Hundred-mile radius? Check. Organic, artisanal? Been there, done that too. Winnipeg’s chefs take those culinary protocols for granted: these days, simply table stakes. In-house pickling. Curing. Sausage-making. Coffee roasting. Yes.
Manitoba’s capitol city grew up with a can-do mantra based partly on location. With the nearest metropolis miles and miles away, they figured they’d better pull up their socks and do it themselves—thus the renowned Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the esteemed Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, and the list goes on (and on). And it includes that most accessible and beloved of all art forms, the café kitchen.
Scot McTaggert, who launched his Fusion Grill in 1996, got the whole thing rolling. His minimalist-chic bistro extends the locavore precept to include regional art on the walls and an amazing, one-of-a-kind all-Canadian wine list. “Our lamb comes from Manitoba, not New Zealand,” he proudly proclaims, “and that char you ordered was still in the water at 5:30 this morning.”
I started the meal with Fusion’s panko-crusted pickerel cheeks, served with beet slaw, crème fraiche and Northern pike caviar. The pierogies [East European dumplings] I summoned (Manitoba boasts a huge Ukrainian population) were plump with duck sausage perfumed by white truffles, afloat in a rich walnut cream sauce.
Who needs an entrée after those? Well, ahem, I do. That Arctic char arrived sided with parsnip ravioli, spinach, bacon, Beluga lentils, frizzled leeks and Hollandaise. My friend’s grilled bison sported a grainy-mustard demi glace, aside a mound of roast organic fingerling potatoes and Bulldog Amber onion rings. With it, we delighted in a bottle of Moon Curser Vineyards’ 2013 Syrah from Osoyoos, B.C. Dessert? Mascarpone cheesecake under a sweet sauce of—ready?—local beets. Or go for the Granny Smith crumble.
Era, the bright, window-walled bistro housed in the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, gives Chef Barry Saunders a chance to unite nature and nurturing. After flunking out of culinary school (“Maybe it was because I never showed up for class”), he proceeded to make his name as a long-standing advocate of Manitoba regional cuisine. “I have good relations with our local farmers,” he boasts. Edible proof: an irresistible potato, leek and goldeye (local fish) chowder: an uber-creamy potage of Adora potato, leeks, and a smoked dumpling stuffed with those goldeyes. You won’t need another thing. But don’t let that stop you: Leaving without sampling Chef Barry’s carrot fries should be illegal. These thick-cut veggie logs come in a light veil of beer-infused tempura batter, sided by an herb and jalapeno dip. I was a sucker for the chef’s pickerel po’ boy, too. As well a two-top seating, Era spotlights a long, communal table, “to encourage contact with others, as does our museum.”
At Peasant Cookery, housed in a classic 1906 red-brick building in Winnipeg’s downtown Exchange District, Chef Tristan Foucault led the cured-meat resurgence with his charcuterie, star players on a menu that celebrates a changing selection of homemade Berkshire pork dry-cured sausages and a dense, well-marbled pate, presented with pickled wax beans and cukes. Another starter—the chef’s beet salad—is not your same old, same old. No, indeed. This creation features toasted sesame and sunflower seeds, puffed wild rice, creamy goat cheese and those yummy beets strewn atop arugula moistened with caramelized honey vinaigrette. (Oh, you want poutine? He’s your man. Here, these decadent fries come with bacon gravy and Bothwell cheese curds.)
This is the only kitchen I discovered in town that celebrates that homely dish from grandma’s kitchen, tourtiere. A pate brisee crust envelops a rich and beefy three-inch-high meatloaf-like filling of ground beef, onions, potatoes, and comfort. His fish and chips are fabricated of beer-battered pickerel; his beef brisket is served with baked beans and bacon-potato salad. Dessert? I dare you! Make it the shortbread-crusted maple tart painted with crème fraiche. That or the sour-cherry ice cream. Service is as sweet as the taste.
deer + almond celebrates global flavors, born of regional provender. Think wild rice with confit duck, kale and mushrooms. Or goldeye/herb gnocchi in a crab and mussel broth with whitefish caviar and rooftop-preserved shiso. “We encourage guests to share dishes as you would at home,” encourages a note on the menu in this casual Exchange District bistro.
Nearby, Clementine is a year-old, below-stairs breakfast-and-lunch hit (as the long lines prove), already famous for morning starters like a braised bacon Benedict with maple sabayon on a Cheddar biscuit; fried chicken on toast; and a killer cinnamon roll.
Venture across the river to Osborne Village—a hip and happening ’hood where Nuburger serves “healthy gourmet awesome” patties of beef raised naturally in Manitoba (or—wisely—upgrade to bison in your burger for a few extra bucks). The Blueberry Yum Yum version gilds the pattie with blueberry barbecue sauce, goat cheese, balsamic onions and conscience-appeasing low-fat mayo.
If you’re going to the Assiniboine Zoo (and you must), head nearby for brunch at Capital Grill, whose chef—an alum of the elite Four Seasons family of hotels—does a dynamite salmon and avocado Benedict and roasted sweet potato soup. Dinnertime, it’s a short rib poutine with truffle fries or bison rib eye with mushroom, bacon and potato ragout.
Best for last—the newly-opened Bouchee Boucher on the francophone side of the river, St. Boniface, where a seat at the counter facing the action in the kitchen is the place to be. Compose a supper of small plates, starting with a salad of wild purslane, poached quail egg, gravlax, fresh figs and black truffle oil. Continue with another composition of greens saluting spears of raw asparagus, artichoke hearts, arugula, iceberg, cherry tomato and a dusting of feta.
Now you’re primed for the pans of curried house-made sausage or sweetbreads with bacon, capers, bacon brown butter and parsnip puree—even better than it sounds. So’s the pasta dish of stinging nettle/ricotta gnudi afloat in broth studded with fava beans, wild spring onions and Parmesan. I sipped local Barnhammer Oatmeal Stout. Dessert? I couldn’t manage but watched the gelato of lavender, elderberry and pea shoots fly by. With staff wearing T shirts proclaiming “Live and loin” and, even better, “You look refreshing!” how can you not succumb?
In season, The Exchange District office (www.exchangedistrict.org) offers a menu of food tours including The Breakfast Club, Tap It (watering holes), Patio Crawl, Winnipeg Wine, and Feast of Fast Food. Foodies also head to the covered market at The Forks park to attack its multiple food booths, ranging from cuisine of Winnipeg’s large Filipino population and that of Ukrainians at Better than Baba (pierogies, borscht and more). Also bison burgers, empanadas, fish and chips, Canadian wine and beer. And more, more, more. In fine weather, food trucks line up along Broadway, too. “When it comes to authentic ethnic food, we punch above our weight,” they tell me. Believe it. –By Carla Waldemar, RFT Contributor
Find out more at www.tourismwinnipeg.com.