I've seen the future and it works. I may have paraphrased that Lincoln Steffens quote before, but it's worth repeating when describing my dinner at Prairie Lights, the dining room that showcases meals prepared by graduating students of Red River College's culinary arts program.
The last time I was here was over eight years ago, and the performance then, despite the occasional flaw, was pretty impressive. It was even more impressive this year, a seamless operation that offered a great and significantly lower-cost alternative to some of the city's pricier restaurants, and the only reason I'm not awarding stars is because the crew changes nightly. But if the students who were responsible for my dinner last week end up in local restaurants, I'd certainly want to know where.
The menus run for approximately three weeks, and the one I ordered from will end tomorrow, with another taking its place Nov. 15 (about which, more later). One thing seems to have changed since eight years ago, when you had to get in touch with the school on the first day bookings opened, and even at that, good luck in getting your reservation of choice. The method is still the same, but this time securing a table was a breeze. The calendar that indicates the available dates is posted online at prairielights.ca and we had our choice of several nights. In fact, if you want to try the present menu, the calendar shows that both Nov. 8 and 9 are still open.
As well as the scheduled menu there are specials, and we were delighted with our unexpected treat of oysters on the half shell at $1 each -- plump, glistening with beautiful briny juices, the equal of any $3 oysters in town. They came with a nice mignonette sauce for those who might want it, but all I ever need is a squirt of lemon juice.
Flavourful hickory-smoked bison carpaccio was garnished with wafer-thin slices of apple and shreds of crunchy celeriac ($6). It was delicious, but the standout starter was the pickerel cakes, which rivalled the best crab cakes of my experience -- two big, crisp balls, with only enough filler to bind them, accompanied by a roasted red pepper relish and a dab of slightly sweet tonkatsu sauce ($7).
Little details get plenty of attention -- a spinach salad with slices of pears in a light raspberry vinaigrette was strewn with tiny specks of feta and candied almonds ($5) and even the superlative little cheddar biscuits and crusty focaccia were made in-house.
Could the rest of our dinner possibly live up to that great start, we wondered?
It did. A juicy boned Cornish hen was stuffed with sesame-seasoned and still crunchy bread crumbs, and lightly glazed in Saskatoon berry jus ($17). Pork tenderloin -- wrapped in a film of pancetta and stuffed with minced chorizo and dates -- was tender and moist in a port-flavoured sauce, garnished with (and passing the acid test) a creamy white wine risotto ($16). A flat-iron steak was resilient but not tough and, although thin, grilled precisely as rare as ordered. It came with a bonus of several good shrimp and potato bravas that were crisp and good, if a tad overwhelmed by too much of the zesty tomato sauce ($18)
There was also butternut squash with the hangar steak, and with the pork tenderloin as well. On the other hand the sweet potato purée promised for my Cornish hen tasted more like a regular potato purée (but that was OK with me, since I prefer it.) There were a few white asparagus, and although I sometimes groan when broccoli turns up on my plate (usually a near-raw, barely steamed bore), even that was superior -- a single spear, sliced thin for perfect texture.
For dessert we had a sublime dark chocolate bombe -- a rich, frozen mousse lightened by a streak of raspberry ($6). Also, in honour of Halloween (the night of our visit), there was a complimentary pumpkin and vanilla semifreddo with house-made ice cream on the side. Also luscious.
The menu that will be in effect from Nov. 15 to Dec. 7 will offer such appetizers as arancini rice balls with pistou and saffron aioli ($5), seared scallops with butternut squash purée ($7) and a charcuterie board ($6). Among the entrees there will be prosciutto-wrapped chicken breast with cornbread stuffing ($16); a half-rack of lamb with wild mushroom agnolotti and Puy lentils ($22); baked salmon with potato gnocchi and béarnaise sauce ($15); tamarind-braised short ribs with truffle-scented grits and seared scallops ($18); and spinach and ricotta ravioli with confit tomatoes and broccolini ($14).
There are only a few wines by the glass, all Canadian. However, a small but interesting list of bottles is offered at low markups, and if you can't finish your bottle, you can take the remainder home.
The softly lit, beige decor -- brightened only by the green upholstery on the chairs and the white tablecloths -- is rather bland but serene. The setting is, as the French would say, correct, but still casual enough to be comfortable. Service by the students was polished, perfect and thoroughly knowledgeable about everything on the menu -- more efficient and, in fact, better than I've had in some deluxe establishments. And without a trace of attitude.
Note: Parking is $2; ask for directions to the restaurant when making your reservation.