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.

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.