Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Lovin' the Latin

New Exchange District bistro dishes up spicy, seductive Spanish-style food

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The furniture and the floor may look worn, and the place is self-described -- accurately -- as funky. But I love the architecture of the solarium-like room, with its huge windows and the Royal Albert's almost century-old stone facade as its inner wall. And these days there are two fresh roses on every table -- suggestive, one might guess, of higher-than-usual aspirations.

And that guess would be right. After leaving Pizzeria Gusto, and an ensuing brief stint at RestoGare, this is where the peripatetic Scott Bagshaw has landed -- in his own Deseo Bistro, where he can give free rein to his personal culinary inclinations.

 

An all-day menu (accessible on Deseo's website) offers everything from breakfasts to salads to spanwiches to small and big bites, most with strong Latin influences, and all reasonably priced -- from $7 to $15. There was the occasional disappointment. The "charred" tomato soup (described all too accurately, alas) had a harsh flavour, and was missing the promised avocado.

Also -- surprisingly, in a Latin-style restaurant -- the vegetarian chili was blander than most greasy spoon versions, tasting mainly of barely cooked canned tomatoes.

Most of the menu, though, was composed of winners, and much of what was good was so very, very good. If I had to pick a single best it might be the moist and marvellously flavourful meatballs of roasted chicken, glazed in sweet tomato and ancho chili. The also excellent chili- and lime-flavoured shrimp with a crumble of corn bread were a close second. Add to either a salad of romaine with jicama, celery, edamame and candied nuts in a lime-sparked vinaigrette, and you've got a great lunch.

Another dish I'd happily come back for is the "big bites" prawns and grits. It's a seductive composition of plump, lime-splashed shrimp strewn with tiny dice of Spanish bacon and crunchy wasabi-coated dried peas on a soul-soothing mixture of polenta and manchego cheese.

I had intended to try more items from the original menu -- a taco, perhaps, or one of the spanwiches (the mole-spiced brisket with beans sounded interesting) or the chicken adobo with rice and beans. But my plans were changed when, on a return visit, I was handed another, and totally different, dinner menu. The prices were slightly higher than on the original, ranging from $10 to $21. And although the Latin influence was still strong, the tone was different, with dishes that sounded more contemporary, more complex, more challenging.

Certainly our two starters rivalled many I've had in some upscale establishments. A salad of roasted asparagus, for instance, topped by a perfect (i.e. still runny) fried egg and a film of melted cheese -- notable, as well, for avoiding the far-too-common sin of truffle oil overdose. And three huge, juicy scallops were a triumph, flecked with bits of bacon and shreds of napa cabbage lightly seasoned with lemon juice and chili.

There were enough enticing entrées on the new menu to make decisions difficult -- slow-roasted oxtail with chili, lime and caramel; grilled lamb chop with romanesco sauce and arugula pesto; pork belly with poached egg; roast catfish with puttanesca sauce. I finally opted for the confit of veal cheek, in part because it is so rare locally. A great choice, as it turned out, the flavourful morsels braised to silken softness in a luscious, almost gelatinous sauce, paired with heaps of meaty shiitake mushrooms, and served with creamy white corn porridge.

Another entrée was less than the sum of its parts. I loved the sweet, smoky slices of Iberico sausage, the huge Spanish olives and the gloriously winey sauce, but they didn't quite connect with each other, even less with the duck confit (which could have been juicier), and not at all with the potatoes that tasted as though they'd been added as an afterthought.

Still, it was acceptable, which couldn't be said of the bison rib-eye. The smidgen of horseradish chimichurri that came with it was tantalizing enough to make me want more, and the slightly flattened little "smashed" potatoes were delicious. But the rib-eye itself, as well as having a burnt flavour, was so riddled with sinew that every bite was, quite literally, inedible.

Desserts ($6 each) include a great flourless chocolate cake, seasoned -- improbably but deliciously -- with chili and sea salt. There's also an upside-down pistachio cornbread cake, with a dab of apple filling and a dollop of cinnamon crema -- nice, interesting, but something I'd prefer with my breakfast coffee.

The staff is attentive and enthusiastic. The wine list is short but interesting with most available by the glass and, of course, there are also Mexican beers and margaritas -- the unblended kind, on the rocks.

Beware the decibel level -- when there's live music in the bar, the intensity can be ear-splitting, and even when there isn't the restaurant's own sound system blares almost as loud. Open late on Friday and Saturday.

 

marion.warhaft@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 4, 2011 D3

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