Chaise Cafe and the Cornerstone

I’ve been so busy with KeyCon and Timothy Gwyn Writes that I had to let my visits to  Winnipeg restaurants slide for a day or two. Now it’s time to catch up, and I’m looking forward to telling you about a pair of restaurants that were very different, but both fun in their own way.

On Saturday, after a hectic day of trying to be both a sci-fi geek and a social butterfly -I’m better at the former- I was ready to unwind with my wife and an old friend for dinner. I dropped by Donna’s downtown condo and then the three of us set off for Chaise Cafe and lounge on Provencher. There was a moment’s confusion when we arrived for our seven o’clock reservation, but the staff didn’t panic and got it sorted out quickly and quietly. They admitted that they had misplaced our table, (which sounds so much better than misplacing our reservation!) but in only a minute or two we were seated at a wonderful little table tucked away by the bar. Sheltered from the main room by a low wall, I loved having more conversation and less background noise.

I’m sure the easiest way to get to know this restaurant would be to go for the prix fixe option. Everyone at the table shares a couple of salads, two different pizzas and samples of the entrees. A pasta course is included if you have room, or you can ask for seconds of something. Dessert is part of the deal, too. As it happens, we did not go that route, and please don’t blame the restaurant if I explained any part of that incorrectly. There is one other interesting thing about the menu here. The entrees are not described in detail because the details vary from night to night. There is always pork tenderloin, for instance, but the chef doesn’t prepare the same pork dish today as yesterday. Tired sigh department: if I got a free salad every time a restaurant misspelled Caesar, I’d eat so much romaine, I’d look like one.

What we did was order a different salad each, and we mostly minded our own, then a different pizza each which we herded into the middle of the table and shared. For its versatility, we got a bottle of the Mirasou Pinot Noir. The specifics: Donna chose the Roasted Butternut Squash salad and the Pepperoni pizza with the mushroom option; Caroline went for the Roasted Beet salad and the Fig and Prosciutto pizza; and I picked the House Garden salad and the alfredo based Wild Mushroom pizza. We all enjoyed our salads, and I could see myself ordering the beet salad on a return visit. That means it wasn’t overwhelmingly dedicated to beets- they were more of a garnish or an accent to the greens and chevre. All the pizzas were thin-crust style, and came sliced into sixths, which meant (lengthy pause for Tim to do the math) we could each have two slices of each kind. In actual fact, the ladies ate one slice of each, and I had a second slice of two, so we could comfortably have ordered two pizzas for the three of us.  I doubled down on the Mushroom and on the Prosciutto and Fig. The pepperoni was nice, but perhaps the saltiest. I wanted another slice, but I was being good. Caroline thought the pepperoni pizza was best, praising the tomato sauce. Oddly, the Prosciutto she chose was her least favourite. No one had room for dessert, but we made sure to take the leftovers home.

I liked the food, the decor, the price and the service, and I’d happily go back.

On Sunday, my convention schedule was shorter. Before I move on to my next feature restaurant, let me just mention that the Winnipeg Radisson hotel’s 12 Resto Bar is not somewhere I would go out of my way to visit. At lunch one day I had a small salad and a large hamburger, but neither was exciting enough to justify the cost. The next day I wanted a light appetizer and ordered the crab-stuffed mushroom caps. The waitress was careful to make sure I understood that the vinaigrette would be imparting a vinegar taste to the dish. She was correct, and it was a little startling how it overpowered the other flavours. I’ve had other versions of this dish that I enjoyed more. Also, I thought $13 was a lot for three mushroom caps.

The month of May does not guarantee spring-like weather in Winnipeg. It does not guarantee howling winds and sleet, either, but they are apparently an option. I joined Caroline at Donna’s village condo again, and we made plans. If I had to live in a city, I have to concede that a downtown neighbourhood with restaurants, coffee shops, a supermarket and a wine store would be fun. Tonight, we took advantage of Donna’s central location to eat close by. It was no night for a stroll, so we decided on the Cornerstone, just steps away from Donna’s place. I didn’t like the bare decor, but it was warm and dry, and comfort food won the day. Well, Caroline had the flatbread and kale salad, which isn’t comfort food in my dictionary… I had the soup of the day, a tasty smoked potato clam chowder. Donna and I both ordered a steak sandwich. This last comes open-faced on a ciabatta bun, and is topped with mushrooms and a fried egg. It was delicious.

“Is there anything that isn’t improved by the addition of an egg?” Donna asked, contentedly.

“Beer.” I replied.

“I meant food.”

“Ice cream.”

It’s this kind of thing that forces me to eat with old friends, instead of refined company. A friend, they say, is someone who knows all about you, and likes you anyway. One day, I’m going to write a science fiction scene about a cantina where the aliens order chocolate ice cream and poached eggs. I’ll dedicate that story to Donna.

Good food, reasonable bill. I’d go there again, but I wish for decor that didn’t remind me of an office.

The weather didn’t worsen during dinner, but the forecast for morning was dreadful. We decided to make the drive in the evening after all. We loaded the car, grabbed a dark roast, and headed out into the rain and wind. It was both hands on the wheel and no cruise control until the highway grew some trees to break the gusty northeast wind. The rest of the drive was okay, if slow. Never turned the wipers off, but the temperatures stayed above freezing until we got home.

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In Winnipeg for KeyCon

We’re in Winnipeg for the Victoria Day long weekend, because KeyCon. That’s a science fiction convention with lots of stuff for SF writers like me. For more on that, visit my writing blog: Timothy Gwyn Writes.

And now back to the business of this blog- food and restaurants.

We had dinner at the Bonfire Bistro. You cannot make a reservation here, so we hoped that the long weekend would lure Winnipeggers away. To be on the safe side, we went early, arriving around six. At that time there were several tables open. By the time we left, there were people waiting.

The name of this restaurant refers to their wood-fired oven. Naturally, pizza is a strength. The specials posted on their blackboard included a weird and wonderful pizza with ham and blueberries and brie. I was tempted, but it had a base layer of roasted garlic and olive oil, and well, I was heading out to meet people later, and that much garlic seemed chancy. Another special that caught my eye was a scallop ceviche, and that I did order. It was just right. Tender and complemented with just a little finely chopped fruit and veg. We shared the mixed greens salad with currants from the menu, then diverged on our mains. Caroline had the Manitoba chicken breast with fig and goat cheese, I had the Spicy Bonfire Hawaiian pizza. Both were very good. She had white wine, I had a glass of Tempranillo. No room for dessert.

Birthday in Winnipeg

It was my birthday this week, so Caroline wanted to take me out for dinner somewhere nice. We had to run into Winnipeg anyway, to pick up her mukluks at the shoe repair place- The Leather Patch added crepe outsoles to them over the holidays.

We had a few things to take care of at Polo Park, so lunch at Joey made sense. I broke out of my usual sushi and steak pattern and had the mushroom cheddar burger with the house salad. Caroline usually has the Ahi tuna burger, but went with a cheeseburger and fries. I enjoyed the house salad, which was a kind of slaw with nuts and seeds and two beautiful discs of watermelon radish. The waitress told me the dressing was a vinaigrette, but it seemed more like a creamy dressing to me. My burger was large, meaty and tasty. Caroline is usually a big fan of Joey’s shoestring fries, but this time around they were on the pale side. Just the way I like them, but she’s more of a crispy golden-brown person. Santa got Joey new chairs, by the way, and I found the stretched leather slings very comfortable.

Polo Park was pretty much a zoo. Boxing week stuff seemed to be dragging on, and it took us several minutes just to find a parking spot. Pedestrian traffic in the mall was heavy – when I wanted to find a railing to lean on while Caroline popped into one of the boutiques, I had to move one store over just to find a free space. Still, we did accomplish her goal of finding a gift set of her perfume, and it was on sale at The Bay.

Cruised on over to the Hilton and got checked in, then headed out to pick up Donna on the way to InFerno’s on Academy. This is InFerno’s second location, and the menu is slightly different, with not quite as French a motif as the Saint Boniface bistro. We found the floor-plan very crowded, requiring you (and the waiters) to squeeze between tight tables to get to your seat. Some tables were separated from the next by only a curtain of strings, giving the barest suggestion of privacy.

We had mostly seafood. Donna and I started with the tuna ceviche, which we both thought was very good. Big pieces of tuna, light lime flavour, avocado and crunchy vegetables. Caroline went with the halibut chowder, but she was disappointed in it. She found it bland, saying it was like warm milk with fish in it. She was surprised that it contained no potato or other thickener. She ate only a few spoonfuls, and the waiter took it off the bill.

For entrees, Donna broke the mold and ordered the half duck, while I picked the salmon with curry and Caroline chose mussels. This finally got her the frites she had been wanting, and the serving was very generous, both of the fries and the mussels. Donna’s duck was a big dinner, too, and looked very good. My salmon needed work. I like my salmon on the rare side, and while chefs often respect this, there is a tendency for restaurants to serve it medium so as not to get complaints. Our waiter and I discussed this, and he said he’d ask for mine to be more rare. It came pretty much medium, with fully cooked ends and pink and flaky with a little moistness in the center. Oh well. When our waiter asked how it was, I said it was okay, better in the middle. He offered to replace it, but the ladies were already eating, so I declined. He came back a minute later to say that he was not convinced I was really happy, and had ordered a second salmon filet, more rare. He brought it out on a side plate, and it was cooked perfectly to my taste, warm red and wet. I ate both. The curry sauce was mild and interesting, so I enjoyed my dinner. I give points to our server, who was not about to let me walk out thinking this was another restaurant with so-so salmon.

For a wine to match all of these diverse dishes, we chose the Mark West Pinot Noir, and it was a good pick. It was versatile enough to pair up with everything.

Caroline saved room for dessert, and ordered an almond lemon pie. I liked it for being more about the almonds than the lemon, Donna thought the cream topping was excellent, but Caroline had hoped for something with a softer curd – this was stiffer, almost like cheesecake. Despite each of us picking up a fork, we did not eat it all.

Overall, the menu was interesting, the wine-list was wide-ranging, and the service was excellent. The tightly packed tables and noise were real turn-offs, though, so the food would have had to have been outstanding to make us interested in going back, and it fell short of that.

PVR 4.0

If I was sticking to any kind of real system for titling these posts, this would be PVR 5.0 as I am writing it on Day 5. However it is about Day 4, and should have been written and posted yesterday. Be glad it was not, for it would have been truly grumpy!

Yesterday did not go well. Not in any terrible way – we didn’t miss a plane or get hit by a bus. In those small ways that rob you of life’s little pleasures. All day I was plagued by weak coffee. I concede that this is a “first world problem” of the most banal order, but still. The coffee here was so good last year! I should have bought a barrel and had it shipped to Canada. I could have pumped a cupful out of it every day. By now I’d be down to the sludge at the bottom. Heavenly! Every time I lifted my travel mug yesterday it was like drinking warm dishwater. One of them was so bad that I took it back to my room and poured it down the sink. Which promptly clogged on the coffee grounds. How they got so many grounds in it without infusing some flavour escapes me. Even the stuff at the actual coffee bar where I do my writing wasn’t much better.

There was a mix-up over the poolside cabanas. They were still able to accommodate Caroline in one she likes, so it was just the awkwardness of the double booking and all the fussing and apologizing. The cabanas are really just little gazebos that provide adjustable shade for two lounge chairs and a little table. They provide no protection against the family next door that struggled to discipline their little boy for trying to drown his little brother over his failure to share toys. I was spared overhearing it, but I gather the consequence for this transgression was the cancellation of his acquiring a toy he wanted, with the additional requirement that he explain which of his actions brought this penalty about. He was apparently very reluctant to put it into words, so perhaps this is an effective deterrent. I think perhaps I could approve of this kind of parenting, but I prefer to disapprove of all parenthood on a blanket basis.

We walked to Wal-Mart after breakfast to buy Caroline some walking shoes. The shoes aren’t perfect, but they are better than flip-flops for walking. It will also give her something other than sandals to wear for the return trip to Winnipeg. It’s forecast to turn cold again the day we go back.

My homework was a challenge. I had to constructively criticize some samples of professional writing by renowned authors. Since one of the samples made me angry, one left me cold, and one baffled me, this was difficult. Some decent coffee would have helped!

Dinner was a trial. Many of the poorest TripAdvisor reviews of this Hilton call attention to the overabundance of Mexican food at the buffet restaurant. I think A) this is absurd by definition, and B) the Mexican food is excellent. However, last night the theme appeared to be Tex-Mex. Our Mexican cooks seem to be perplexed by this cuisine. Hard shelled tacos pre-filled and served cold. A variety of fajita fillings, but only corn tortillas to put them in. Gristly spare-ribs. I am not kidding when I say the coleslaw was the best thing to touch my plate last night. Caroline forlornly made three attempts at the buffet, returning each time either empty handed or with something she could not bring herself to finish. Eventually she resorted to the pizza put out in the kid’s zone. It was doughy, and she ate only half a child-sized slice. The best she did was a tiny bun with some cold meat and cheese.

Adding to the misery of this meal was the blaring country music. This was our first clue that the strangely bad “Mexican” food was actually strangely bad “American” food. I am not a Tanya Tucker fan, leaning more towards ZZ Top. If the music wasn’t enough to drive me out, a big family sat near us and promptly got all over my last nerve. They were feeding their six kids cereal for supper, and complained to the wait staff that the bowls were not clean enough.

We fled to our room. I was in no mood to be my usual cheerful blogself. It is hard to be tongue in cheek when you are grinding your teeth. Cheered myself up by reading a chunk of Destiny’s Blood, rollicking good space opera by Marie Bilodeau, who is one of my tweeps. I plan to finish it while I wait for Caroline at the hair salon this afternoon. So far, I would confidently recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Star Wars.

PVR 3.2

Apart from my morning walk today, we stayed fairly close to the hotel. I tried out the coffee bar on the second floor, in fact I plonked myself down with my tablet and keyboard and wrote a short story there. Rewrote one, anyway, giving it an ending for the first time. I’m quite pleased with it, but I’ll have to wait til tomorrow to see if it really worked.

Our joint excursion was an outing to find a hair salon for Caroline. There is not one in the hotel, but there is one just a block away. They did a great job of straightening her hair while I sat and read on their couch. They didn’t get her bangs right, but she was able to fix them back in our room. Her hair looked perfectly straight for about an hour, and then the seaside frizzies began their assault.

My homework email finally showed up, so I spent a chunk of the afternoon doing a little of the required reading. The course doesn’t actually start until January, but there is some preliminary stuff now.

We decided to break out of our rut and have dinner at La Delice, the a la carte French restaurant on the property. After what the Seafire did to the beef Wellington last night, I had to have the filet mignon just to get some red meat that was still red. There was a real wine list available at the restaurant, but you have to pay for it, and I didn’t see anything that cried out to me, so we stuck with the house wines. I give them a good grade on the French onion soup. This dish is often poisonously salty, but not here. It was dangerously hot, but I approve of that! My salad Lyonnaise was okay, but Carolines Nicoise seemed to be lacking dressing, which is odd. Usually she objects that her salads are overdressed. Also there was no egg, and no olives, which makes me wonder if it escaped the kitchen unfinished. She said the tuna was the best part, which since it consisted basically of tuna and leaves is faint praise. My steak was small, but very tender and perfectly cooked. Caroline’s Mahi Mahi was very tasty, too. I’d consider ordering it if we went back. Caroline thought the mashed potatoes were especially good. As usual these days, I passed on dessert, but Caroline had the Creme Brulee. In our opinion, flan should be cooked to firmness but Creme Brulee left soft, almost runny. Not here, so points off for that. Overall, the dining experience was positive. The menu is short, so I don’t know if we’ll go again or not.

PVR 2

Got up way too early this morning and played with my blogs. Went back to bed twice and still made it down for breakfast at 0800. Caroline decided that she likes the little beach cabana so much that she will rent one every day. It saves you playing musical chairs at the pool, and the one we have has an electric outlet for our gadgets.

Saw three real parachutists land on the beach today, not tourists on parasails.

Besides pool loafing and blogging, our activity today was to walk downtown. It took us about an hour to walk to the south end of the malecon, so next time we might bus part way.  As we are still aspirin white, we were offered free drinks, tours, and directions by condo pimps. It helps being able to say no thanks in Spanish, as this suggests you have been here before.

We have a friend planning a visit here in January, and she wanted a report on the Holiday Inn. We had a hard time finding it, even though we were sure it was between our hotel and the Sheraton.

The newest thing on the malecon was the sight of a guy flying a drone. I spotted his strange remote control first, with his ipod attached. Then I found the drone which was very quiet, at least compared to Mexican traffic. It didn’t seem to bother the frigate birds, either.

Arrived at the Cathedral in time for the 1700 bell ringing, and you could actually see the guy heaving away in the bell tower. Then we noticed the crosswalk signs. They rock here. The little walking man icon is animated, and when there are ten seconds left, he breaks into a trot. When there are five seconds left, he runs for his life. At the end of the countdown, he switches to a red person standing still. Or lying on the pavement in a pool of blood, I’m not sure. The bus drivers do seem rather impatient.

Rather than tackle another hour of walking, we cabbed back to the hotel and asked our driver to point out the Holiday Inn. It’s just blocks from our Hilton, on the other side of the nearest river. It is set back some distance from the road, so we couldn’t see much detail.

On our return, our room key-cards failed to operate, and we had to go down to the front desk and get fresh ones. That made us feel right at home. I must have electric pockets or something, because this happens to me a lot.

Spent some time today playing Guess Who Speaks Spanish. This is harder than it sounds, as there are lots of guests who are Mexican, and many more who could be. Given my habit of greeting perfect strangers, this game takes on overtones of Rock, Paper, Scissors. I’m breaking even.

Dinner was kind of so-so tonight. The stated theme was International, and the hot line included fish soup, Beef Wellington, Chicken Cacciatore, Fish in Caper Sauce, Mushroom in a White Wine Sauce, and Pork or Salmon from the Grill. Should have had the salmon, but hadn’t seen it when I took some of the Beef Wellington, which had been cooked to the doneness of pot roast. Best course was the cheese plate we finished with. The wait staff are baffled by our habit of dining slowly and taking a series of separate courses,  but they do their best to humour us. And they understand my mangled Spanglish. I used to be halfway fluent, but now I don’t even realize how badly I’m embarrassing myself until they’re gone.

Heading South for Christmas

For a while there, it looked as if our flight might be delayed or cancelled for weather. Freezing rain warnings prompted us to make an early start on the drive to Winnipeg, even though we were already set up to go the day before our flight. Roads were damp, the air misty, but we did not see any real freezing precipitation until we neared the city. Aside from going through a lot of windshield-washer fluid, it wasn’t too bad.

Our first stop in the city was a shoe-repair place, to arrange for crepe outsoles to be bonded to Caroline’s mukluks. I bought them for her in Kingfisher last year, and they’re amazing. Far more brightly coloured than the mass-produced ones that have suddenly become popular, they attract attention everywhere she wears them. But the deerskin soles took a beating on concrete sidewalks last winter, and we actually ended up sending them all the way to Fort Severn for repairs. I know that’s crazy, but she met some people from there at work, and it turned out one of them did beadwork. So the deerskin got patched with caribou hide, which is tougher, but they recommended Caroline do what the jingle-dancers do to protect their nice moccasins: crepe-rubber soles. Asked about them at the shoe-repair place, and not only did the guy know what we meant, he had a pair of mukluks waiting for pickup that he had just done. Caroline’s will be ready in early January.

Popped in at Polo Park to pick up a couple of things we needed for the trip, and had one of those moments when you realize what you forgot to bring. As I slipped off my shoes in a change-room, it hit me that the last-minute decision to wear jeans and boots because of the sloppy weather meant that I should have packed my athletic shoes. In Plan A, they were on my feet. They were essential for walking in Mexico. So there I was in Winnipeg’s largest mall, days before Christmas, buying a pair of Skechers.

Checked in at the Best Western near the airport, and had a little rest before heading out to meet our friend Donna for dinner. We chose Teo’s Mano a Mano for this – it’s reasonably close to our hotel, and Donna can walk there from her Osborne Village condo.

Mano a Mano has changed their menu, and we were disappointed. Both our favourite pizzas are gone. We ordered others, but neither of us enjoyed them nearly as much. The tomato sauce on my Pugliese was too salty, and applied with a heavy hand. Caroline liked the toppings on her Stagioni, but not the way they were separated into quadrants. The oven-fired crust is still awesome, and the Insalata Misto is still one of the best salads out there, but there is no longer a pizza to bring me back.

Up at 0300 to get ready for our flight. Yes, Virginia, there is a three in the morning. It just feels unreal. Muzzy and unfocused – no wait, that’s the freezing fog and drizzle. It’s lifted a bit since last night, when two departing flights from Winnipeg were cancelled, but it’s not great.

Easy check-in at WestJet, then stumbled over to Stella’s for breakfast in the terminal. They have real food, and they open early. I managed to enjoy a mushroom and Swiss omelette at four in the morning, but Caroline’s stomach requires more advance notice.

While we were eating, the line-up for security grew much longer. It didn’t really matter, we had plenty of time, but ugh. Caroline wore the wrong thing. Her top has a neckline bordered with flat white beads that look exactly like chiclets. Apparently they do not X-ray well, so she had to have a pat-down. She won’t be wearing that top to travel by air again.

I expected our flight to be delayed by the need for de-icing, but it was delayed by a panic attack. A nervous flyer refused to get on, and they had to extract her bags. She will miss her vacation with her husband and son. She did take a calming medication (perhaps Atavan, the stuff they give you if you are too claustrophobic for an MRI scan) but she left it too late. The stuff takes an hour or more to fully kick in. I hope she had someone in Winnipeg to give her a ride, because after the flight left and the stress vanished, she probably couldn’t keep her eyes open.

The flight was uneventful, and our row had one of the very few empty spots, so we spread out and used the center seat for a coffee table.

The terminal in Puerto Vallarta was practically deserted. Apart from the unusual sight of a dog taking a crap in the concourse, things went very smoothly. Yes, the owners of the dog cleaned it up. Good thing the terminal here runs to polished stone floors, not carpet. Immigration lady pleasant, and she actually smiled when I wished her a Feliz Navidad. Our bags came through quickly and we scored a green light at customs, so we were out in the sunshine in record time.

One of the nice things about the Hilton in PVR is that it’s quite close to the airport, so no prolonged taxi ride. I fully expected to be told it would be two or three hours before our room was available, but they checked us straight in at noon. Sweet!

We are on the eighth floor, so the we will spend a lot of time waiting for elevators. This is a great way to meet people. Yes, I start conversations with strangers, it’s one of my flaws. “Partial Ocean View” means about what I thought it did. If you stand at one end of the balcony, you can see a bit of the beach between the buildings. Also, there is a rhythmic rumbling noise from the ventilation duct in the bathroom, so at night it sounds like the monster in the closet is purring, loudly. But the bed is comfy and the desk is huge, and those are the things we value most in a hotel room.

Internet is free in the lobby and so on, but there is a fee if you wish to go online in your room. Last year we scored a room directly over the lobby, and had free wifi on the balcony. (WOOT!) No such luck from the top floor, but I found out that if you book a whole week of wifi, it’s only about six bucks a day. At home, that would get you a coffee, but not a glass of wine. Here, the coffee and wine are free, and I don’t mind paying for an internet connection. Makes it way easier to blog if you don’t have to guess the URLs of the restaurants. Also, I will need my email, as I have homework coming. I’m taking an online writing course from Odyssey in January, and our first reading assignment is supposed to show up any day now.

Spent the afternoon poking around the hotel and walking on the beach. Ate supper in the Seafire, the hotel’s buffet restaurant. I actually prefer it to the a la carte restaurants on the property. Some guests complain that the buffet is too limited, but it depends on what kind of food you expect. If you came to Mexico but wanted to eat the same as if you were in America, you might be disappointed. Saturday night’s buffet is Mexican themed, and the hot line had tortilla soup, Mexican rice, puntas de res (tenderloin tips in a sauce), fish Veracruz style (olives and veggies on top), Pollo en mole (chicken in spicy brown sauce), nopales crema (cactus and corn in a cream sauce), and so on. We thought it was great, and lingered over soup, salad, entree and dessert courses.

Early to bed, on account of three in the morning hasn’t forgiven us yet.