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.

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.

Winnipeg again: Bonfire Bistro

Another weekend in Winnipeg, another dinner out. This time we made sure to go to Bonfire Bistro early on Saturday, arriving before six because they do not take reservations. I love their menu, it’s original and eclectic, as were the night’s specials. The one that sticks in my mind was the ‘Surf and Turf’, which passed over the predictable lobster to offer a portion of smoked whitefish with the steak. I almost ordered it, but all three of us wanted to try the pizzas, because they have a lot of interesting varieties and a wood-fired oven. I felt like starting with a salad, and the Mixed Salad of baby field greens, red onion, currants, toasted pecans, balsamic vinaigrette and crostini (with the added fire-roasted vegetables and warm goat cheese) was ample to share three ways. We each have different tastes in pizza, so Caroline ordered the Wild Mushroom & Maple Bacon: porcini, portobello and oyster mushrooms with wilted spinach, fresh herbs, mozzarella and Stilton blue cheese on roasted garlic sauce, I ordered the Spicy La Bomba Chicken: fresh roasted red peppers, fresh jalapenos, mozzarella and cilantro on spicy La Bomba sauce, served with yogurt citronette, and Jonathan chose the Mediterranean Vegetarian: roasted red peppers, roasted roma tomatoes, roasted eggplant, marinated artichokes, Kalamata olives, fennel, zucchini, feta and mozzarella cheese with fresh basil and Carlo’s tomato sauce. Each of us enjoyed our own choice, and while we sampled each other’s, the general feeling was that we had chosen well for our own tastes. We were in the mood for a gutsy red wine, and the McManis Petite Sirah from California was just the thing. Service was good, but we could not linger because there were people waiting for a table. I give Bonfire Bistro four out of five.

Mini-trip: Winnipeg

We have no big road trips planned, but needed to do a little shopping and have a dinner out. The weather forecast was for snow and rain mixed, so running to Winnipeg and back on the same day seemed like a poor idea. With that in mind, we booked a room at the Hilton and made a mini-vacation of it. We lucked out – the snow never amounted to much. A cold and windy night made me dread my customary hour’s walk in the morning, which I usually do outdoors. Chickened out and took advantage of the hotel’s gym, which is available to guests twenty four hours a day. The pool was closed for maintenance.

As a foodie and travel blogger, I am often asked     I am sometimes asked    somebody asked me once: where do you eat in Winnipeg?

My new answer is Deseo Bistro. I was first taken there by a foodie friend, and have been trying to get back ever since. Struck out when I was in the Peg for the Central Canada Literary Festival – this small restaurant gets pretty busy on a Saturday night. This time around, we were able to get a reservation by taking a table at 5:30, but if we had planned this trip a little further ahead, I’m sure we could have managed a more fashionable hour.

What makes this place cool is their menu format. You can graze your way through a handful of ‘Small Bites’, sharing with your friends, or you can order a salad and an entree from the ‘Big Bites’ side and go your own way. On our first visit, the ladies went tapas style, and I ordered courses.

This time around, we just did a selection of the small bites. My favourite was the mushroom brioche with black garlic and chevre. Caroline really liked the sablefish on golden beet kimchi, and we both enjoyed the duck confit on fettucine with poached egg. That last was a nightly special, by the way, so don’t count on it. I approve of the use of specials to keep the menu from getting stale with regulars. They also have a pretty good wine list, with a good variety of wines available by the glass, including a Gewurtztraminer, which is a fun wine to have with spicy dishes, especially Asian inspired ones.

Gave this place four points on Trip Advisor, and I’ll be back.

Weekend in Mexico

I’m sitting by the beach in Puerto Vallarta today. We had not planned to visit Mexico this winter, but the brutal and endless cold changed our minds. Besides, it was Caroline’s birthday yesterday and our anniversary today or tomorrow, depending on how you reckon things when it is not a leap-year.

Although we have some time constraints, we found that we could come down for just a few days if we flew on WestJet, making the southbound trip via Calgary on Thursday, and returning directly to Winnipeg on Monday.  So Caroline got airline food for her birthday dinner!

The trip has been reasonably uneventful – planes were both running about quarter of an hour late.  Immigration and Customs in PVR were both free of queues.  We were a little too hasty disembarking our taxi at the Hilton, and left our one carry-on bag in the back of  the cab.  Much gnashing of Caroline’s teeth ensued, but our hotel security chief took us to review the security cam recording, enabling us to confirm that the bag was not lifted from the lobby.  A phone call to our WestJet rep resulted in the taxi returning with the overlooked bag (and a manager from the cab company).  Reunited with her tablet, her winter jacket and her Ventalin(tm), Caroline’s mood recovered.

A few words about the hotel.  Sidenote: although I am a regular contributor to Trip Advisor, I do not review hotels there, as Caroline works for a Best Western, and this might give the appearance of bias.  So on Trip Advisor, I only review restaurants and attractions.  In my blog, I comment on hotels, but I do not grade them.  Anyway, back to the Hilton in Puerto Vallarta.  Caroline likes that it’s not huge, as she is directionally challenged.  If you are looking for a place with vast pool areas and nightclubs, this is not for you.  It is an all-inclusive resort, and it is not of the same scale as say, the Riu or the Paladium.  The buffet restaurant is more modest, for instance.  On the other hand, they have not turfed me for hogging a table near the poolside to set up my tablet and blog.  I use a 12″ tablet PC (Asus Slate) with a nearly full-sized keyboard, so I stand out from the herds with their i-Pads.  This makes me look like either a serious writer or a serious dork geek.

Regular readers of my blog, and there are nearly a handful, will recall that I am prone to going for a walk in the morning.  Today, we walked down the main road as far as the Mega store, about half an hour each way.  This took us past the Villa del Palmar, a hotel we stayed at once in the past.  It has been a long time since this part of Vallarta was in the sticks, but we remember when the Pemex gas station was a temporary facility on a dirt lot with the fuel in tank-stands.  I do not have the cable to connect my phone, but I will try to remember to post a picture of the hotel’s driveway.  It is adorned with a row of fake golden boulders with just a faintly discernible face engraved on each one.  From the back, they look like baked potatoes standing on end, so I have christened the street ‘Avenida de los Papas’.

Avenue of the Baked Potatoes

Avenue of the
Baked Potatoes

Stand by for more info on the food and wine.  I do not have much hope for the latter, as all-inclusive hotels in Mexico usually have to control costs by offering modest Argentine or Chilean house wines (some kind of South American free trade agreement makes it hard for Mexican wines to compete.  If only US wines were allowed to undercut Canadian ones like that!)  The sushi  bar is supposed to be good, and that makes sense given the availability of fresh seafood here, but it makes me marvel at how small the world has become.  All food is ‘fusion food’ now.  It always was, I suppose, going back to when the Italians adopted tomatoes from the Americas.  Apparently the notion that Marco Polo brought pasta back from China is more legend than fact, or I would bang my gavel and rest my case.  But hey, Swiss Chocolate – that’s from the new world, too. Continue reading