It's been a year, almost to the day, since I had a meal that was prepared and served by the graduating class of Red River College's culinary school. It was in their Prairie Lights dining room, on the Notre Dame Avenue campus -- a blandly beige kind of place with almost nothing about the decor to engage the eye.
Dining at Jane's, RRC's new restaurant in the 110-year-old Union Tower, is like dining in a different century. The spectacular setting is a total opposite of Prairie Lights, reflecting the grandeur of early 20th-century Winnipeg architecture, with a soaring, gilt-accented, white coffered ceiling; massive terra cotta-coloured Corinthian columns, huge windows and marble floors. The old wrought-iron elevator doors are used as dividers, creating intimate areas in the huge room. One of the few 21st-century touches is the ultra-modern open kitchen, which offers a view of the cooks at work.
The current menu will remain in effect until Dec. 12, but it's impossible to award stars or generalize about the food, since the crew that's on duty on one night may not be the same crew on other nights. But everyone on my visit was efficient, attentive and endearingly eager. Prices are relatively moderate, with appetizers from $7 to $9, soups and salads from $6 to $9, main courses from $16 to $23 and desserts $7 each. And, as the RRC showcase restaurants always have over the years, this new one also delivers excellent value.
Dinners start with delicious, house-made focaccia and rolls, still warm from the oven, served with both plain and garlic butter. There are only three appetizers, but one of them was not only the best dish of the entire meal, but one of the best of its kind in the city -- the gorgeous, almost weightless gnocchi in a light lemon basil cream, strewn with wonderfully savoury wild mushrooms and toasted pine nuts.
Crispy pigs trotters were good too -- just the meat (no bones), shredded, breaded and fried; in other words a kind of croquette, served with a slightly piquant ravigote sauce, frisée greens and a few fava beans. I also liked the bison carpaccio, topped by tiny quail eggs, but -- in my opinion -- drizzling it with canola (instead of, say, olive) oil was carrying locavorism too far. A celery root, watercress, radish and apple salad in a mustard seed vinaigrette was a nice alternative starter.
The only main course I didn't try was cannelloni with butternut squash and spinach, but I did sample the remaining four (there are occasional specials as well). The top-priced rib-eye steak was thin but tender, tasty and prepared precisely as rare as requested (a little skimpy with the béarnaise sauce, though), and both the grilled teriyaki-seasoned game hen and the fresh, pan-seared Manitoba trout were also good. The one exception was the bacon-wrapped roasted pork medallions, which would have matched the others in tenderness and taste if it hadn't been so heavily oversalted.
Some garnishes were lovely -- fingerling potatoes and shredded Swiss chard with the steak, or the wild rice pilaf and steamed bok choy and baby carrots with the game hen. Others weren't -- a mushy, and rather unpleasant beet risotto with the pork (better to master the risotto before opting for trendy innovations), and with the trout, incongruous slices of spicy chorizo with potatoes in a romanesco sauce, which masked the trout's delicate flavour.
The four desserts listed (all $7) all sounded luscious, and the two we tried certainly were -- a chocolate brownie with pumpkin maple panna cotta and coconut ice cream, and a chocolate almond cake layered with chocolate mousse and served with cherry sorbet. The remaining two were crème caramel with caramelized pineapple and shortbread, a caramelized white chocolate mousse with passion fruit and raspberry sauces, and a sour cream sorbet.
Jane's lunch prices are slightly lower than those at dinner. Among them, soups ($4.25 to $4.50), salads ($8.50 to $10.50 full, $4.25 to $5.50 for half) and such mains as walleye tacos, chicken curry with cashews, pan-seared trout or game hen,and braised beef cheeks with celeriac and potato puree ($10.50 to $14.25). For dessert, pineapple rum cake, coconut cream on a cookie crust or a trio of Asian creme brulées ($4.25 to $4.75). The wine list is small but well selected, and if you don't finish your bottle you can take it home with you.
Eating at Jane's involves more complicated pre-arrangements than is usual with most commercial restaurants. Reservations are probably essential, with sittings possible from 11:30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. for lunch, and from 6 to 7:30 p.m. for dinner, Tuesday to Friday. An online calendar lists the dates available (www.janesrestaurant.ca), and reservations are made either by phone (204-632-2594) or by email (firstname.lastname@example.org). If by phone, you'll probably have to leave your phone number and, possibly, wait two business days for a call-back. In my own experience, reservations by email have taken less time.