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Pizza with PANACHE

Free Press restaurant critic Marion Warhaft puts stylish new River Heights eatery at the top of her Best of 2008 list

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Compiling a list of the year's best new restaurants is rarely a problem -- there are always several to choose from. Not many of them, however, fall into the stylish, upscale category, like PIZZERIA GUSTO, the easy choice for this year's most outstanding debut.

Despite its name, this isn't your old-school kind of pizzeria. It's sleek, smart and sophisticated, but appealingly without attitude. More to the point, the food lives up to the setting. The individual, slightly smoky wood-fired pizzas, for instance, with moderately thin crusts and toppings that range from a simple Marinara (San Marzano tomatoes, oregano and olive oil) to the new-wave DJ (roast lamb, grilled onions, potatoes and mascarpone). But there are also such triumphs as the grilled squid or fire-roasted shrimp appetizers, an arugula salad with tiny roasted pears, gorgonzola and candied walnuts, and the sumptuous torta caprese chocolate cake, made with ground almonds instead of flour. The all-Italian wine list is interesting, the service impeccable and the value for money remarkable.

404 Academy Rd., 944-8786

 

Not all the year's highlights were new. Two old favourites turned up in new locations. LA FIESTA's new quarters aren't as spacious or as atmospheric as its former home, but the pupusas are still superb, the burritos still bulge, and the weekends-only marinated garlic shrimp are still massive, moist and marvellous.

730 St. Anne's Rd., 257-7108.


The new FALAFEL PLACE is bigger than the old one, albeit not by much. In any case, this one is also always packed with devotees of crunchy cumin and coriander-scented falafel, roasted Turkish eggplant, garlicky turkey patties and soul-restoring chicken soup with matzo balls. Not to mention the beautiful blintzes and densely nutty baclava.

1101 Corydon Ave., 489-5811.

 

Two buffets also weren't new, but each is the best of its kind. I know of no brunch buffet comparable to the FORT GARRY's, and no more splendid setting.

There are too many dishes to list, but some of the most noteworthy were plump, juicy shrimp; patés of pork or caribou; house-smoked salmon; a roasted mushroom salad with anchovies; broiled fresh salmon; roasted cornish hens; and a frenzy of delicious desserts.

222 Broadway, 942-8251.


The EAST INDIA COMPANY's Indian decor is also stunning, and so is the number of choices. Among them, pickled chicken salad, vegetable fritters in yogurt sauce, chicken balls, spicy little loin lamb chops and grilled lamb in an allspice and fennel-seasoned cream. Also kulfi ice cream made with fresh (not condensed) milk.

349 York Ave., 947- 3097.

 

The TALLEST POPPY is as noteworthy for where it is -- i.e. the city's core -- as for what it does, and what it does is an astonishing served-at-table, five-course Sunday brunch. Choices vary every week -- fresh fruit always, and on my visit pancakes, potato latkes, noodle pudding (a.k.a. lokshen kugel), salads, a wide variety of organic cured meats. Also house-made challah bread and dessert.

631 Main St. 957-1708.

 

YUKI SUSHI is also noteworthy for its location in the city's core, in this case in the McLaren Hotel. It's just a tiny room with a small sushi bar and a few tables, and for those in a hurry, phone-ahead orders for either eat-in or take-out may be the best option. Wherever you plan to eat them, do try the Gold Dragon roll of top-quality salmon, wrapped around chunks of shrimp tempura, and the Crazy Roll of tuna, shrimp, octopus and capelin roe. The shrimp tempura were superior on their own also, as were gyoza dumplings.

544 Main St., 956-2849.

 

A larger selection of fine sushi and other Japanese specialties can be found at the much spiffier WASABI SABI (third of the Wasabi group). The choices include a variety of oysters on the half shell, luscious mango prawns, a citrusy ceviche of scallops, whitefish and salmon and the Edward Carriere roll of chopped scallops and flying fish roe topped by slices of red tuna and salmon. Also skewers of grilled scallops wrapped in a flimsy film of pork belly.

1360 Taylor Ave., 415-7878.

 

Other kinds of Asian restaurants always present me with an embarrassment of riches, making choices difficult. Still I managed to narrow the list down to the following few, all with painless prices.

SOUTHLAND's address was incorrectly listed at MTS, but when I finally found it, the food turned out to be worth the hunt. The 265 choices include a great Deluxe BBQ platter, elegant honey-glazed shrimp with candied walnuts, and finely crumbed pan-fried sea bass.

2855 Pembina Highway, 261-3510.


Tiny, bare-bones NOODLE EXPRESS offers delicious, low-cost dim sum, best among them anything filled with shrimp. Also big chunks of lobster that are deep-fried in wrappings of seaweed and pastry, big, puffy onion pancakes and marvellously flavourful barbecued duck and pork.

180 King St., 943-9760.


TRIU CHAU is one of the prettier Vietnamese restaurants, and fortunately it is as good as it is pretty, with such dishes as tamarind and lemongrass-seasoned sweet-sour soup with shrimp, cool salad rolls, a crisp, delicate crepe folded around shrimp and bean sprouts, grilled marinated beef slices or pork balls, and chili-zapped shrimp in a hot pot with tofu.

517 Sargent Ave., 774-6997.


RICE BOWL is a rare source for served-at-table Filipino specialties such as the great lumpia spring rolls and a peanut-enriched stew of oxtails and short ribs. The kitchen does equally well with the cross-cultural long ribs scented with lemongrass and five spice, and stir-fried garlic shrimp with shiitaki mushrooms and coriander.

641 Sargent Ave., 779-2777

 

See next week's column for more treats, i.e., some of the past year's most outstanding dishes.

marion.warhaft@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 26, 2008 D1

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