Purple Hibiscus looks much as it did on my last visit, almost two years ago. There's still nothing one might call decor, and the only noticeable difference is the addition of a few more tables, which are lined up against the outer wall and offer a view into the open kitchen opposite. It's still a plain little place, but you can't eat decor, and what you can eat is some of the best Caribbean food in the city.
If you're lucky, the fabulous cassava balls will be available -- crusty on the outside, fluffy on the inside, sweetened by a streak of purple yam. On my last visit they were only one of the many sides that accompanied the entrées, and if you're really lucky, owner-cook Ave Dinzey will have done what she ought to do, i.e. put them on the permanent menu.
The menus tell only part of the story since there are always rotating specials and some spectacular buys. Most entrées cost from $16.99 to $18.99, and for the month of January there are two-for-one dinners, as well as a bring-your-own-wine with no corkage fee feature. And although some portions are smallish, there are so many delicious sides there is no possibility of leaving hungry.
To begin with, there's a complimentary bowl of deep-fried chickpeas to nibble on. Many items change from day to day, but our dinner started with two homemade breads -- one a kind of corn pone, the other coconut bread, served with guava and rum-flavoured butter, and then a lightly dressed green salad, dotted with bits of mango.
Luscious chunks of oxtail, simmered to moist tenderness in a murky brown gravy, with an undertone of "burnt" sugar, are on the permanent menu. So are the tender, meaty jerk ribs, with a superb, moderately spiced flavour that penetrates right to the bones. On one visit we had the two-for-one special -- tangy, peppery jerk chicken and cumin-seasoned geera pork, both delicious and a bargain at $16.99 with all the trimmings. Bacchanal shrimp in a guava-coconut glaze was OK, but tame in comparison with most of the other dishes. All the other flavours were bold and complex, but nothing we tried had anything more than a mild bite, although I'm sure the kitchen would oblige with more heat, if requested.
The shrimp were big, plump and juicy, and we might have liked them more in the honey jerk glaze, which we had on the terrific grilled shrimp that are listed under Cutters ($7.95). They were also excellent in a big, bulging dahlpuri roti (filled with ground split peas), which is available at lunch ($9.99) and dinner ($15.95), both with the house salad. Also available at both meals are the addictive doubles -- two sizable, soft fritters sandwiched with curried chickpeas and drizzled with tamarind sauce ($2.75 each).
Among the sides, as well as those fabulous cassava puffs, were crisply fried circles of plantain, callaloo stewed in coconut milk (the first callaloo I have ever liked), a slightly crusty mound of baked cassava on a bed of black-eyed peas, rice and peas and slices of corn pie (with corn niblets).
Quick-service lunch specials are available Tuesday to Friday. Our Friday special was those excellent jerk ribs with a rum and guava glaze, garnished with rice and peas, mango chow, house salad and corn pone ($10.99). Other possible specials might be coconut-steamed beef pelau, Caribbean-style tacos with choice of filling, or cassava tortillas filled with spicy ground chicken.
The ice cream is homemade and I tried, for the first time, the one flavoured with soursop which -- despite its name -- was pleasantly sweet. But the real knockout was the sensational dark, dense cake flavoured with just the right amount of rum.
Service by Ave's daughters is warm and efficient. Closed Monday.
* * *
Even at their most expensive, dim sum are a bargain, but a leisurely dim sum meal in tranquil surroundings isn't easily come by. Kam Ho satisfies on both counts -- a spacious, charming place, with exquisite Chinese artifacts adorning a series of little ledges and scarlet cloths on the table (albeit under glass, but not, at least, the usual plastic sheet). Moreover, there are no rolling carts -- these dim sum are made to order, come to table piping hot and are available at dinner as well (there's also a full dinner menu).
Most cost from $3 small, to $3.80 medium, to $4.60 large, and although the selection isn't huge, the dumplings are plump and full of flavour. There are even a few rarities, among them the Hong Kong-style steamed rice rolls, which enfold a deep-fried Chinese doughnut. Or the tiny bowl of soup containing a massive dumpling filled with seafood and broth -- I made a mess of mine, losing the dumpling's broth to the broth in the bowl, but it was still all delicious.
In fact, anything with shrimp is delicious: the translucent-skinned shrimp dumplings filled almost to bursting; the crunchy spring rolls with shrimp instead of meat; or the eggplant slices with minced shrimp in black bean sauce. Even the juicy pork dumplings are lightened by bits of shrimp. I fell in love with the fried turnip cake -- something I've only tolerated elsewhere -- and came closer to liking my companion's favourite omasum tripe than I ever have. I've never had a steamed pork bun that I didn't like, but the pan-fried meat dumplings (a.k.a. potstickers) were merely OK, and ditto the sticky rice in lotus leaf.
The print on the menu is tiny (a small magnifying glass would be useful) but the service, although sometimes slow (particularly when the place is full), is warm, friendly and helpful. Closed Tuesday.
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.
Restaurants marked with a red flag were rated between 0.5 to 2.5 stars; yellow flags mark those rated between 2.5 to 4 stars; and green flags mark those rated rated 4.5 to 5 stars. Locations marked with a yellow dot were not assigned a star rating.