This multi-windowed corner cafe is in its third incarnation. The first -- the late lamented Tomato Pie -- was succeeded by the Tomato Food and Wine Bar, which offered similar specialties but didn't last very long. However, its chef, Robin Maharaj, has remained as owner-chef of today's Deadfish Cafe, where he is creating his own spin on an interesting and eclectic menu.
It's a colourful place with a quirky charm. The walls -- some pale brick, some brick red, some lime green -- are hung with vibrant paintings by a local artist, and a brightly surrealistic piano with two huge painted eyes acts as room divider (it works too). The vibe is mellow, the noise level civilized and the prices relatively moderate. The staff is pleasant, although the service, along with a few other details, has its problems, about which more later. Some diners may be too annoyed by the problems to return. Others (myself among them) might overlook them because so much of the food is so good.
There's a lot of spicing going on -- some of it robust, some subtle. The prime rib panini is a savoury knock-out, loaded with tender, flavourful rib-eye spiced with cumin and chili, and capped with caramelized onion, horseradish aioli and melted white cheddar. This is also one of the town's better rotis, delivering a satisfying mouthful of mildly curried, plump, juicy shrimp and chickpeas (other options are chicken, beef, potato and spinach or bone-in goat). Sandwich prices ($13 to $15) include either soup or salad, both good choices judging by our roasted tomato bisque and a beautifully dressed house salad.
The saucing in general is terrific, as in the delicately creamy lemon basil sauce that cloaked a dozen of those excellent shrimp ($17). In another appetizer, though, a gorgeous avocado cream sauce spiked with tequila and lime couldn't redeem the unappetizing, over-the-hill mussels ($15 per pound).
Another good appetizer was the lettuce wrap ($12). The crab filling (others are jerk chicken or wild mushroom) was nicely, mildly spiced, paired with a delicious side of stir-fried mixed veggies in a light and slightly sweet soy sauce. A stix appetizer, however, was not only disappointing but vastly overpriced at $12 for three skewers with small pieces of pickerel that were fresh-tasting but wrapped in bacon that was half raw, and came without the promised potato hash (alternate stix are jerk chicken or salmon).
Lettuce wraps were better value at $12 for nicely seasoned spicy crab to be wrapped in lettuce leaves, accompanied by a tasty sauté of mixed veggies lightly seasoned with soy sauce. A simpler appetizer was the aloo pie -- empañadas stuffed with cumin-roasted potato filling and served with tangy tamarind chutney (three for $7).
There are only a few entrees, mostly fish and, oddly, the mussels in our paella were much better than those in our appetizer (were they from another batch?). In fact the paella, although saffronless and made with long-grain rice, was delicious and flavourful, incorporating salmon, pickerel, shrimp and slices of sausage. Unfortunately it was missing the promised scallops. They'd been chopped up, our waiter told us, but we could find no trace of them, and, in any case, if they had been there, it would have been a terrible waste of scallops, especially in a dish that sells for $34.
Of course there are still a few pastas (all $18), and I loved finding meatballs again (in untrendy oblivion for so many years), made of veal and pork in a roasted tomato sauce and finished with basil and parmesan (not quite enough, though). I also tried The Return of the Mac, and although I'm a traditionalist about macs (just macaroni and cheese sauce, please) this version is also delicious, a massive serving of penne with bacon, onions and asparagus baked with smoked gouda, cream and a dusting of panko bread crumbs and parmesan.
The pizzas -- all 12 inches, all $19 -- are also excellent, on crusts that are thin and flaky. I loved the Robbie Bobbie with extra-spicy sauce, double pepperoni, garlic mushrooms and a mixture of mozzarella and parmesan, and also the Big Taco, folded over spicy salsa and beef with avocado and créme fraîche . I'm dense -- it took me a while to catch on, but I suspect others will realize immediately that it comes folded to emulate a taco.
Don't leave without trying the glorious chocolate chip banana bread pudding, served warm with a slightly rummy caramel sauce ($8). The lemon meringue pie is good too but should just be called lemon pie ($7). The filling was a perfect balance of tart and sweet, but the meringue was the thinnest layer possible. An eighth of an inch. Maybe.
The wine list is short but contains a few good choices. Apart from the described lapses, I can't fault the food. I can fault the service though, amiable though it was. The numbingly slow wait between courses (dinner took over three hours). The missing ingredients in some dishes, and the annoying insistence on the presence of scallops in the paella when we could find no trace of them. The comp of one dessert wasn't comp enough, and although the house-made bread was wonderful, a $2 charge for a second helping turned up as a surprise on the bill.
167 Osborne Street, 477-6609
4 out of five stars
To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below.