Eat this now: five must-try dishes in Winnipeg

In the last couple weeks I’ve judged 37 food trucks during ManyFest, 10 poutines at the Poutine Cup, and accompanied several travel writers on either full-day, or full-night eating escapades.

Needless to say I feel like I’ve become a bloated sausage of a man, but a man nonetheless with five major highlights that you’ll want to put on your culinary map.

So without further ado, put these dishes on your Winnipeg dining agendas:

Deer+Almond’s smoked goldeye & gnocchi
If you were to tie me to a chair, then push me down a flight of stairs backwards, I probably wouldn’t be too upset if I landed in a bowl of this masterpiece. Everything about this dish works. On the luscious side you have the firm, flaky goldeye, the creamy clam broth poured table side (into gorgeous bowls from mud+stone), and the verdant, herbaceous tarragon gnocchi. On the bright side you get to the confit fennel, some lemon curd, and what would seem like an ungodly amount of white fish caviar along with fresh dill.

smoked goldeye dished out (Karen Burns-Booth @lavenderandlovage on IG)

smoked goldeye dished out (Karen Burns-Booth)

Every bite of this indulgent dish has layers of flavour. You’ll find yourself licking the bowl while realizing the dish itself never comes across heavy. Chef Mandel Hitzer and his crew have some really complex, fun and flavourful dishes on the menu right now — including a nduja chicken that will surely go down as one of my dishes of the year — so there is no time like the present to hit up Deer+Almond.

Sabai Thai Eatery’s Chiang Mai noodles
Late in the summer Sabai Thai Eatery (1113 Corydon Avenue, 204.888.6508, no website) became my takeout-food-of-choice place because their papaya salad is just so damn summery, their spring rolls are tasty, and it is so close to my house. Then I discovered their Chiang Mai noodles (Khao Saway), which has had me kicking myself for never making it up north when I lived in Thailand for a couple months.

With a creamy, coconut yellow curry, a roasted chilli jam that is equally sweet, pungent and spicy (which I swear you could put on almost anything) along with crispy noodles and shredded vegetables for texture, this has become one of my favourite Thai dishes in town. 

Salmon Lox at Sherbrook Street Deli
It’s taken me a while to finally go to Sherbook Street Delicatessen and order something other than the smoked meat, smoked goldeye salad, or the pickled tongue. In fact, it took an affable British writer I was entertaining to get me to branch out when she ordered the lox last week — and boy, I’m glad she did.

salmon lox from Sherbrook Street Delicatessen (Karen Burns-Booth)

salmon lox from Sherbrook Street Delicatessen (Karen Burns-Booth)

For starters the bagels at Sherbrook Street Deli, which chef Jon Hochman has been making fresh daily, are ridiculously good — so good in fact that this British writer, who had just come from Montreal where she visited several celebrated bagel institutions, exclaimed that these ones were so much better. They are slightly chewy, in no way heavy or doughy, topped with a well seasoned crunch of sesame and poppy seeds while they also have a light sweetness from being boiled in honey water. The lox, also brined in-house, is succulent and not overtly salty, and is supported by cream cheese, thinly sliced red onion, tomato and a good smattering of fat capers. We were told that it has become a staff favourite, which I can now understand (although their brisket is still killer).

Korean fried chicken at The Merchant Kitchen (pictured at top. Photo by Dan Clapson)
On my initial couple visits to The Merchant Kitchen I had neglected to try the Korean fried chicken, primarily due to the fact that it is a massive order (a whole bird for $44) and there was generally just two of us. Having now eaten through almost the whole menu this has turned out to be a glaring omission, because this is the best fried chicken in the city, and easily one of the best ones I’ve ever had.

The brined bird is super tender, with even the white meat being moist beyond belief. I’ve always tended to avoid the breast meat when it comes to fried chicken, but I’ve now had this dish three times in the past month and every time I’ve done a breast first (don’t laugh you pervs) and it has been spot on. The crust is well-seasoned and has a satisfying crunch, while the sweet soy or spicy gochujang inspired sauces that accompany it are both great dancing partners — although this chicken can totally break it down on its own.

Fruit cake from Dessert Sinsations
I never knew that I was a fan of fruit cake until I tried several at Dessert Sinsations this past week. Chef Barbara O’Hara’s recipe dates back over 80 years, and, as was confirmed to me from Karen Burns-Booth, a British heritage baking specialist, this version is an absolute beauty.

We had three versions, one straight out of the oven which we topped off with old cheddar (“because cake without cheese is like a kiss without a squeeze,” as the saying goes), along with two other versions that had aged for a year. All three were excellent; the fresh out of the oven version having a fabulous crust along with richly caramelized fruits, while the aged versions each had their own nuances, from nuttiness to being still so moist despite spending a year in a cooler.

Fruit cake from Dessert Sinsations (PCG)

Fruit cake from Dessert Sinsations. The fresh out of the over version is in the background(PCG)

I suppose my only “real” fruit cake experience comes in the Christmas pudding variety which my childhood neighbour from the Isle of Wight used to deliver around the holidays. Which is to say I am no expert. But after listening to chef O’Hara discuss the process with Karen, which includes the drying, candying and soaking of the various (and massive) quantities of fruit, the hand-dredging of the fruit to make sure it disperses throughout the cake and doesn’t fall to the bottom, the painstakingly-slow baking process, the brushing of liquor… I was sold.

This is artisanal food that is made months before it is to be eaten — you can’t go order a slice at the restaurant, so technically this is not so much an “eat this now,” but rather an “order this now,” item. Chef O’Hara and her crew started making these fruit cake a month ago to have them all ready for the holidays in December. Over the years they’ve built up a dedicated client base who have to get these fruit cakes, so if you want to reserve one for your holiday table call Dessert Sinsations today.


CitiGrow brings farm to table a small plot closer

The 100-mile diet has nothing on 100-block dining — at least that’s the principle behind one of Winnipeg’s newest agricultural endeavours.

“What we do is take unused land and turn it into a sustainable source of food,” said Dave Gingera, the founder and president of CitiGrow as he unearthed some beets for me today in their plot at Inn at the Forks.

The company was started in 2012 by Gingera while he was a university student. Originally they were selling urban agricultural products, but last year they changed the business model to micro-farms, which are now found all over Winnipeg.

The Beets by ERA salad, along with a fresh bunch pulled from the ground just minutes before (PCG)

The Beets by ERA salad, along with a fresh bunch pulled from the ground just minutes before (PCG)

“This is on the small end of what we do,” said Gingera, pointing to the aesthetically-pleasing rows of vegetables being grown right in the midst of the Forks, Winnipeg’s most-visited tourist area.

“We don’t own the land — it’s all in agreement with independent property owners — but it is hyper-local, hyper-sustainable…. we don’t use pesticides and it’s all done with natural fertilizers; it’s grown to a very high standard,” Gingera continued.

Last year they started with 17 of these micro-farms and they are now up to 38, the largest of which is five acres.

Despite it being late in the growing season, the Forks’ vegetable garden still flaunts heritage carrots, massive amounts of mint and edible flowers, beans, plump tomatoes, a couple honeydew melons, kohlrabi and stalks that have just started to produce Brussels sprouts.

Bussels sprouts just starting to sprout (PCG)

Bussels sprouts just starting to sprout (PCG)

The vast majority of this veg will end up on the plates of some of the city’s top restaurants.

“There are a dozen restaurants right now that are purchasing substantial volumes — lots in this immediate area who’ve been extremely receptive of this idea,” said Gingera.

These eateries include VG Restaurant at the Fairmont, 295 York and SMITH at Inn at the Forks, along with a select amount of local stores.

A few steps away at ERA Bistro sous chef Steve Strecker is a fan of what CitiGrow is doing, and he’s been using their vegetables since the restaurant opened in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights last year.

“Well, you can’t get any more local than directly outside — I mean they are only 150 ft. away,” said Stecker. “And they have quite a selection; its really on the higher end for quality.”

The Beets by ERA salad is, minus the goat’s cheese and pine nuts, completely composed of items from CitiGrow, while their grilled ratatouille sandwich — which, for me is easily one of Winnipeg’s best vegetarian sandwiches — sings because of CitiGrow’s ingredients.

ERA's grilled ratatouille sandwich (PCG)

ERA’s grilled ratatouille sandwich (PCG)

This beautiful number uses CitiGrow scallop squash (aka pattypan) as a creamy base note while their parsley, which is the primary ingredient in the gremolata, rounds it with a herby, acidic element.

“Their stuff is harvested daily so you are not having that wait-time like other produce — it’s not dehydrating on the shelf and you’ve got that fresh from the garden taste,” said Strecker.

“Their beets and squash are beautiful and we haven’t found better flat leaf parsley.”

The top image is of Dave Gingera picking beets.


New & Notable: Sous Sol is worth going underground for

Sous Sol, one of Winnipeg’s newest, and surely most hidden restaurants is so cool that I almost don’t want to write about it. Not to say it was going to attract an unsavoury crowd anyway, but this place is truly as charming as it gets in a basement, with a staff of friends who know more than a thing or two about creating a welcoming ambience.

For starters, the attention to detail at 22-222 Osborne is something to behold.

From the candlelight interior, to the antique chairs and tables, the persian rugs that line the floor, the gypsy jazz that plays on the stereo, and the hilariously old-school server’s station in the dining room — which, of course, features a giant pepper mill and soon a flambé station — they’ve thought of it all here.

“We drove all over the Province to find this stuff,” said Chef Mike Robins, who conceptualized the room with his staff and a silent partner. “With how cool the [pre-existing] room was and how old this building is, these little details all came together to make sense.”

The dining room of Sous Sol (Sous Sol)

The dining room of Sous Sol (Sous Sol)

It’s a gracious nod to another time, primarily Paris in the 1920s, with some fantastic bits of whimsy including souvenir spoons to crack the sugary crust of your creme brûlée, depression glass serving bowls, and the most over the top faux crystal wine chiller stand that my wife wanted to take home with her (had it not weighed about 40 lbs).

Perhaps our favourite feature was the glassware which worked as the ideal vessel for Erik Thordarson’s lovely, historical cocktails. These included a rum punch in a tiki glass garnished with a slice of dehydrated grapefruit that was lit on fire (the flame not touching the actual drink, so it didn’t burn off the booze) along with a frothed-up whiskey sour that was garnished with a cherry and an anise flower served in a 1988 Calgary Olympics Petro-Canada glass.

Whiskey Sour (PCG)

Whiskey Sour (PCG)

They have a full set of these gold-rimmed glasses, which are without doubt the greatest gas station glasses ever sold, including brandy snifters which Thrordarson used to make this Parisian Milk Punch for us which was served as a digestif.

It was all so apropos — especially the food.

Robins — who is also the chef du cuisine at Sydney’s, Winnipeg’s top draw for nouveau fine dining — has been working on opening this place since he returned to Winnipeg this past winter after a stage at the Michelin starred Dovetail in New York.

I really can’t wait to go back because our first meal here will certainly go down as one of the best dining experiences I’ve had in Winnipeg in 2015; there’s simply no other place like this here.

“We want to bring it back to simplicity and let the food speak for itself,” said Robins.

“Instead of over-thinking about doing something that some other chef hasn’t done, I just want to highlight what has been… To take all that extra effort and put it into the sauces and take time to do something like clean around every bone and do things like a ballotine,” continued Robins.

That time spent in the sauce-making is surely one of the main things that makes this historical menu sing. In fact, Robins was telling me that a few of the items are direct translations of old french recipes he’s come across in cookbooks that he has adapted using ingredients at hand.

Ostrich fan tartare (PCG)

Ostrich fan tartare (PCG)

We ran through most of the tight menu on our visit — it changes every weekend — which included for starters, ostrich fan tartare ($13), sweetbreads ($10.50), and an endive and kale salad ($7).

The sweetbreads were a show stopper, plated atop a silky cream sauce with toasted almonds and melted tomato in the middle to balance it all with some brightness. The ostrich tartare was also rave-worthy, topped with dijon horseradish and accompanied with gherkins and pickled artichoke for added acidity.

The game hen ballotine (PCG)

The game hen ballotine (PCG)

Our à la carte mains included a perfectly cooked beef noisette ($15.50) that came medium rare without ever being asked (which if you ask me, is how it should always be) and was served on a light, white wine sauce espagnole that dreams are made of (my wife used her knife to spoon up every drop of it; I would have done so too, had she not). We also did the game hen ballotine ($14) that was served atop a sauce chasseur that was just as good — it had plenty of earthiness from the mushrooms while still complementing the delicate, moist poultry.

For sides we went with the Parisienne dumplings ($10) and zucchini gratin ($5). The latter featured a stuffed and fried zucchini blossom with a light crunchy batter that was seasoned just right, while the dumplings were quaint and pillowy.

From start to finish it was an all-round affable experience, right through to the rosemary vanilla creme brûlée finale that fittingly was served in an antique tea cup with saucer.

Sous Sol is open 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday, and 5 p.m. to midnight on Sunday. They don’t take reservations, but if you need to wait for a table you can do that more than comfortably while having cocktails (along with a snack menu) in their charming lounge. It is located, as noted, at 22-222 Osborne St. It’s in the back, look for the plain black awning and the glass door that reads “Building B, Lower Level, Vandelay Industries.”