Few café openings have evoked as much buzz as the Free Press News Café -- the first of its kind in Canada, apparently. There was also some interest, I've been told, in whether or not I'd be able to review it. Part of the café's philosophy is to allow patrons to interact with working journalists, something which -- given the anonymity necessary for my job -- I had to avoid.
And even if I managed to remain anonymous, would I be able to give my honest opinion? Those who know me knew that I would. In fact, I was ordered by "she who must be obeyed" (editor Margo Goodhand) to do precisely that: to give my honest opinion, whatever it might turn out to be.
Well, I did manage to avoid recognition, several times. Unlike many of the café's patrons I timed my visits for hours when I assumed there would be few FP staff members who might recognize me, and I was lucky. Obviously, since those visits were during off hours, I can't comment on the service in a full house. But that apart, my honest opinion is that this is a great café, and a perfect addition to the Exchange.
A high ceiling and two sides of huge windows create a space that is bright and airy. There are two television sets (this is, after all, a news café) and the only signs of decor are the fine photographs on the inner wall. There is also a nice little patio on the quiet, Arthur Street side of the building.
You order from a wallboard menu at the front counter, but the food is brought to your table. The hours have recently been reduced, with earlier closing times -- now from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Thursday, to 10 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, and to 5 p.m. Sunday.
The kitchen concentrates on soups, salads and sandwiches, but they are rarely run-of-the-mill. There's a lot more cooking going on than in many cafés, with chicken, meats and fish freshly cooked in-house, and fresh, local ingredients used whenever possible. The soups du jour are particularly good -- a superlative cream of mushroom with a generous float of morels; a robust lentil and black bean soup; or a zesty roasted-tomato base with chickpeas, carrots and yams ($5.50 each)
The sandwiches are packed thick and paired with either a well-dressed green salad or a mustardy potato salad ($8 to $10.25). I was particularly happy to find the Cuban sandwich, a pressed and grilled baguette filled with roasted pork loin, ham, swiss cheese and pickles -- a hot trend elsewhere but a local rarity.
Pork turns up often -- slices of roasted loin with roasted peppers and aioli, or braised and pulled with barbecue sauce on a Portuguese roll. A celebration of local ingredients is the Manitoba club, a great mouth-stretcher packed with chicken breast that tasted freshly cooked, Winkler bacon, Bothwell aged cheddar and vine ripened tomatoes.
My first Vietnamese steak sandwich was a complete disappointment, filled with juiceless marinated flank steak with no trace of Vietnamese seasonings, and a dab of Asian coleslaw that didn't taste Asian either. Given the quality of the other sandwiches I thought it deserved another try, and this time the meat was tender and moist, albeit still not Vietnamese. In other words, a decent but ordinary beef sandwich.
There are always specials as well, among them a daily variation of grilled cheese, or such fillings as shrimp salad, devilled ham or tuna melt. There's also a vegetarian option in the panini with portobellos, veggies and havarti and, occasionally, such main courses as sausages and peppers on a bun or a shore lunch of char or halibut with pan fries and green beans.
Salads ($7.50 to $12.50) are interesting, and two, at least, are marvellous. The top-priced salmon salad could grace the finest table in town -- a combination of seared salmon steak, salmon rillettes and silky smoked salmon on citrusy-dressed greens. The bottom-priced roasted vegetable tostada was also tops -- soft naan bread with a savoury mixture of asparagus, zucchini, peppers and manchego cheese in poblano tomato sauce. Although the bread cubes could have had more substance I liked the tomato, cucumber and bread salad, with fresh basil and shreds of parmesan. Also high on my list was the retro and again trendy Cobb salad, an arrangement of chicken, bacon, hard-boiled eggs, avocado and cheddar on a bed of Roquefort-dressed iceberg lettuce.
The Niçoise salad, however, was another rare disappointment, especially for this one-time Nice-dweller who used to practically live on it. I could accept the inclusion of chickpeas and even, reluctantly, the absence of tuna among the traditional green beans, hard-boiled eggs, potatoes and olives. But the vinaigrette was bland, and what's a Niçoise without the essential zip of anchovies!
This is a great place for Sunday brunch -- any day of the week, for that matter, but on Sunday morning the parking is easy, and the area calm. You can have your free-range eggs any which way -- scrambled, in an omelette or frittata, fried or poached with a choice of garnish ($7 to $8.50). We had country cured ham, toast and hash browns with eggs that were perfectly poached -- still properly, impressively jiggly soft. Great coffee, too.
Desserts, aren't house-made but come from Cake-ology or Prairie Ink. A huge, cranberry-dotted cookie, and a lemon square might have been OK if the baker had gone easier on the sugar, but a peanut butter and chocolate concoction was luscious and both a crumbly scone and coffee cake were excellent.
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Note: Last week the e-mail address for Sa'aadal Kheyr was incorrect. It should have read email@example.com
- Free Press News Café
- 237 McDermot Ave., 943-0682
- No wheelchair access
- Four stars out of five
To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below.