Dungeness Crab Cake (PCG)

New & Notable: One of Vancouver’s finest moves to Charleswood

One of my favourite neighbourhood restaurants from Vancouver has come to Winnipeg — Charleswood to be precise — and I am kind of freaking out about it.

Well, it sort of has. To clarify, the original was called CRAVE, and was only a couple blocks down from our Main Street apartment, where my wife and I lived for six years.

We’d eat there at least once every two weeks, devouring ridiculously well-executed comfort food like a Buttermilk Fried Chicken Cobb Salad that was near moan-inducing, a Short Rib Rigatoni that was the ideal respite from the Vancouver rain, and a Dungeness Crab Cake (served alongside a matchstick apple salad) that is so good you’d consider resorting to violence if your dining companion tried to take a piece of it (I may still have a fork mark in my hand after trying to get the last bite of my wife’s).

Buttermilk Fried Chicken Cobb with romaine, aged cheddar, bacon, egg, tomato, green onion, sun-dried tomato, blue cheese, ranch dressing (PCG)

Buttermilk Fried Chicken Cobb with romaine, aged cheddar, bacon, egg, tomato, green onion, sun-dried tomato, blue cheese, ranch dressing (PCG)

The people behind it were Chef Wayne Martin and Manager Greg Gunnarson, who along with CRAVE also open up two other highly regarded and successful spots, Fraiche and CRAVE Beachside, both in West Vancouver.

But now, after years in Rain City, Martin and Gunnarson have brought the concept behind CRAVE, including the majority of the menu, to the eastern end of Charleswood, resulting in the charming new Capital Grill & Bar.

“I started my career with the Four Seasons at Minaki Lodge…. and Winnipeg was where we would come do all our shopping and partying,” said Chef Martin.

“I just had good memories of it [Winnipeg] and I was tired of Vancouver — it had got so overpriced, overcrowded, and bad traffic.”

It’s a sentiment you do hear quite a bit about when people leave Van these days (I’ve personally been interviewed about it in the Vancouver Metro), but that being said, I still had to ask Martin and Gunnarson, why Winnipeg?

“Why not? It’s beautiful here,” replied Martin. “Plus there is more history here, and more culture, a lot more culture.”

Greg Gunnarson and Chef Wayne Martin (PCG)

Greg Gunnarson and Chef Wayne Martin (PCG)

Gunnarson’s family is here too, as he was born and grew up on Clear Lake. As he put it, “we just reconnected with friends and family. We knew we wanted to relocate and Winnipeg just made more sense compared to say Toronto or Calgary where we have no ties.”

Since moving, they’ve renovated the space that once housed Asahi, creating a stylish room accented in blues and greys featuring fresh herb centrepieces. It’s comfortable and well put together, just like the food, wine and beer menu.

The location itself is pretty close to everything, just down the road from Assiniboine Park, and under five minutes drive from the River Heights, Corydon and Tuxedo neighbourhoods.

It stealthily opened on May 5 — “we wanted to open quietly,” said Martin, “to get our feet wet and see what is popular on the menu and what is not,” — but has since found a following strictly through word-of-mouth.

Interior shot of the dining room (PCG)

Interior shot of the dining room (PCG)

The most popular item so far has been the Beer Battered Halibut and Chips ($18), which they’ve done over 550 orders of, along with the Chipotle BBQ Baby Back Ribs ($22) and the Capital Burger ($15), which is topped with crispy pancetta, caramelized onions and truffle cheese.

From my experience of eating Martin’s food so frequently for so many years I will tell you this: the man has a deft hand at braising and his fries are almost out of control (the perfect size, with a crisp exterior that snaps while still having that fluffy potato centre).

Along with the aforementioned crab cake — which is a must, Martin was stoked he could still use his same seafood supplier here and thus all his fish is as it was out west — we always ordered the Short Rib Poutine ($12), whose parmesan truffle fries are sauced with a short rib jus I’d consider bathing with, along with the Shorty Rigatoni ($16) that is going to be exactly what you’ll want on a winter’s day, perhaps after a ski next door in Assiniboine Park.

The Pulled Pork & Slaw Sandwich and house cut fries are damn near perfect (PCG)

The Pulled Pork & Slaw Sandwich and house cut fries are damn near perfect (PCG)

I’ve always been a sucker for his pulled pork too, which is ludicrously tender, slathered in a delectable barbecue sauce and served on a focaccia that is sprinkled throughout with flakes of sea salt and rosemary.

Eating at Capital was like catching up with an old friend, which of course it would be, as CRAVE was always one of the spots we’d bring friends when they were visiting us in Vancouver.

I’m sure shortly, as was their case in Vancity, reservations will be a necessity to see this old friend again; Capital’s food is too good not to develop a devout clientele.

Capital Grill and Bar is located at 3116 Roblin Blvd. 204.615.3116

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Patio season at SMITH is the ideal après-anything

If you don’t like having drinks and bites of food on a sun-filled patio, we cannot be friends.

And it’s not just me. In fact, a recent dictionary definition I found for “ideal companion” read: “someone who also enjoys a drink on a good patio, i.e., après-work pleasure,” while, if you continued to read on to “après-work pleasure,” it was defined as such: “a sunny patio with comfortable furniture, excellent drinks, and well-executed charcuterie.”

Why I’m getting at all this is because yesterday all these points were hit — and by hit I mean bludgeoned with hospitality — at SMITH at Inn at the Forks, where their new patio and cocktail menu will have them placed at the forefront of Winnipeg’s al fresco scene.

The summer Negroni (PCG)

The Summer Negroni (PCG)

Now, I wrote about Winnipeg’s best hidden patios a few weeks ago, and surely the one at SMITH would have made the list were it open yet. Alas, this slender, plant-accented and stately furnished number has only been in operation for over a week, which is just fine, as it is certainly deserving of its own article.

For starters, the new craft cocktail menu developed by bar manager Jason Colatruglio features numerous $12, 2 oz. numbers, all of which are made with hand-squeezed juices, pickled goodies and infused with all manner of flavours.

Take the above pictured Summer Negroni, an update on the bitter-yet-sweet classic. Colatruglio’s version at SMITH is made with chamomile-infused gin, Aperol, and white vermouth, and is rimmed and finished with grapefruit zest. It’s certainly one of the most refreshing versions I’ve had, with the grapefruit and sweet, floral flavours of the tea toning down the drink’s normally bitter characteristics.

The Spicy Jalapeno Watermelon Margarita (PCG)

The Spicy Jalapeno Watermelon Margarita (PCG)

Another favourite of ours was the The Spicy Jalapeño Watermelon Margarita, which Colatruglio makes by mixing lime juice with jalapeño in a shaker — the heat being picked up by the acidity — along with tequila and Grand Marnier. It’s served in a glass featuring watermelon ice cubes, so the longer your drink sits, the sweeter it gets. (If you are like me, you’ll end up eating the ice cubes, which are very refreshing).

Of course, you’ll need to balance this booze with some bites, and SMITH’s menu has plenty of good things when it comes to using your hands.

For starters, chef Barry Saunders makes a mean charcuterie board, having taken advantage of the hotel’s giant walk-in coolers to do a serious amount of curing.

Charcuterie featuring... (PCG)

SMITH’s charcuterie board $22 (PCG)

From the board shown above, highlights include the bresaola, which was assertively seasoned making for an excellent drink companion, the bacon (interestingly served as is, with no crisping) and a top-notch duck terrine that we ended up eating spoonfuls of as if it were ice cream. Also big points to the sweet red pepper gelée and baguette slices that were somehow crispy and soft.

The Pounded Cheese was also an interesting take on a spread with a texture and taste that we did not see coming, but one which was certainly welcome. It looks like a creamy hummus, yet has the consistency almost of a chilled béchamel, so a thin layer on the toasted sourdough still resulted in a big punch of salty flavour in every bite. The cheese is spiked with a bit of cider vinegar along with some crunchy garlic chips. If they sold it in a jar I’d consider keeping it on my desk at work — because we all know aged white cheddar makes your day get better. #cheeserhymes

And what goes well with cocktails, how about salty spread of "Canadiana Cheese" with garlic chips (PCG)

The Pounded Cheese $12 with garlic chips goes so well with cocktails (PCG)

On the lighter side of things, other drinks of note (we pretty much ran through the whole “SMITH-crafted” list; it was tough work, I tell you) were The Cucumber Collins and the red and white sangrias.

The Cucumber Collins sees that iconic slender glass filled with cucumber-infused vodka, lime juice, and pickled cucumbers (made using rice vinegar, simple syrup, and blueberries). It was just about as refreshing as Paul Simon’s The Rhythm of the Saints — because nothing can invigorate you more like the opening of “Obvious Child.”

As to the sangria, which unlike most restaurant sangrias that are weak and watery — generally made with bag-in-a-box plunk, SMITH’s is vibrant and you can still taste the wine and liqueurs. This is the one item Colatruglio would not tell us about — which is fair game because, like feelings of resentment toward a former basketball coach who did not let you take the big game-winning shot, a good sangria recipe is a thing you should guard closely. #Iwasmoneyfrombehindthearc

Jason Colatruglio holding the Summer Negroni and The English (PCG)

Bar Manager Jason Colatruglio holding the Summer Negroni and The English (PCG)

We finished off the afternoon with the Nitro Sorbet, which so seems like it shouldn’t work, and yet does. It’s a two-parter; the first is a dish featuring tequila-infused watermelon and lime sorbet, the second a 6 oz. flute of vanilla bean-infused brut. The options were to take a spoonful of the boozy sorbet then chase it with the brut, or simply to take them both down individually.

We tried both ways and we awarded three points on the fact that this could: a) work as a dessert b) work as a palate cleanser between courses c) who would have thought, vanilla beans and brut would work so well together?

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The SMITH Nitro Sorbet $16 (PCG)

All in all with its peachy setting at The Forks, along with its cocktails, food, and west-facing locale, this is one patio sure to please the Winnipeg crowd.

Put it on your après-anything list, because ending your day here is going to make you feel good.

SMITH is located within the Inn at the Forks, 75 Forks Market Road, Winnipeg, Manitoba. 
204.944.2445

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Eat it all at the Ex

Mini-donuts for you?

Umm, certainly, I’ll take the whole pail please.

But first, let me get through this smoked turkey leg and barbecued corn. It’s too delicious to put down, and quite hot frankly, so if you could please go grab me a tall freshly-squeezed lemonade from Lemon Heaven that would be lovely.

Lemon Heaven lemonade is always in it to win it (PCG/Cody Chomiak)

Lemon Heaven lemonade is always in it to win it on a summer night (PCG/Cody Chomiak)

Along with all the awesomeness that is the Red River Ex — and by awesomeness I mean midway rides, cute baby farm animals, and more live entertainment than you could shake a turkey leg at (more on that to come) — the food is one thing I always look forward to.

Unlike other exhibitions where the weird and whacky is all the rage for food (because no one actually wants a scorpion pizza right?), the Ex keeps it classic with a food program based on a marriage of old-timey goodness (i.e. batter it, fry it, and we can all be friends) along with volume and nostalgia (because nothing says quiet time for the kids like a quarter litre of soft serve — calories they’ll have easily burned due to adrenaline after a couple midway rides).

If you batter it and fry it I'll be your friend (PCG/Cody Chomiak)

If you batter it and fry it I’ll be your friend (PCG/Cody Chomiak)

Anyway, here are my standouts, in no particular order:

For fried things, the humble pickle is always going to be my top choice, because there is something to be said about a brined cucumber that is then turned up to eleven. If you look for the above signage featuring Pickle Pete — or as I like to call him, the cucumber cowboy — you really can’t go wrong.

Pete’s chocolate dipped bacon was one item we didn’t get to (you can only push yourself so hard, plus you need goals for another visit) while the deep fried Oreos and deep fried Cheese Cake could accurately be described as a means toward nirvana for the post-bar university set.

Their pickles though were on the super side of superb, replete with a spicy aioli and a slow burn of spice due to the chili flakes in the batter (which was brought on strong because of the pickle brine).

Deep fried pickles with spicy aioli (PCG/Cody Chomiak)

Deep fried pickles with spicy aioli (PCG/Cody Chomiak)

Another one not to be missed, for those of you looking to really have a guilt-driven treadmill session the following day, is the chocolate dipped Belgian waffle stick. At a paltry $4, it is the most lavishly lanced love song to Liège you are going to find in Canada. (#aliterationforthewin)

You can find this stunner near the old entrance (the east side, map here), in a stand featuring enough soft serve to fill an army of waffle cones (an infantry which they of course have).

Getting to the meat of the matter, one stand was selling a maple bacon donut burger that was every bit (or should that be bite?) as aggressive as it sounds. But for me, the aforementioned smoked turkey leg, which is finished on an open grill, is a real crowd pleaser.

Smoked turkey legs finished on the 'cue is a beautiful thing (PCG/Cody Chomiak)

Smoked turkey legs finished on the ‘cue is a beautiful thing (PCG/Cody Chomiak)

The grill itself is a thing of functional beauty, composed of red painted cinder blocks and about the size that would be acceptable at a Texan tailgate party, while the smokey meat remains moist under the skin made crisp from the grill.

There is something primal about eating one of these bad boys. Plus, there is the added element of using it as a pointer — as in, “hey, after we finish these turkey legs we should go on that ride,”  the added emphasis of the meat pointer a surefire status symbol that you came to conquer the Ex.

Which is really what it’s all about, isn’t it?

The Red River Ex runs until June 21st and is located at 3977 Portage Ave