Damn Winnipeg, you have brought the deliciousness this year.
Whether it was seamlessly composed tapas at Segovia, to roll-out-of-your table comfort food from Bistro 7 1/4, to awesome Laotian dishes from some funky little hole-in-the-walls, this city has treated this food snob well.
While it was hard to come up with a little list of must try dishes, in the end I simply had to think about what dishes made me, or the people I was eating with, either mention some religious figure with the following refrain, "...this is so, frigging good," or perhaps say nothing at all, aside from a low, almost inaudible moan of pleasure.
And even though I am usually a protein whore (or fanatic), who often adheres to the phrase that "braised meat can't be beat," you'll notice that for me it was all about starters and desserts.
So without further ado, here are the four best bites I had in Winnipeg this year.
To start I have to go with a "snack" of pickled radishes with sesame seeds and miso dressing from chef Mandel Hitzer at Deer + Almond. Ever since it opened this past year, I must admit to often fawning (yeah, a pun, don't judge) over its oft-whimsical and local farm driven fare.
After acquiring "a whack tonne of radishes" this summer, Hitzer had been putting them on different dishes in different ways. Then one day he tried a radish with some sesame (which he apparently likes to dip everything in to). "There happened to be a little miso dressing kicking around and I tried it all together, and I was like 'whoa, this is insane.' It was like overwhelming," said Hitzer.
I agreed. The balance of the sweet acidity of brined radishes, with the toastiness of the sesame and creamy miso dressing, takes over your taste buds. It was certainly the first time I have ever marvelled over how delicious a radish could be, even telling our server that "a radish just kind of blew my mind." The server's response was "I know."
My other savoury dish of choice is the luxurious white truffle perogies with duck sausage and walnut cream at Fusion Grill on Academy Road. Fusion has, since it's inception, been one of the go-to spots in the city for showcasing the best ingredients Manitoba has to offer. And what is more fitting for Manitoba than the humble perogy?
"The perogies where something that the owner, Scot McTaggert, was really pushing to get on the menu," said Fusion Grill chef Lorna Murdoch. "I thought it was way too low-brow and I wasn't going to do it. Then one day I was talking to somebody about that and I said 'there is no way I was going to make those unless they were stuffed with fois gras and had truffle on them.' And that's where that dish came from."
Bravo to chef Murdoch for taking this indulgent stance. When you get all the components together on your fork you have little choice but to close your eyes and savour the rich moment. The walnut cream sauce alone will make you want to lick your plate.
Next is a spicy flourless chocolate cake with sea salt and olive oil by chef Scott Bagshaw of Deseo Bistro. While I'll argue that Deseo is easily one of this city's best restaurants due to the exceptional use of unique and often overlooked ingredients (when you see offal on the menu, order it and enjoy), it was a dessert that really did me in.
Inspired by something he saw on the menu at A16 in San Francisco, the flourless chocolate cake is a hybrid of recipes that Bagshaw collaborated on with a past sous chef. When he brought the cake to Deseo, he decided to really make it his own by adding their house-smoked chili sauce.
The result is a rather light, not-too-sweet, salty, and a touch spicy cake which is rounded out by the fruitiness of the olive oil. Eating it may make you want to stab your fellow diners in the hand with a fork, just so you can get that final bite. "It probably took about 2.5 to 3 years of just fine-tuning it and changing it until we got it to the place it is at right now," said Bagshaw.
Chef Olivier Fortat of Frenchway Cafe (Mike Green)
Clearly, that was time well spent.
My last bite is the nearly-vulgar-it-is-so-rich butter tarts from Frenchway Cafe on Lilac. They are almost a butter and brown sugar overload, with a gooey centre encased in a damn fine pie crust with a sugary top that you'd swear was bruléed.
Chef Olivier Fortat, who hails from France, said that when he opened it was his customers who were telling him to start making butter tarts. Thank the heavens he listened.
"The butter tart recipe is from North America, because we don't do that too much in France," said Fortat. "A lot of my guests, they want this recipe, so I say to them 'if I give you the recipe, I'm going to have to close the door,'" he joked.
I'll tell you this, it took a French pastry chef to perfect the butter tart. But after you have one, other tarts just won't matter.