What Is Real and What Is Shtick?

Saint John, New Brunswick

I could relate to most of Maine, but once I reached Machias, way up in the Down East—where stews are soups, stew/soups consist of magical thin milk, and strawberry pie is deliciousness from another galaxy—I started feeling very off the map. But yet more strangeness awaited me as I continued northward.

Let me fill you in on the rest of my night. I’ve been terrified of Canadian immigration officers ever since I went to jazz camp up north as a kid and told the immigration guy I needed a student visa. He smirked and said, “Well, maybe we won’t be giving you one!” Then he pulled me into a back room, where he told me jazz musicians do lots of drugs and I wasn’t going to be doing lots of drugs, was I? It was all a bit much at my tender age, and even now I get nervous crossing the Canadian border. And when I get nervous, I get forgetful. So I forgot to tell last night’s border guy about the rum. And believe me, you don’t want to forget to tell them about the rum.

I’d bought two bottles of Pampero Añejo Venezuelan rum at the New Hampshire State Liquor Store for the unbelievably low price of $22/bottle and promptly forgot about them. So when asked if I had any liquor (no inquiries on drugs this time), I did remember the bottle of bourbon in the trunk. I declared it … and was told to pull over. I was grilled by a manager who went out to inspect my trunk. As he lifted the hatch, right smack on top of everything were my bottles of beloved Venezuelan rum.

My choice: Pay $60 or spill it. And that’s how I came to share a small restroom with a large Canadian official while I morosely poured caramel-hued ambrosia down a very happy sink.

Then it was a late-night drive through New Brunswick to Saint John, which I knew nothing at all about. It was too dark to see anything, which enhanced my disorientation. Was I heading from weird into weirder? Or would this unknown eastern part of Canada feel like … Canada?

The good thing is that I was done with that Seafood Shacks book (see report #34), which doesn’t, thank God, cover Canada. Everywhere I’d gone in New England, every remote and unlikely find I’d found, turned out to be in the book. By the end, it was causing me such angst that I slid it out of sight under my car’s passenger seat. Now that I’m in Canada, the damned book shall vex me no more.

I woke up in Saint John, which turned out to be a small, wind-swept, deserted city. It was very post-apocalyptic, very Twilight Zone. There were buildings, restaurants, parking lots, etc., but I felt as if I were on the steppes of Mongolia.

My cell phone won’t work up here, so I headed to a mall in the suburbs to pick up a cheap backup unit. And there I found a surprise. Hear all about it in this podcast: MP3.

Upon returning to Saint John, I recorded a terrifying soundscape. If you thought I was exaggerating about the eerie desolation of the place, listen to this podcast MP3.

But enough travel repartee. Let’s do food.

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At Reggie’s (26 Germain Street, Saint John, New Brunswick; 506-657-6270), a gruff local legend, I was served an ingenuously terrific breakfast, including extraordinarily careful toast. The charming homemade corned beef hash was a textural wonder, and it came with some campfire-ish beans, which only heightened the sensation that I was at the western extreme of the continent rather than the eastern.

Below is a view up the street from Reggie’s. It’s highly unusual to spot two people and a car on the street all at once, but all three quickly vanished. And even in the photo, it’s impossible to focus one’s attention on them. They’re not fully there. They are wraiths.

Then I headed down to the seafront to try to track down a good place for lunch. I didn’t know what to make of this place:

It looks so very salty, no? My New York skepticism got the best of me. Such a stylized joint down by the water had to be posing, right?—carefully manufactured to look scruffy and pull in tourists from the nearby cruise-ship port.

This existential dilemma often arises when I’m far from home: It’s hard to distinguish between shticky and real deal while on unfamiliar turf. I recall once seeing a cowboy in a Dunkin’ Donuts in New Mexico and rolling my eyes at his pretentious getup. Get a load of Mr. Cowboy! But no, he actually was a cowboy. We postmodern urbanites tend to construe all genre as contrivance.

Even now, I’m still not sure whether Steamers Lobster Co. (110 Water Street, Saint John, New Brunswick; 506-648-2325) was legit. The name alone raises grave suspicions. But a small group of apparently real fishermen were hanging out there. And the lobster was top-notch, which is all that counts. It was no great bargain at $40 (including a beer), though.

I asked my waiter for a recommendation for dinner, and she suggested, with great enthusiasm, Church Street Steakhouse (10 Church Street, Saint John, New Brunswick; 506-648-2373), which I later found out is run by the same owners. I’d been taken in by these wiley big-city hustlers.

But not really. The steakhouse was a pleasure. It’s in the bricky, artsy center of downtown, which is atmospheric without being at all obnoxious. Here’s the edge of that area at sunset, looking down toward the water.

Church Street Steakhouse is intimate and rakish without trying hard. It was, like everything else in Saint John, deserted. One waiter worked the whole floor plus the bar. He looked about 22 and was outgoing and helpful. Sweet potato fries (which he recommended) were benchmark great … perfectly fried in very clean oil at the perfect temperature. So light, crisp, and oilless, and the very essence of the tuber.

My steak was a fine-not-great cut, well butchered and grilled, and came with a generous portion of sautéed onions. Garlic mashed potatoes were unique. They’re made by scooping out baked potatoes. The result was so startling that they’re difficult to gauge. They’re real potatoey, which is certainly a good thing. Good beer list, terrific bar.

I stuck my head in Lemongrass Thai Fare (42 Princess Street, Saint John, New Brunswick; 506-657-8424), an impossibly handsome, slickly designed place run by friendly people (everyone in Saint John is friendly—all six of them). It has a heated outdoor patio and a menu that I stared at forever, trying to parse their motivations. Back in New York, a smashingly designed place like this couldn’t possibly serve decent Thai food because they wouldn’t need to. Diners would come for ambiance alone. Is this true in Saint John? On the other hand, even if the place tried to serve real Thai food, could they? Where would they get their ingredients?

I never found out. I just couldn’t handle another meal. But my suspicion is this: People in Saint John are too nice to intentionally serve you lousy food. They may unknowingly serve you something bad, but I doubt anyone here would lure you in with décor and deliberately slack on quality.

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Among the many municipal projects snazzing up this town faster than Shanghai is Saint John’s Old City Market, an enclosed area that was fun to walk around. This sort of environment makes some people cringe, but to me, Yuppie is just another ethnic realm to enjoy.

The menu at Asian Palace (1 Market Square, Saint John, New Brunswick; 506-642-4909), which seems to center on north Indian, looked pretty serious, though I didn’t try the food. This cute place is hidden in the basement.

Nice interior in this yuppie pub:

A seafood restaurant/lounge.

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Note: Astonishingly, in Canada, the “close door” button in elevators actually seems to work. I suppose the manufacturers figure Canadians are polite enough not to misuse them.