Memorable meals & some of the best bites from 2015
I think it is safe to say that Winnipeg's restaurant scene has never been better.
An absurd number of good restaurants opened up this past year while some of our most reputable rooms have received much national acclaim.
For starters there is Enoteca, a small-plates restaurant in River Heights by chef Scott Bagshaw that opened in the latter half of 2014. This October it was listed by Air Canada's enRoute magazine as one of the 10 best new restaurants in Canada, something that should have come as no surprise to its regular patrons.
I'm going to start here, as I've been a huge fan of Scott Bagshaw's food since I first moved here four years ago. Some of my all-time favourite Winnipeg dining experiences have come from him, with big highlights including a tasting menu he put together for my wife's birthday at Deseo two years ago, and the multi-course dinner he collaborated on with Mandel Hitzer for the first RAW:almond frozen river pop-up restaurant, where his Manitoba phở dish was simply spectacular.
Bagshaw did it once again for me in 2015, as one of the best overall meals I had was at Enoteca (1670 Corydon Ave) in February with Calgary-based food writer Dan Clapson. We ran through most of the menu that night, with several standouts that still come to mind. There was a smokey beef tartare topped with a quail egg served with a torchon of foie gras (the best, creamiest bite of foie I had this year) along with mustard, yogurt and buttery toasted brioche. There was a picturesque hamachi dish with dehydrated orange segments that burst with sweet, acidic flavours to compliment the fatty fish, and finally a rustic fresh pasta dish topped with lamb sugo, goat's cheese and gremolata. Composition and ingredient wise all the dishes were so different, and yet they all worked harmoniously in succession.
Regarding the overall atmosphere of a space I have to single out Sous Sol (22-222 Osborne), chef Mike Robins' weekend-only restaurant found in a basement in Osborne Village, as my most pleasant Winnipeg dining experience this year. It's easily one of the coolest environments to dine in in Winnipeg, featuring a mishmash of antique furniture, Persian rugs on the floor, a fantastically large service stand replete with over the top faux crystal wine chillers, and cheeky classic drinks that come in both tiki and Petro-Canada Calgary Olympics glasses. The warm room is accented by flickering candlelight, the walls are adorned with hokey art and pages from old school French cookbooks, and the playlists are on point (especially when they are playing gypsy jazz, which is so apropos). The food is fabulous too; Robins' sauces are luxurious, while the presentation and menus are playful odes to historic Parisian bistros. You can read my full-fawning Sous Sol experience here.
The other weekend-only establishment I have to mention is The Sentruhl Project, where chef Gordon and Traci Bailey, along with chefs Sean Audet and Spencer Smith are doing inventive, thematic (be it historical or geographic) tasting menus each weekend out of the Kitchen Sync (370 Donald Street). The flavours are massive and the plating is artful while the service and atmosphere is a nice mix of casual and professional. Plus you can't beat the price tag of 4-5 courses for $58. We took part in their west coast inspired dinner this past fall which you can read all about here. It will be exciting to see what Winnipeg neighbourhood these fine folks eventually open up a permanent space in.
I was stoked this summer when my old neighbourhood restaurant from Main Street in Vancouver moved to Winnipeg. Capital Bar and Grill (3116 Roblin Boulevard) has found a very receptive crowd in Charleswood (and how could it not?) with its incredible comfort food. My two standouts from my multiple trips here this year include the bison ribeye, which is easily one of the best pieces of red meat I've had in the city this year, along with their sticky toffee pudding for dessert. I will also say -- and this takes into account my bias toward west coast wines -- that Capital has one of the best (and tightest) lists in the city, featuring so many crowd-pleasers from BC and California.
Deer+Almond (85 Princess Street) continues to get better with age with its whimsical plating and fun flavour combinations from chef Mandel Hitzer. For starters, so many of my favourite downtown lunch dishes come from D+A, including the yellowfin tuna sandwich with bacon, pesto and olive tapenade and the chicken fried chicken sandwich, both of which you have to get with a side salad. Deer+Almond dominates lunch because they don't give you some unimagined spring mix; instead they elect to make excellent sides like the mountainous sprouted lentil, roasted beet, nectarine and pumpkin seed salad with a Middle Eastern spiced dressing and goat's cheese that I had last time I visited.
Off their dinner menu, my favourite item right now remains the smoked goldeye with Parisian gnocchi served in a rich clam broth. On the luscious side you have the firm, flaky goldeye, the creamy clam broth (poured table side into gorgeous bowls from local potters mud+stone studio), and the verdant, herbaceous tarragon gnocchi. Balancing it with bright notes are confit fennel, lemon curd, fresh dill and what would seem like an ungodly amount of white fish roe. It's more Canadian than a Hudson's Bay blanket -- not to mention just as warming and colourful.
The Merchant Kitchen's (314 Donald Street) Korean fried chicken has become an obsession of mine -- and I know I'm not the only one. The brined bird is crazy tender -- even the white meat is beyond juicy -- while the crust is well-seasoned and has a satisfying crunch. The sweet soy or spicy gochujang inspired sauces that accompany it are both great dancing partners too (but really, you don't need to dress it up; I've had this chicken cold many times the next day -- you get a full bird for $44 so you are bound to have leftovers -- and it still rocks). The Merchant also gets bonus points for jazziest website.
Fusian Experience (612-B Academy Road) is one of the best new spots to eat in the city, especially when you work your way though their expansive tapas menu. The food in this small space is freshness personified and you simply can't miss their torched whelks or tuna tacos. And while we are on sushi, I always have to give a tip of the hat to Yujiro (1822 Grant Avenue) whose artistry and incredibly fresh fish have made it the gold standard for Japanese in Winnipeg.
And speaking of gold standard fish dishes, one of my favourite plates of food this year came courtesy of chef Norm Pastorin of The Cornerstone who won this year's Winnipeg leg of the Gold Medal Plates (of which I was on the judging panel) with a confit salmon. The moist, tender salmon was sous-vide in a shallot-infused olive oil then topped with pickled shallots, kale, and peppery flowers. Underneath was an ultra thin and sweet egg yolk tamagoyaki with a sauce of soy, ginger and anise, along with some nori dust. (You can read more about this whole excellent evening here, on food critic James Chatto's website).
My final fish dish of note came courtesy of Segovia (484 Stradbrook Avenue) whose tuna tostada with pineapple salsa (the recipe of which you can find here, courtesy of the Toronto Star) would tie only their dungeness crab croquettes as my favourite one-bite-wonder for the year. This summer my wife and I would always order two tostada's to start, which we'd then inhale along with their lime sorbet gin and tonics on the patio. After numerous other dishes, we'd always end up ordering another set of tostadas as a dessert of sorts which we'd wash down with some dry cava. And this isn't to say the desserts aren't great at Segovia too -- in fact the dark chocolate mousse with hazelnuts, yogurt cream and sea salt (which is on the current menu) will have you licking your spoon a little too hard.
It would only make sense to cover the Winnipeg restaurant that I have frequented the most this year, which is the Sherbrook Street Delicatessen (102 Sherbrook Street). I've now had everything on the menu and I would recommend it all, from the Mish Mash soup (awesome on a hangover), to the salmon lox (on Winnipeg's best bagel), to the pickled beef tongue, to the most glorious Earl Barrish-Smoked Beef platter (which you must order the housemade hot mustard with).
I have to give a tip of the hat (and an accusational wave of the finger for helping me go up a waist size in 2015) to Shawn and Connie McKane-Brandson and their fine teams at Fort Gibraltar and Promenade Cafe and Wine. Whether it's hosting The Poutine Cup at Fort Gibraltar with Charcoal Collaborative (the winner of which -- for the second year in a row -- was Marion Street Eatery (393 Marion Street) for their masterpiece “The Drunken Baba”); al fresco lunches at Promenade with its great food and sweeping views of the city; or feeding hundreds of frosty partiers outrageous comfort food during Festival du Voyageur, these folks get it done. I'm particularly excited about this year's FDV because I'm surely going to get some recipes when I do a behind-the-scenes article on what goes into making the food at Festival. (I will also drink copious amounts of Caribou out of ice glasses while stuffing myself with smoked turkey legs and sugar pie).
To finish, it would only make sense to end this with a little dessert, and the one that comes to mind is the strawberries and cream at the VG Restaurant in the Fairmont (2 Lombard Place). Chef Eraj Jayawickreme has some beautifully presented plates at VG, especially when it comes to his "sweet endings" menu. The strawberries and cream dish is like a Pimp my Ride episode on a fruit-rollup. The toothy texture of the the strawberry roll -- which is stuffed with über-airy cream -- is out of this world, while the raw chia seed pudding underneath is a very clever ode to the tapioca variety. The smattering of sponge toffee makes for a mix of textures and flavours resulting in a dish that has chewy, crunchy and creamy elements, along with bright berry flavours, nuttiness from the chia, and sweetness from the pudding.