Since they first turned up in Winnipeg, most of the mussels I've had, even in some mediocre restaurants, were plump, juicy, satiny and delicious.
Not so much lately, as regular readers of this column know.
Have all the Prince Edward Island mussels become inferior? Or have some Winnipeg restaurants found new and less reliable suppliers? Whatever the reason, persistent reports of wonderful mussels drew me back to la P'tite France, where they are so popular they are listed on a separate, all-you-can-eat with frites menu for $21.99. For some reason they aren't listed on the regular menu, but are available at $12 a pound, but without frites, which is how we had ours.
Actually I had tried the mussels here about a year ago, and found them no more than passable. Sad to say, that's about all they were this time too -- variable in size, not particularly tasty, and barely moistened with the white wine and garlic sauce, which had little taste of either wine or garlic.
That said, they were the only let-down on an otherwise delicious first dinner.
There are a few ways to order here. If a couple has one appetizer and two entrees, la P'tite Formule also entitles them to a bowlful of lovely, marinated olives, a baguette and a shared dessert. The $40 Grande Formule buys the works for one diner -- olives, baguette, appetizer, main course and dessert. Entrees on their own range from $23 to $29, but bread is extra -- $2 for half a baguette, $4 for the whole one.
My quartet ordered the P'tite Formule, and for our other appetizer we had six big, butterflied shrimp garnished with a few chickpeas in a light curry sauce -- the curry was too sweet for my taste, but my friends loved it ($12). Every entree was excellent -- a hefty lamb shank in a deep, dark sauce that was heady with red wine; a duck leg confit in a light orange sauce; seafood en papillote -- shrimp, cod and salmon in a light, creamy sauce steamed in parchment paper-- and roasted elk ribs (substituting that night for the menu's bison) -- big, meaty bones in a tomato-based sauce with a sprinkling of raisins. Veggies were varied and fresh, and squares of layered potato slices were marvellous.
However, dinner on a second visit could have been prepared in a different kitchen, or at least by a different chef, which raises the problem of inconsistency, and makes awarding stars so difficult. Usually, after assessing every dish, I come up with an average; in this case I'm adding half a star because of that exemplary first meal.
On the second visit, though, escargots were tiny and flabby. The inherently flavourless little creatures usually need a jolt of something, which these didn't get, either from garlic or the bland demi-glace ($12). The poutine could have been great, with lovely fries and a good gravy, but was rendered overwhelmingly salty by shreds of the house-smoked mozzarella ($10).
A New York steak, despite some areas of gristle, was the best entree that night, but the demi-glace we chose (over the peppercorn or bleu cheese sauce) was murky and flavourless. A chicken breast that was dry and tasteless under its glaze of brie was garnished with thickish strips of ham that had been so overcooked they were barely recognizable as ham. Baked salmon came in a lemon champagne sauce that didn't taste of lemon, champagne, or much else for that matter.
Even the beef bourguignon -- one touchstone of French bourgeois cooking -- was disappointing. It was made with tender but dry, flavourless beef shanks, in chunks too huge to absorb any flavour from the wine sauce, which, in any case, was barely more than a glaze. Also missing were the requisite little pearl onions.
Desserts were consistently marvellous, though, on both dinners ($5 to $6). They included a chocolate-apple brownie drizzled with peanut butter sauce; a warm apple tart on puff pastry, with caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream -- almost a tarte tatin, and better than many that go by the name; profiteroles with ice cream and chocolate ganache; and a heavenly Grand Marnier-spiked crème brªlée.
The interior has a warm and welcoming, almost rustic ambience, with walls of windows and a simple but attractive decor. Service was charming, attentive and had a French accent. I wish the music did too, but at least it wasn't loud.
The wine list is well chosen, but pricey, with not a single bottle under $35. Nor did it inspire confidence when we witnessed our waitress pour the remains of an unfinished bottle of Ciclos Malbec into our half-litre carafe and top it with wine from a newly opened bottle ($28 the half litre, $40 the bottle). It was dreadful, and insult was added to injury when she reported that the chef thought the wine was perfectly OK. She did, nevertheless, pour us a fresh half litre from a newly opened bottle, and it was as good as the first one had been poor, proving our point.
Dinner only, Tuesday to Saturday.
La P'tite France
241 St. Mary's Rd., 237-5468
Three and a half stars out of five