Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Délicieux? Oui! Oui, Chez Sophie!

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Chez Sophie is one of those rare places that could accurately be called a bistro, in the original sense of the word. It's a tiny, tightly-packed space, basically simple but loaded with charm, with an eclectic decor of unmatched chairs (some bentwood, some straightback), a festoon of dried hydrangeas along one wall, and some charming little paintings -- mostly facades of French shops and restaurants. French chansons provide a soft musical background.

It's also family-run and, not coincidentally, that family is a couple from Alsace. They emigrated here a few years ago, took over a pizza parlor (Aladdin's) and turned it into a little corner of France -- a very popular little corner, as it happens, and if you're planning on a Saturday night, you'd be wise to reserve early in the week. It may be cramped, and when it fills up it can be noisy, but what you get in exchange is traditional French cooking by a chef who knows what he is doing.

I first reviewed Chez Sophie shortly after it opened, when it was still called Aladdin's, but that review was of a certain kind of dinner, one that is no longer available (see below). What brought me back was the realization that I'd never had any of the à la carte dinners, which are priced from $16.99 to $22.50, including a choice of soup or salad.

There are only a few main courses, many of them rich with cream. The standout was an escalope of tender veal in a bacon-laced cream sauce -- so luscious, so absolutely marvellous I could almost imagine myself in France. Unsurprisingly, there's a good beef bourguignon in a dark winey sauce, and also a well-prepared, if slightly chewy New York steak, topped sparingly by a lovely, creamy peppercorn sauce.

All were partnered with little ramekins of scalloped potatoes but (in old French fashion, which dictates one garnish only) no vegetables. Your veggie, should you choose to have it instead of the soup, will be the salad -- a good one, dressed in a slightly mustardy balsamic vinegar dressing. But judging by my soul-satisfying cream of tomato du jour I think I'd always opt for soup -- a big bowlful on a cute wooden platter, flanked by a nice, chewy little roll.

There was one serious disappointment. The mussels. Not the mussels we ended up with, but the ones we started out with. They were clearly part of a batch which must have been left over from the previous day -- frozen, possibly, to keep them from spoiling. Whatever the reason, they were utterly juiceless, flannelly and flavourless. We complained, and they were replaced by plump, juicy mussels from what was clearly a fresher batch -- delicious, in a winey cream sauce, partnered with terrific skinny fries. But the fact is, that first batch should never have been fobbed off on any customer.

Actually mussels are unusual as a main course. So is the tartiflette, but whether you have it for dinner, or lunch, or as a shared snack, be sure to have it. The best poutine couldn't hold a candle to this decadently rich gratin of potatoes, onions, bacon and ham, bubbling in cream and enriched even further with Trappist cheese (you can also have it as a pizza topping).

Other unsampled specialties include salmon in cream sauce and fried Camembert. There are as well a few pastas -- spaghetti bolognaise; tortellini with onions, bacon, ham and cream; penne with chicken fingers and tomatoes in a basil cream sauce and spaghetti with shrimp in cream sauce.

My first review, when Chez Sophie was brand new, had been of table d'hote prix fixe dinners, which were featured every Saturday, composed (I can hardly believe it now) of two starters, main course, cheese, dessert and beverage for $25. No choices, but a lovely little adventure in French cooking. Well, that was then, and that dinner is long gone, replaced these days by weekly specials of soup or salad, main course (rainbow trout for the past two weeks) and dessert for under $30.

The house's pizza tradition has survived though, and these come in a few varieties -- French, traditional and cream-sauced versions that resemble the flammenkuechen of Alsace. They cost from $12.50 for nine inches with mushrooms, ham and mozzarella to $30.50 for 17 inches of the marvellous Raclette, topped by cream sauce with onions, ham, bacon and Trappist and mozzarella cheeses. You can also have a top-notch quiche Lorraine -- not on the menu but listed on a wall board.

For dessert the regulars are chocolate mousse and crème caramel, but we couldn't resist that night's special of sublimely tender crepes Suzette, flambéed at table with Grand Marnier and partnered with vanilla ice cream. Scrumptious!

Service is knowledgeable and attentive and, unlike a few years ago, unilingual Anglophones will have no trouble communicating. There are some good wine choices by the bottle but, sadly, the only wine sold by the glass is not French, but a generic Canadian Jackson-Triggs, and not a very good one.

To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 2, 2011 D3


Updated on Friday, December 2, 2011 at 10:21 AM CST: Adds map, photos

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