Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Caribbean flavours get big boost at small café

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Hidden gems are few and far between, but I think I may have found one in Purple Hibiscus. It's an unlikely gem -- a small café tucked into one little corner of the St. Boniface Hotel, seating a mere 24 indoors, and 24 more on the sidewalk patio. At the moment, the interior is quite plain but, although it's been open for a few months, it's still a work in progress, and plans include some colourful art work and Caribbean artifacts on the avocado green walls.

The short lunch menu is available all day, and lists a few rotis -- fresh, house-made dalpourie (layered with crushed split peas) rolled with curried chicken, beef, shrimp or veggies -- as well as burgers and such sandwiches as barbecued pulled pork and jerk pork or chicken ($5.95 to $8.95). There are a few small sides, not all them available on my visit but the roasted tomato, green beans and fried plantain were good, especially the silky, sweet slices of plantain ($1.50 to $1.95).

From what I could see in the open kitchen, the cooking seems to be a one-woman show, run by owner-cook Ave (pronounced a-vee) Dinzey -- an impressive performance since, although she has done some catering in the past, this is her first restaurant. She is passionate about, and has an deep understanding of flavours -- true, most Caribbean cooking is flavourful, but her seasonings seem to have a wider and more complex range than most.

One day's lunch of stewed chicken, with its shiny, almost lacquered skin, actually tasted more as though it had been roasted. We also had shrimp in a very light, subtle and only slightly curried sauce. In fact, apart from the jerks few of the dishes packed much heat, but a house-made Scotch bonnet sauce is on hand for those who need it.

Because the printed menu is so short I came back for dinner thinking this review would fill only half a column. Obviously I was wrong -- the menu too is a work in progress There are all kinds of things going on in the kitchen that aren't listed in print and it pays to ask what they are. We were too late for the chicken curry and too early for the goat, but everything we did get added up to a fine, savoury feast.

Dinner entrees run from $12.99 to $18.99 and include a crisp mixed salad in a delicate dressing, and one of the house-made breads -- cornbread, in our case, still warm from the oven. They also included a little bowl of crunchy deep fried chickpeas, on the house, and totally addictive.

But dinner really started with the wings, which were absolutely wonderful and unlike any other wings I've had -- tiny but meaty and bursting with juices, in a choice of glazes. We had half of them in a guava glaze, the other half in the sticky citrus glaze -- both great, but if I had to choose one only it would be the fabulous sticky citrus.

We also had doubles -- relatively thin but tender, puffy bread fritters, sandwiched with lightly curried chickpeas, and splashed with a dash of tamarind sauce -- also better than any I can remember ($2.50 each). They can be messy eating -- skip the utensils and use your hands. And wear something washable, just in case.

We tried our shrimp entree with two different sauces as well. The honey-jerk shrimp packed a real wallop, delivered by the several little circles of red hot habanero chilies. The Creole shrimp -- cooked with onions, tomatoes, peppers and Ave's secret Creole sauce -- were milder but also delicious, and kinder to my wimpy palate.

Ave's ribs aren't your run-of-the-mill barbecue. She starts with a dry rub of spices, slathers them in a sauce that is tangy-sweet with tamarind, and braises them. The braising is only temporary, until her grill is installed, but I can't imagine the grilled ribs could be any better than the ones we sampled. The oxtails, of course, will always be braised, and the succulent chunks -- in a rich, dark gravy with an almost caramel-like undertone -- were meltingly tender and superb.

I've tried on several occasions, in different restaurants, but I just can't like callaloo. For those who do like these greens, they'll find them carefully prepared here with okra and coconut milk. Rice with the entrees comes either plain or mixed with your choice of, among other things, peas, coconut or, in our case, pumpkin.

Desserts include a dense but pleasant pone of cassava with flecks of coconut, paired with a rum-spiked brown sugar sauce. Better still, one of the super-light house-made ice creams -- more like Italian granitas, and ours, flavoured with fresh mango, was wonderful.

It's a warm, family-run little place, and the service -- by two of Ave's daughters -- is helpful and attentive. There is a full liquor licence, including a wide selection of beers. But for these dog days I can think of few drinks more refreshing than the sorrel -- not that bitter green veggie, but a light and lovely purple beverage made from the sepals of the roselle (a hibiscus relative). It's lovely on its own, but a shot of rum probably wouldn't hurt either. There's no house-made ginger beer yet, but there will be in the future.

Open daily, starting with breakfast, including a Caribbean one on weekends. The atmosphere was quiet and tranquil but I was there early, when the massive bar/lounge on the other side of the kitchen was empty, so I can't predict the noise level later in the evening.

marion.warhaft@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 6, 2012 D3

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Updated on Friday, July 6, 2012 at 9:47 AM CDT: adds fact box

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