Some firsts you never forget. My very first day in Paris, for instance. It happened to be Bastille Day. There were fireworks and dancing in the streets.
I've celebrated Bastille Day many times since then, but I sometimes forget to when I'm not in France, and I missed it again -- yesterday, in fact. Still, there's nothing that says I can't celebrate after the fact, and I can think of no better place to do so than Peasant Cookery.
Some aspects of the decor are less French than when this space housed Oui Bistro. The cafe curtains are gone -- I miss them, but now there is a clear view of the action on the patio, the street and Old Market Square (where there's often a wedding party). There's a little less old-fashioned charm, but homey jars of preserves and pickles line the sills, the floor-to-ceiling antiqued mirrors still adorn one wall, and that massive slate listing charcuterie and cheeses could have come from one of those old-fashioned buffets de gare, i.e. railway station restaurants, which served everything from a snack to a meal. There's enough here to feed my nostalgia, and not least of it is the food.
Prices are lower than Oui's, with most appetizers from $7.99 to $12.99, and entrees from $14.99 to $23.99. The menu is shorter too, and although it isn't exclusively French, it's French enough for this homesick Francophile.
More to the point, the kitchen is still manned by Chef Tristan Foucault, and Oui, which was always a good restaurant, has evolved into an even more impressive one as Peasant Cookery.
The menu comes on two pages. One page lists the permanent offerings; the other ("the menu of the moment") offers daily choices, although many of those turn out to be semi-regulars, sometimes identical, sometimes with a twist.
One of the best is the brilliant charcuterie platter of house-cured meats. It's listed under appetizers at $14.99, but in a great deal on Mondays after 5 p.m., it goes for half price. It's intended for sharing but with a basket of the spectacular house-made breads, it could qualify as a meal for one. The components vary from day to day, but there were at least eight different meats on our platter, all excellent, most notably the elk sausage, the Italian dried beef and the elegant porchetta di testa (not to be confused with ordinary headcheese).
The pate de campagne could have been coarser and more livery for my taste, but my only real quibble would be with the garnish -- the semi-sweet pickle instead of the traditional vinegar cornichon.
If you're fond of oysters, this is the place for another great deal. There are two kinds -- Village Bays from P.E.I., and Green Gables from New Brunswick. Both are plump and briny, and although the regular menu price is $3 each, on Wednesdays after five they go for $1 each. For once in my life I have had almost enough oysters.
They aren't specially priced, but the mussels -- in your choice of sauce, with thin, crunchy fries -- were also good. So were two other appetizers du jour: grilled asparagus topped by a thin slice of spicy soppresseta sausage and garnished with piquillo-spiked aioli, and rich-flavoured pork belly that had been braised for hours sous vide, ending up with a lot more meat than fat.
There is usually a huge slab of moist and wonderfully tender pork chop. The presentation may vary but in our case it was stuffed with Oka cheese and braised in mustard-spiked beer, paired with creamy pureed potatoes and echoing Alsace in its garnish of mellow sauerkraut. Also on the daily list were fabulous little gnocchi made with aged cheddar, glazed with butter and herb oil and finished with bits of sun-dried tomatoes, spinach and piquilla peppers.
The wild sockeye salmon fillet was one of the moistest, most flavourful I can remember, crusted with mustard and napped with a light beurre blanc. The cassoulet of duck confit, garlic sausage and pork with white beans was good but, with more depth of flavour, would have been even better.
The only real disappointment was the beef bourguignon, a dish that, for some reason, often doesn't live up to expectations, even in good French restaurants. In this case the winey sauce was delicious, but didn't penetrate the beef, which remained flavourless, and -- although mentioned in the description -- the traditional glazed pearl onions were also missing.
For dessert there are always profiteroles -- airy little puffs of pastry filled with ice cream and drizzled with chocolate. Nice, but what really dazzled were the only occasionally available exquisite lemon tart, and a rich chocolate terrine with creme anglaize ($5 each).
The ambiance is comfortably casual but still what the French would call correct: the servers are attentive, hospitable and impeccably trained; and the sound level is civilized. And more kudos for a wine list that is not only well-chosen, but well-priced as well -- selling at a less-than-double mark-up. There are 17 sold by the glass, including a prosseco. And if that weren't reason enough for celebration, nestled among them is a local first -- for me at least -- a Provencal rose, a Marrenon from the Luberon. It was an absolute delight for summer, and it too is available by the glass.
To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below.
283 Bannatyne Avenue, 989-7700
Four and a half stars