This is not the dim, dark Chocolate Shop of yesteryear. These days, you walk into a striking, cool interior of blue patterns and original art works on white walls -- a long, narrow room, divided lengthwise down the middle by handsomely restored booths, with tables and chairs against the walls.
But long and narrow in this case acts as a kind of wind tunnel, and there are drafts along both sides of the booths -- bringing a sweater would be wise. It also acts as a noise amplifier, and we had to yell across the table to be heard.
The decor was a plus, but what we had come to Arkadash for was the food, most of it Middle Eastern, from Morocco to Turkey, in both of which countries Karen Peters, chef and co-owner (with Kelvin Peters), has travelled and/or lived. (Peters will be familiar to listeners of CBC Radio on Saturday morning, where she offers cooking tips and recipes.)
In this venue her recipes are being put to the test and most of them pass with honours, providing proof that there's more to Middle Eastern food than falafel and kebabs.
Two of the starters were particularly fine: buttery sautéed shrimp that were plump and moist, seasoned with smoked paprika ($9.50), and lahmacun, a pizza-like Turkish bread topped by chili-spicy ground lamb -- a blue cheese topping is an alternative ($12.50). The patlican -- a slice of grilled eggplant topped by garlicky yogurt -- would have been good also, if the eggplant skin at the bottom hadn't been so hard ($8.50).
B'stilla is a frequent and outstanding special -- it's sold as an entree for $15, but I prefer it as an appetizer, shared if necessary. It's a stunner of ultra-fine phyllo pastry stuffed with ground chicken, ground almonds, scrambled eggs and a fragrant mix of spices, dusted with powdered sugar after baking (yes, it works) and partnered with a refreshing Moroccan orange salad.
I was delighted to find one of my longtime favourites on the menu, imam baldi, which I've always known as imam bayildi. The spelling comes in many variations, the recipes in even more, but basically it's a Turkish dish of braised eggplants stuffed with a mixture of onions, tomatoes, garlic and lots and lots of olive oil. Possibly Arkadash's version may have started out stuffed but by the time it reached me it was just a flat slice of eggplant with, like the patlican, a hard skin at the bottom, and a tasty but skimpy topping.
Entrée prices are relatively moderate, with most ranging from $15 to $27. On the other hand, some of the portions are decidedly dainty. Not the Moroccan lamb stew, though, which was not only full-sized but full-flavoured as well, with dried plums and an undertone of honey. Turkish-style grilled, marinated chicken was tender and moist, with lovely, slightly citrusy tones. Ribs vary with the day -- ours were three goat ribs with the subtly sweet flavour of sour cherries (other days' ribs might be of beef or pork, with other seasonings).
A fillet of Arctic char was firm-fleshed and moist, with a sweet, fresh flavour although, for my taste, that flavour was overwhelmed by the pea shoot pesto. But chicken tagine was disappointing by any measure, consisting of stringy, overcooked chicken in a thin and surprisingly timid sauce that -- even though it contained no beans -- tasted like bean-cooking liquid, with none of the promised dried plums or almonds.
The beautifully seasoned kofta of ground beef would have been a winner, if only there had been more of it. It was nicely garnished with peppers, onions and roasted tomatoes, but that single, three-inch oblong meatball might leave most people hungry, especially at a tab of $19.
Garnishes were also small, but nice: couscous with a hint of orange blossom, bulgur flecked with parsley and basmati rice with a saffrony hue. The portions of starch were enough for me, but I did wish there had been a lot more than a dollop of the terrific, crisply sautéed kale with bits of coconut.
They buck the trend to oversize desserts here, but this was one time I would have welcomed that trend. They are prepared by pastry chef David Corby, and I could have demolished twice as much of the two I tried, which were among the very best the city has to offer: the gossamer fleurette d'orange -- a parfait perfumed with orange blossom water and topped with lime granita ($8) -- and the fig mecnun, a warm toffee-like fig pudding that was luscious and miraculously light ($7). Exquisite barely begins to describe them.
Dinners come with a couple of wee freebies: between courses one night there were an amuse-bouche of a single preserved cherry stuffed with something spicy, and, at dinner's end, a rich chocolate truffle -- one that tasted of Grand Marnier, the other flecked with coconut.
The wine list is nice but pricey, with no bottles under $33; however there is a good selection by the glass. Service can be slow, and occasionally disorganized, but the staff are so pleasant and enthusiastic one would forgive them more severe lapses.
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