When the voice on the phone tells you your reservation entitles you to only two hours of table-time, you can be pretty sure that restaurant is doing very well. And this cadet branch of In Ferno's certainly was buzzing with activity on my visits.
It's a cool, spare kind of place, with an open kitchen and a chef's counter immediately inside the entrance, along with a display of house-made pastries and breads. A square brown-wood bar cuts the dining room in two, with conventional tables and chairs in the rear and a mix of similar tables and chairs with high bar-style tables and stools in the front. It's pleasant enough in the rear, but I prefer the brighter street-side room, with its one dramatic wall of river stones, and a pale green wall opposite hung with colourful abstract paintings.
The menu will seem familiar to habitués of the original In Ferno's on des Meurons, although it is a mere fraction of the size. One hopes that, as the restaurant matures, more of the original's specialties might turn up -- a country p¢té or ceviche, for instance; or veal in mushrooms, cream and wine sauce; or pappardelle pasta with spicy lamb and porcini mushrooms.
On the other hand, the tables here are less cramped, the noise level decidedly lower, and the street parking a lot easier. As it happened, nothing I tried needed more salt, but it must be a sign of the kitchen's self-confidence that there are no salt shakers on any of the tables.
There are some excellent appetizers. Two medium-size crab cakes (unlike too many others elsewhere) tasted mostly of crab and little of filler, with a smidgeon of delicious mango slaw on the side, and a dab of not-very-spicy chili aioli ($14). Even better were sake-seasoned prawns under a drizzle of slightly sweetened soy sauce, and garnishes of avocado and grapefruit slices -- a pricey $16 for two, but they are truly massive. Spring rolls stuffed with duck confit were crunchy and flavourful at $14 for four rolls. Not on the menu but usually available are mussels, prepared on our visit with bits of chorizo but still just mediocre in quality for $16 (the hunt continues... sigh). Great frites, though.
I don't often order onion soup, usually because the standard crock-full is almost filling enough for a meal, but I couldn't resist it that day, and Inferno's -- based on rich stock, with a thick gratinée of cheese -- was a reminder of how supremely comforting this classic can be ($6.50). The daily special entrees include the soup du jour but not the regular entrees; a pity, since the two I tried -- a tomato basil bisque, and a creamy soup streaked with kale -- were excellent ($5 each la carte).
The number of entrees is quite short, and of the eight listed, two are pastas, one is a spinach and ricotta nudi (ravioli filling without the pasta), and another is a 28-ounce "hammerchop" steak at $33; which leaves only four meat or fish choices, ranging from $16 to $27. There are almost as many daily specials as well, and the trick is remembering what the first one was by the time your server has recited the last one. The one we tried was a simple but well prepared halibut steak in a sour cherry reduction ($28). Others might be chorizo-stuffed chicken breast, or a surf and turf.
My favourite was the tender baked pork chop -- also glazed in a sour cherry reduction -- as much for the savoury maple baked beans that came with it as for the meat and sauce. Veal medallions were too thin for my taste -- almost paper-thin -- but that said, they were flavourful and moist, paired with a lemon and asparagus risotto, with rice grains that were creamy but retaining just enough of a crunch within.
Kentucky-fried Moroccan-spiced chicken owed more to Kentucky than to Morocco, but it was juicy and terrifically crunchy under a honey-based drizzle. Less successful was the decidedly fishy pan-seared pickerel, served with delicious little dice of potatoes and what was called chorizo pipperade (sic) hash -- it tasted nothing like that spicy Basque mixture of onions, peppers and tomatoes, but it did taste OK. Another night's multi-veggie mixture (radicchio, yellow beans, carrots, onion, et al.) was a bit of a mish-mash but passable. Best of all, though, were the simply roasted little potatoes and the fried, panko-crumbed mashed-potato balls.
Most of the appetizers, and some of the entrees -- the chicken, pickerel, pork chop and a pasta -- are available at lunch, at the same prices. Also available is a tender and full-flavoured strip loin with caramelized onions on a garlic baguette, along with such other possibilities as a duck confit clubhouse, a croque madame, and seared tuna with avocado on a croissant ($12 to $16).
Seven to nine dollars buys some delectable desserts. They may vary from day to day but those I tried -- lemon hazelnut torte on a shortbread base, chocolate cappuccino cheesecake, a blueberry-topped Bavarian cream and a caramel hazelnut torte -- were all top-notch.
The wine list is well chosen but pricey, with most of the choices well over $30; cocktails are pricey too, at $9.
Service was pleasant and attentive, if periodically overwhelmed by the nearly full house of my visits. It was also occasionally too chatty, and I thought the "hi, my name is" practice had long ago been banished from serious restaurants, and relegated mainly to certain chain or franchise operations.
And one even more important and elementary rule should be drilled into all servers. Never, never, never remove one diner's plate while the other diner is still working on hers.
To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below or click here.