Story by Adrian Brijbassi
WINNIPEG, MANITOBA — Scott Bagshaw greets me with a shot of Scotch and a dozen PEI oysters. “I learned this in Balmoral,” he says, before going on to explain that a sip of salty oyster juice followed by a nip of peaty Scotch followed by a swallowing of the bivalve would create an ideal balance of flavours. He’s right, although it would be hard to imagine anything not tasting excellent with a dram of Scotch thrown back.
It’s minus-24 Celsius degrees (minus-11 Fahrenheit) outside but inside Deseo Bistro there is the warmth of a house party. Bagshaw has created a happy place in an otherwise nondescript two-storey restaurant. The decor isn’t fancy, the tables can be communal or not, depending on the familiarity of the diners, and the service is spot on and professional, with no formality.
A night out at Deseo — or any of Winnipeg‘s other most exciting independent restaurants — offers a glimpse into the cultural life of the city. It’s a place that’s still searching for acceptance, even from its own citizens. As Bagshaw says, “I have a love-hate relationship with Winnipeg. I think a lot of people do. But I’ve gone away a couple of times and I always come back. There’s something about it and I don’t know exactly what that is.”
It’s not a city for superlatives. Its reputation as a bleak, barren, frigid northern outpost is a difficult one to overcome. Cities have won out against their geography, though. Twenty years ago, Copenhagen was known as a pretty but dull and cold place without the appeal of other locales in Europe. Now, it’s an epicentre for culinary breakthroughs thanks to Rene Redzepi and Noma. Portland, Oregon is a damp, grey and small city that has turned itself into a choice destination for the young, the liberal-thinking, and the thirsty, because of a tremendous craft beer and cocktail scene. Laos attracts visitors seeking its distinct blend of French and Asian flavours.
Which is all to say that culinary movements are possible anywhere. In Winnipeg, the food scene is far, far better than you would expect, especially if you cling to the belief the city can’t compare to its more celebrated Canadian peers.
Truth is, the food soars here and it does so because there’s artistry at work. The chefs command interest with their creations and their devotion to inventiveness. The pop-up restaurant that runs annually in January and February on the frozen Assiniboine River adds another level of attraction. Vikram Vij, Vancouver‘s celebrated culinary icon, was a guest chef at this year’s pop-up, which is called RAW:almond and featured nightly meals cooked by a rotating roster of chefs. Vij was impressed by the experience and said it was a showcase for “great casual food but very local and unique.”
The four restaurants I visited recently left me convinced that Manitoba‘s capital has the potential to build upon its already vibrant culinary scene.
SEGOVIA TAPAS BAR
Location: 484 Stradbrook Avenue
Telephone: 204-477-6500 (there are no reservations and often a line-up starting before opening time, which is 5 pm)
Menu Price Range: Small and share plates ranging from $2-$28.
Adam Donnelly has created a magnificent restaurant inspired from his European travels. A tiny space that seats about 28 diners, and a few more in warmer weather when the popular patio opens, Segovia dishes out Spanish tapas choices that burst with flavour. Donnelly’s kitchen turns out plate after plate of decent-sized offerings. “It’s Winnipeg,” the chef notes with a smile, “you have to make sure people leave full.” The Duck Confit Paella ($16) is a must and so is the Chorizo and Gala Apples in sherry vinegar ($7). If you’re going to dine at only one restaurant in Winnipeg, this one is my pick.
DEER + ALMOND
Location: 85 Princess Street
Telephone: 204-504-8562; no website
Menu Price Range: Small and share plates from $6-$26 (daily specials can be in the $30 range).
Chef Mandel Hitzer has created a hit with his RAW:almond pop-up restaurant in winter, but Deer + Almond is where he’s headquartered. It’s worth the reservation for the atmosphere and the relentlessly creative dishes that Hitzer delivers. The kale and kelp beignets ($7) blew my mind because they have the texture of the famed Cafe du Monde sugary beignets in New Orleans, but they’re also definitively earthy in taste. The southern fried chicken ($14) comes with corn and jalapeño flapjacks. Like many other dishes in the city, it’s a bigger plate than you’d expect for the price.
The best dish I had in Winnipeg was without a doubt the Black Truffle Gnocchi ($16) at Deseo Bistro. Featuring black boar bacon and black garlic, it is out-of-this-world good. If you haven’t had a meal with black garlic lately, be on the lookout for this unique and versatile product. Also, don’t pass up the Nagano Pork Belly ($17 for a small portion, $28 for a large plate that includes Serano-wrapped prawn mousse, romesco sauce, parsnip puree and crisp chicken skin). The cocktails at Deseo are also excellent, including a strong whiskey-based concoction named after the owner.
The group dining beside me shared my appreciation. They were celebrating a family birthday and wowed at all the dishes. “This is probably the best restaurant I’ve been to in Winnipeg,” Joan Grandmont said. “There isn’t anything we had here tonight that wasn’t delicious.”
Deseo was the only restaurant ranked in the 2013 Vacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada Guide.
BISTRO 7 1/4
Location: 725 Osborne Street
Menu Price Range: Large dinner items range from $26-$39; smaller plates cost less than $20 and are a bargain as the portion sizes are generous.
Inventive fine dining in Winnipeg owes its roots to Alex Svenne, the chef and proprietor of this fun spot in Osborne Village. Svenne’s dishes such as duck confit with brioche ($18) — his professed “death-row meal” — is among the progressive culinary plates you’ll find on the menu. Like his fellow independent restaurateurs, Svenne stretches the definition of “tapas” and “share plates” with the generous portion sizes. He’s also one of the most dedicated defenders of foie gras you’ll find this side of Joe Beef. So much so that he has engaged in commentary on his blog about his position.
Bistro 7 1/4 has been around for more than seven years and Svenne has seen the city’s collective palate mature. “When I opened up, you wouldn’t have a chance serving some of the things we’re serving now or what some of the other restaurants are serving. But people are coming around, you see it changing, you see more and more people willing to give things a try,” he says. “I’m glad that we were there at the beginning. It’s a city that’s really coming into its own, in food and art and other things. You can really feel it.”
NOTE: I didn’t make it to Peasant Cookery, which has garnered praise from culinary aficionados.
MAP SHOWING THE FOUR RESTAURANTS MENTIONED IN THE ARTICLE
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