There's never been a perfect moment to open a restaurant.
Margins have always been thin. Food costs are up these days, and fuel costs are soaring. Toss in the impact of a pandemic and a not-yet-recovered tourism industry, and operating a restaurant seems riskier than ever.
Still, if you buy into the idea that the opening and closing of restaurants is a way to gauge the economy's temperature, then Celeste Mah and Ross Larkin are up to something that feels like an optimistic sign of things to come.
Mah, who was named Canada's top pastry chef in 2019, and Larkin, who won the Top Chef Canada competition while he was chef de cuisine at Raymonds in St. John's, are bringing the food philosophy they developed at Raymonds but will be approaching service in a new way.
Portage, which the couple hope to open by mid-June, is on 128 Water St., across the street from Raymonds, which has been shuttered since January 2021. The couple did pop-ups and pitched in at Merchant Tavern, and are working with the partners behind Raymonds to open Portage.
With the decor in place, the spot looks different from its previous lives.
"We were told that this building used to be like the Studio 54 of St. John's," said Mah, referring to the legendary disco-fuelled nightclub Club Max, which was popular in the early '80s.
"People dressed up and brought the glamour; there was a spiral staircase. Then it was two or three different strip clubs, then a boutique hotel. Now it will be our restaurant. We want it to feel cozy with these green tiles, wooden bars and soft pools of light," said Mah.
Same quality, different approach
While the quality and calibre of the food will be similar to Raymonds, the dishes themselves will be served family-style, and the restaurant will have a casual, calm feeling.
"No tablecloths. Less formal." Larkin said. "The menu will be organized a little differently. We divide it into categories like snacks, seafood, proteins, veggies. You can order dishes family-style, which will be more significant portions, or order them as sides."
The idea is to have a social experience as much as a good meal.
"It's how we like to eat, share, drink and enjoy conversations with our friends. That's the approach," Larkin said.
Local, local, local
Mah and Larkin have always prioritized buying from local farmers and purveyors, and that food philosophy will come with them to Portage.
"We'll highlight local produce and products as much as we can. We'll have a beet dish on the menu that's done in the style of Turkish eggs, served with brown butter chile, whipped ricotta and local greens," Mah said.
"We're excited to work with food producers like Seed to Spoon and highlight our local produce. There are some fantastic farmers here."
The new, smaller space will give Larkin and Mah more freedom to buy and support local farms.
"When I was the chef at Raymonds, I would call someone and say, 'Hey, can I have X amount of this product?" And if they couldn't provide enough for the menu, I wouldn't be able to buy it,'" he said.
"At Portage, I'll have the freedom to change the menu frequently and buy small amounts. I'll be able to cross things off the menu if we're out. That's going to feel good."
Nothing should go to waste
It's tough to talk about a new restaurant without mentioning rising food costs and the concerns around food security in the province.
Adapting the menu and introducing customers to new ideas is part of the plan.
"Things like oil and takeout containers have skyrocketed" in price, Larkin said. "It's tough, and prices are generally much higher. We're trying to get around that by using all parts of the product or protein."
Mah points out that they've always been good at that.
"We've always tried to waste as little as possible. I make sugars out of vegetable skins; Ross uses every part of the fish, not just the prime cuts. Cheeks get served, and bones get turned into the broth. We're all about that," she said.
"We want customers to eat the bycatch, to try out new things. We want to make our menus approachable and creative so that people will enjoy new foods — that's our great challenge."
Taking care of the staff
Restaurants are known for brutal hours: long days, late nights. Balance and avoiding burnout will be one of the hallmarks of Portage.
That means a manageable schedule for staff.
"My days of eating lunch on a milk crate in an alley are over," Larkin said.
"We want the people working with us to enjoy a family meal together each day. We're planning on being open Thursday to Monday for happy hour and dinner; that gives us time to prep and gives our staff a work-life balance."
Larkin said home and family time will be important for everyone.
"I have a life. Other people do too. We don't want to work people 12 to 16 hours when we know that we can achieve great things on a more regular schedule," he said.
Desserts and taking care of guests
Mah's desserts are known for balancing qualities like precision and polish with wild inventiveness.
She loves to surprise her guests and regularly uses locally foraged ingredients like black currant leaves, tea berries and lovage.
I want people to come into the door of Portage and feel cared for. Let us take care of you. - Celeste Mah
"I love using savoury ingredients in pastries. I love including little twists in my desserts, but lately, I've been really into the comfort of rice pudding, so I'm hoping to create a rhubarb rice pudding," she said.
"That passed the test last week when Ross's son loved it. I was like, 'Well, that's going on the menu.'"
Once Portage gets established, both Mah and Larkin hope to host an occasional Sunday Superette.
"We'd love to be able to sell desserts to take home, [as well as] jams and pickled things," she said.
"During the pandemic, you could take home meal kits from Merchant with wine to go with it. I'd love to offer that service to customers," she said.
"Basically, I want people to come into the door of Portage and feel cared for. Let us take care of you."