Just about now (if you haven't already paid them) the bills are rolling in, but that doesn't mean you have to eat at home. My annual bargain columns are reminders of some moderately priced restaurants that have been reviewed in the not-too-distant past -- not rock-bottom-cheap fast foods, but expertly prepared, value-priced real meals.
Today's two are both family-run ethnic restaurants where the welcome is typically warm, and both in the past have made it onto my best-of-the-year lists.
Simon's is a charming little place, with big black-and-white tiles on the floor, pumpkin-coloured walls and, despite its tiny size (I doubt it seats more than 20) well-spaced, uncrowded tables. The staff is friendly and attentive, and they seem genuinely concerned that you enjoy their cuisine.
Dinners start with three complimentary little salsa dips: the relatively mild green chimichurra; a slightly tangy and flavourful medium red one; and a deep red one that tastes as hot as it looks -- too hot for me, but (on our server's advice) terrific when added sparingly to the medium red one.
For appetizers there are the quiche-like pascualini, filled with spinach and Parmesan and big enough for sharing ($8) or the sfijas, a smaller flaky pastry stuffed with minty ground beef ($3.20). One of the baked, tender-crusted empanadas makes a good alternative starter (or, for that matter, a few will do for a tasty lunch). They come with a choice of nine fillings -- my personal favourites are the tuna, beef with raisins and olives and the ham with cheese, in that order ($3.50).
There are only 11 entrées, and four of them are steaks, and although a 10-ounce ribeye at $28 was pretty good (its flavour boosted by the chimichurri), it's out of the bargain class, and was the least of the attractions.
My top pick would be the pollo deshuesado -- grilled, butterflied chicken that had been marinated in lemon, garlic and red wine and was wonderfully flavourful and (remarkably, for a boneless chicken breast) full of juices. It's $14 for a quarter of a chicken, $23 for a huge half that would leave enough for tomorrow's lunch as well.
The locro is another good choice, a thick, rib-sticking beef stew with slices of chorizo, beans and squash -- mild in flavour but with a hot sauce on the side for those who need heat ($14). The only other traditional Argentine entrée (unsampled) is humita, a mix of grated corn, squash, vegetables and mozzarella, also with a side of spicy sauce ($14).
Many Argentines are of Italian origin, and their influence is reflected in the wonderful canalones -- tender crepes filled with spinach and ricotta in a light rosé sauce.
For heftier Italianate dishes, hefty palates should try one of the milanesas, so big they almost overflow the plates -- slices of breaded, crisply fried beef topped with fried eggs for $16, or with ham, mozzarella, roasted red peppers, tomato sauce and fried eggs for $19, or a full portion for two at $30. The similar suprema de pollo is made with chicken and, unlike the others, is garnished with asparagus, creamed corn and peas for $24. All come in sandwiches as well, from $10 or $14.
A $22 sampler dinner is a good introduction for first-timers and good value, comprising appetizers, locro or humita and either crepes filled with dulce de leche or ice cream. However, if you're ordering a la carte, the luscious torta mil hojas -- stacks of crisp pastry layered with dulce de leche, walnuts and whipped cream is a must ($6).
There may be Greek restaurants with more decor than Santorini's few Greek posters, and many of them will have longer menus. But I doubt if their specialties will be any better than the few that are impeccably prepared in this warm-hearted little place. There are a few sandwiches, salads and pastas, as well as good, juicy burgers (the only non-Greek item I tried). But if the Greek part of the menu is small, so are the prices, ranging from $8.99 for souvlaki in a pita to $15.99 for a combo of two souvlaki and spanakopita, with all the main-course extras -- soup, Greek salad, potatoes and garlic toast.
The salad greens are fresh, the tomatoes ripe, the feta and olives generous and the dressing perfectly balanced. The usually available avgolemono chicken and rice soup is nicely lemony, if sometimes a tad too thick with rice, but the frequent du jour of lentil soup is a savoury splendour. The roasted potatoes have just the right amount of lemon flavour, and the garlic toast tastes fresh and garlicky.
The entrées may be few but they are delicious, every one of them. The moussaka is among the city's best, with a generous layer of cinnamon-scented meat between layers of potatoes and eggplant and a rich bechamel topping with a hint of nutmeg. Both the chicken and pork souvlaki are tender and flavourful, and the spinach, egg and feta-filled spanakopita is enclosed in that genuine rarity -- hand-made filo pastry.
The entrées are copious, but don't miss out on the two appetizers ($4.50 each). The tzatziki is thicker than most (and that's a good thing), but the real stunner is the velvety taramasalata -- it's on the menu, but not always available, so if you're interested in trying this splendid Greek caviar spread, phone ahead, and they'll probably prepare it for you. And don't skip the terrific, honey-drenched baklava for dessert.
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.