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.

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.

Picks & Pans

We have a late check-out and an afternoon flight to Winnipeg today, so I have time to wrap things up. We walked a loop up one side of the Rideau Canal and down the other. There are tons of fit people in Ottawa. Caroline gave up all hope of redeeming her hair and wore it in a ponytail.

Here is a look at some of the best and worst of our road trip from Ottawa to Bar Harbor and back.

Restaurants

Caroline’s pick: Leunig’s Bistro in downtown Burlington, Vermont. Truly transcendent duck, cool location on the Church Street pedestrian concourse. Honorable mention to the Café Provence in Waterbury, Vermont. Her pan: Pizzeria Verità in Burlington, Vermont. The beet salad was all beets, no salad, and she didn’t like the pizza much, either.

Tim’s pick: the BUZZ in Ottawa, Ontario. Sure the food was good at Leunig’s, but it was crowded and noisy. At the Buzz, you could have delightful food and conversation. My pan: the West Street Cafe in Bar Harbor, Maine. I ordered the wrong thing, but if I was back in Bar Harbor, I’d go somewhere nicer to look for the right thing.

Hotels

Caroline’s pick: the Best Western Waterbury/Stowe in Waterbury, Vermont. Beautiful building with a conservatory for the pool and whirlpool tub, an arcade with air hockey and pinball and a truly amazing restaurant. Great staff, too, that helped with an internet problem and suggested walking options.

Tim’s pick: the Best Western Victoria Suites in Ottawa, Ontario. Wonderful suite that made it easy for me to blog at the desk in the front room while Caroline slept. Terrific location within walking distance of restaurants, downtown, and the Rideau Canal, helpful staff.

Unanimous pan: the Best Western Adirondack Inn in Lake Placid, New York. Lugged my fifty pound suitcase and all our other junk up a flight of stairs to discover a small, noisy room with a fridge in the closet and no desk. Older properties like this have so many challenges – drafty windows, small rooms, inadequate wiring – that it’s hard for them to compete with newer buildings. But they weren’t  gracious when we balked.

Towns

My pick for visiting again, Bar Harbor, Maine. Tons of places to hike and cycle, abundant seafood. My pick for moving to permanently, Ottawa, Ontario. I’m not a city person, but this place could convert me. My pan: Lake Placid, New York. I was hoping for the outdoorsy charm of Bozeman, Montana, but it’s tightly nestled in the mountains, more like Banff, Alberta, and that gives it a crowded, touristy feel, as if nobody is actually from there.

Caroline’s pick, Burlington, Vermont. Loved the ambiance of downtown and the Lake Champlain waterfront. Her pan would be Bennington, Vermont. It wasn’t hideous or anything, we would just try to stay somewhere with more to offer next time.

Walking

Our pick: The Carriage Roads of Desert Island, Acadia National Park, near Bar Harbor. Smooth enough to cycle, quiet enough to walk with weights, vast variety.

Our pan: Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Our hotel was awkwardly located, so we did an urban walk to Memorial Bridge and the adjacent park. If I went there again, I’d do more research in an effort to find something more tranquil.

Saranac Lake, NY to Kingston, ON

Kept our morning walk simple today, strolling along the sidewalks around Saranac Lake for half an hour and return. We could have completed a loop in something like fifteen minutes more, but Caroline’s knee was sore, so we retraced our steps.

Drove out of the Adirondack National Park today, stopping twice to allow wild turkeys to cross the road.

Dingbat got us lost in Watertown, because after we told him we wanted to stop at Five Guys for cheeseburgers, we forgot to untell him that we wanted to go to the center of the city. So he tried to do both. Five Guys Burgers and Fries, by the way, is the soul-partner of California’s In-N-Out Burger. Real beef, and they know where their potatoes came from today. They even had malt vinegar for the fries. Why do we always discover these places on our last day? Actually, there is one in Ottawa.

It was cloudy all morning and it started raining at lunch-time. This reminds me to mention that Mitsu has a nice feature: if you have the front wipers on, when you put the car in reverse, the rear wiper makes a couple of passes without being asked. Good thinking, Mitsubishi.

Before I forget: Coca-Cola – it’s not just for breakfast any more! Saw someone enjoying an ice cold one with her dinner and white wine. I don’t know what would taste worse, the wine or the coke. Maybe the dinner.

Crossed back into Canada at the Thousand Island bridge. Shortest border stop ever. No line up in lane two and our only purchases were the picnic cooler and a single bottle of wine. Usually we bring back more wine than our duty-free allowance, but we’re flying back to Winnipeg soon, so we’d have to pay extra baggage or shipping. Decided against.

I thought for sure we’d spot all of the Eastern US licence plates on this trip, but we never saw a Delaware. They must not get out much. We got all the others, and we even spotted some stray westerners like Oregon. And California – they will not stay home.

When we chose to cut short our planned two-day stop in Lake Placid/Saranac Lake, we booked another night in Kingston. This will give us more time to track down some genealogy stuff for Caroline; we’ll be able to do it as a side trip tomorrow instead of fitting it in on the way back to Ottawa.

Busy Weekend in Ottawa

I’ve been so busy in Ottawa that I haven’t had time to blog for my foodie friends. Head on over to Timothy Gwyn Writes for an idea of why I had an eighteen hour day Saturday. I’ll get right to the point – food. We haven’t been travelling anyway.

Friday night we found enough free time to get together at The Standard Tavern, a pub on Elgin. Caroline had excellent grilled Mahi Mahi tacos, which came with red cabbage shreds, much like the coleslaw style we do at home. I had the mac and cheese, which came in a little iron skillet. Both our meals came with a tossed salad of spring greens, lightly dressed. We did not linger, so that I could get back to Can-Con in time for the Bundoran Press party in the entertainment suite.

Saturday we had planned on separate dinners because the convention schedule was very full. In the end, we were both hungry at 8:00pm because I hadn’t managed to fit in a meal between the convention sessions and Caroline’s previously acquired deli food no longer looked so appetizing. We managed to connect for a late supper at Maxwell’s Bistro, also on Elgin. I was hungry because of the long day and the late hour and had a Pollo pizza with chicken and peppers on a nice brick-oven style crust. Caroline had a beef melt with carmelized onion, swiss cheese, and a horseradish and blue cheese mayo. The mayo was subtle, especially the blue cheese part, but nice. I walked Caroline back to our hotel and went to the second night’s convention party for a bit.

We went out for breakfast this morning, as we’ve been eating the hot continental at the hotel and felt like a change. We went to the Elgin Street Diner, which has all sorts of original touches like their own baked beans as a breakfast side as well as a breakfast potato that is closer to fried mashed potatoes than your typical hash browns. Before I forget, amazing blackboard art in this diner – I wasn’t sure it was really chalk. Wow! Not just beautifully lettered menu items all around the room, but an amazing mural of past present and future diners! Caroline says they know how to poach a soft egg. I can vouch for the three-cheese omelette, to which I added mushrooms. This place is open 24 hours, by the way.

Tonight we had more time. Can-Con ended in the afternoon, and I had time to come back to the Best Western and work on the other blog for a while before dinner. For a break from Elgin Street, we went the other way and walked over to The Buzz on Bank Street. On Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings, you can bring your own wine and pay a very modest corkage of just $5. Other nights, BYO is not available. Lots of nice things on the menu, and we settled on sharing a Woolwich Cheese and Garlic Affair while I hogged a bowl of tonight’s soup, a mushroom cream with potato. I contemplated the Malay lamb shanks and even tonight’s seafood special, but it wouldn’t have gone with red wine, and we had taken a bottle of Guenoc (Californian) Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon that we picked up at the vintages section of the local LCBO. Caroline wavered between the duck confit and the venison osso bucco and chose the latter. It was very tender. I ended up ordering the filet mignon, and it was marvelous. Melt on your fork.

We shared a dessert, a pumpkin cheesecake with a cinnamon cream cheese icing. Amazing.

Dinner in Lethbridge

I keep forgetting to mention that as we pulled out of Walla Walla, I reached up to straighten the Sirius satellite radio and it came unstuck from the windshield. This is remarkable, as it has stayed on for months, thanks to some aircraft structural cement. It’s a good thing aircraft are not commonly made of glass. This is probably what led to my off-the-wall remarks about Wonder Woman’s jet.


Anyway… walked a short distance from our hotel to Chopstix, a restaurant with a drive-through lane that claims to serve gourmet Chinese food – fast. The thought that it must all be sitting around on steam tables to make that possible put us off. In the other direction, I had spotted a place called Luigi’s Pizza. Closer examination revealed that they did steaks and stuff, too. I had a pepper steak saute, which is pretty much the same thing as a beef stir-fry, especially if you order it with rice. It was pretty good. Caroline had a ham, pineapple, onion and green pepper pizza. They aren’t kidding, they really do make their own crust, and it was excellent. Oh, and they bake their own bread, too, it seems, it was fresh and soft. We had a cheap Chianti, and it was just fine.

Cheapest dinner in ages, and we would make a note to eat there again next time we stay at this hotel. I say ‘would’, but we won’t. The bathroom smells of tobacco smoke, and we just found out it wafts up the vent from smoking floors below us. Also, the pop machines and ice makers on the fourth and eighth floors are out of order, so you have to go all the way down to the lobby. Not an expensive hotel, but I think I’d rather pay more and get more.

Dinner in Walla Walla

It’s a good thing we skipped Yakima/Prosser and came here a day early. We got into the Creektown Cafe tonight, but they are closed tomorrow. Due to the cab being busy, we had to show up at 1900 for our 1930 reservation, but they seated us right away. The restaurant was packed from the time we arrived to the time we left, and the kitchen was bogging down. Caroline noticed a whole herd of wait staff lurking around the kitchen, afraid to go near their tables, but the cooks all had their heads down trying to catch up, and wouldn’t even make eye contact with the front staff. So service was slow, but we loved our waitress Erica. She did everything she could to keep things moving along for us. I swear the restaurant was near panic, though; two busboys tried to clear our extra wineglasses, which were actually for the bottle of wine we hadn’t started yet.


So, just in case we can’t find any tomorrow, we had the Abeja Chardonnay with our apps: smoked scallops with some apple and pralines and leafy stuff for Tim, house special salad of spring greens and goat cheese for Caroline. Then we had the Abeja Syrah with our main courses: beef bourgignon for T, lamb shank for C. All was good, and the two hearty French entrees were a perfect match for the wine.

The cafe specializes in pies for dessert, but pies of every sort. I had a wedge of coconut cream pie that must have been over three inches tall, Caroline had her beloved Marionberry pie. If you don’t know what that is, it sucks to be you. Google it and eat your heart out.

Out to the parking lot for a minute, for a little fresh air and a chance to admire a vintage Jeep Wagoneer station wagon in excellent condition, except that the red and white two-tone paint had faded to salmon and cream, and then our cab showed up and Rita ran us back to the hotel.