Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A charming oasis in restaurant-shy Elmwood

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I've seen Charlee's variously described as small, dark and/or a dive. It's none of the above. Maybe it once was, but if so it has since been expanded and completely redone, and is now quite a spacious place, with a lounge on one side of the entrance and a pleasant, dining room on the other, with some segmented photographs of old Elmwood on the mustard-coloured walls, among them a striking blow-up of the Louise Bridge.

It's a particularly useful address in restaurant-shy Elmwood, but it also draws some of its clientele from other parts of the city, due, probably, to a more-than-usually interesting menu, a number of above-average dishes, and moderate prices. Most range from $9.50 to $11.50, and many of them include either soup or salad.

The fabulous chicken pot pie soup alone would make Charlee's worth a visit -- a rich broth with pieces of fresh-cooked chicken, topped by little squares of puff pastry. A beef-vegetable du jour, if less unusual, was also excellent. The house salad of fresh greens in a lovely light dressing wouldn't have been out of place on any of the town's tonier tables. The croutons in the caesar salad may have come from a box, but the dressing was light and applied with restraint.

I was disappointed to find that the dinner menu, with the down-home entrees I'd originally come for, had been dropped. No more meat-loaf wrapped in pancetta, for instance, or home style pot roast in red wine gravy. But I still found comfort in a savoury shepherd's pie -- cottage pie to be accurate, if you're a purist, since it is made with ground beef instead of the traditional ground lamb.

There are some other satisfying main courses on the all-day menu, like penne in a winey sauce with mushrooms and chunks of chorizo, baked under a blanket of mozzarella, or the crunchy chicken fried chicken under a light gravy, with mashed potatoes and a decent veggie mix. The Thai green curry had a truly Asian flavour and an impressive bite, but was topped, unfortunately, by wee bits of something called tempura chicken that consisted almost entirely of breading.

You can have a peppercorn-bacon burger, or a barbecued Tex burger, or -- as we did, a burger stuffed with Swiss cheese and topped with mushrooms. A thin, crunchy breaded veal schnitzel came tucked into a panini bun, and the steamed corned beef brisket made for a superior Reuben sandwich. Possibly the most intriguing sandwich was the Filipino style, sweet caramelized pork bun -- delectable twists of marinated scarlet pork topped by a still runny fried egg. It came open-face, with lettuce and tomatoes on the other half of the bun, and I defy anyone to get their mouth around it when it's put together. Since we were told the fries were frozen I saw no point in wasting the calories, and I didn't try the poutine for the same reason.

Breakfasts are served all day, but basic eggs with a breakfast meat and the delicious hash browns (deep-fried slices, actually) are probably safer choices than some of the more ambitious items. The cordon bleu omelette's inch-thick filling of shaved turkey, ham so overwhelmed the ultra-thin egg wrapping that all I tasted was a mouthful of meat ($9). Eggs Benedict, with perfectly poached eggs and smoked salmon, would also have been better under a genuine hollandaise instead of its pasty and flavourless white sauce ($10). .

Desserts (according to our server) come from Salisbury House. Don't expect to have a latte or Americano here, but the regular coffee is good. Servers are friendly, attentive and prompt. However they divide their time between the lounge and the restaurant, and if you want your bill when the lounge is full, you may have to go looking for them.

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Many restaurants will be closed on Labour Day, but if you're looking for a sandwich and coffee San Vito will be open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. It's a cosy little coffee house, with seating either at conventional tables and chairs or at low coffee tables and easy chairs. The Costa Rican fair trade coffees are excellent, and my latte-loving friend vows that the latte here has a better and more pronounced coffee flavour than most. There's also a selection of loose-leaf teas and smoothies.

Among the edibles to go with the potables are tasty, well-filled sandwiches ($4.59 to $6.49). I couldn't try the one of pot roast, mashed potatoes, gravy and caramelized onions since it won't be available until autumn. However the two I did have were very good -- one of pulled beef in barbecue sauce, the other of fresh-tasting roast chicken with roasted red peppers, hummus and marinated onions, both on substantial ciabatta buns. I often find wraps too stodgy, but the one rolled around tuna with red and yellow peppers, scallions and lettuce tasted moister than most. A savoury alternative to a sandwich is the spinach brownie, made with spinach, onions, feta and cheddar -- like a quiche but without the crust ($2.69).

Pies come from Mr. D's, but the chocolate chip and peanut butter cookies are house-made and delicious ($1.39 each). Orders are placed at the counter, but the food is brought to your table.

marion.warhaft@freepress.mb.ca

To see the location of these restaurants as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below or click here.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 31, 2012 D3

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Updated on Friday, August 31, 2012 at 9:20 AM CDT: adds map, adds fact box

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