, chewy sourdough with a massive dollop (I’m talking mountainous) of whipped pesto butter. A great start.
Next came the corn-fried cod cheeks with aioli ($23) overflowing the oval Le Creuset baking dish Mallard has become known for. Normally I find cod cheeks either slimy or tough, but these supple cheeks were tender and toothsome. My dining companion’s pint of Ninepenney milkshake IPA ($9) was perfectly paired.
Our other appetizer, the beef tartare ($24), was symmetrically diced and tossed with pickled mustard seeds and came with housemade potato chips — all you want in a crunchy vessel.
The pasta course (because who doesn’t want a pasta course?) was just as bountiful. The penne with ice shrimp ($21) didn’t look like much but the silky Alfredo sauce was perfection. It feels like there isn’t such a thing as a light Alfredo — which in its essence is heavy and creamy — but there we were devouring it.
The accompanying lobster linguine ($27) made with housemade noodles and tossed with oil, garlic, chili and roe, was just as impressive.
While we were waiting for our main to arrive, I overheard sommelier Scott explaining a wine to another table as “a wine for wine extremists” and I asked him to bring me a glass right away. The Tarima Hill red ($17) hailing from the Alicante region in Spain was intense and full-bodied. The rest of the wine menu at Mallard is equally as exciting, with Canadian wines and unique vintages from around the world. My dining companion opted for a QV partridgeberry pint ($9).
Our main protein was the pork loin ($25), with a garlic scape chimichurri that verged on too garlicky in the best kind of way, and was accompanied by confit potatoes with radish top pistou ($12) and white turnips with bacon and shallots ($14), both of which were ample portions and we ended up taking some home.
For dessert, we chose chocolate pudding ($15) and joked with Simone that the name undersells this dish. Part ganache, part mousse, part wonderful and served with whipped cream and fresh fruit, it was the perfect finish to a massive meal. I sipped on an Amaro Montenegro as my chosen digestif, but Mallard’s renowned Irish coffee was also on offer.
Homemade fudge in lieu of mints came with the bill, and it felt refreshing not to have to finagle with the tip (for the record, Simone’s exemplary service deserved a big one).
Despite the “new normal,” Mallard’s quintessential vibe remains. The food is still layered with Newfoundland influence with international flavours, the lighting and the music are still just right. But now a happier staff is willing to go the extra mile during an extremely trying time for the restaurant industry. A lovely place to enjoy a meal.
Gabby Peyton is a freelance food writer based in St. John’s. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @gabbypeytoneats.