Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Saturday afternoon? Sure; other times? Uh...

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Like live lobster? Think you can't afford it? You probably can at the Norwood Hotel's Seafood Saturdays, which run every week from noon to 4 p.m. Prices depend on the market, ranging recently from $17 to $22 per lobster (ours appeared to be close to two pounds) and I've often paid more for food that I've enjoyed a lot less.

It seems to be a one-woman show, a woman who clearly knows her lobsters, which are the overwhelmingly best reason for a visit. Did we want a she or a he, she asked, and we were impressed by the fact that, not only did she ask, but also that she knew the difference (nowhere else in the city have I ever been asked).

Obviously, if you like the roe, you should ask for a she, and always for the friskiest beast in the tank. They come simply steamed, with a little container of drawn butter, and are sweet, firm and cracked for easy eating. No bibs, though -- wear something washable.

Lobster is king, but there's also an assortment of simply pan-fried fish, at $2.25 to $4 for very small portions, including a not-bad mixture of veggies. There's nothing exceptional about them but they do taste fresh and good, most notably the sweet-fleshed pickerel.

Other shellfish options included bacon-wrapped scallops, which were OK, but also breaded shrimp that were no more than passable, and calamari that were downright dreadful -- almost all breading, and bone dry.

You place your orders at a buffet, but the food is brought to your table. The Seafood Saturdays are listed for the Wood Tavern, and years ago that was where you had to sit. But the Tavern looked dark and deserted when we arrived and, it turned out, we were free to have our seafood in the Jolly Friar restaurant, which is also near the buffet, and has a charming, almost rustic ambience, with deep burgundy walls and lots of raw wood trim.

While there we scanned the restaurant's menu, and were intrigued enough by some ambitious-sounding items to return for dinner. But it turned out to be a tale of two kitchens, neither of which seems to have anything to do with the other. My last visit was more than 12 years ago, at which time there were a few nods to the hotel's St. Boniface location, in the split pea soup, for instance, which still turns up -- thick, dotted with ham, and soul-satisfying. But the dinner menu has been completely revised and contemporized. No more homey liver and onions, for instance -- a pity, since it was one of the few dishes I liked in the past. But the barbecued ribs, which were what the kitchen did best back then, are still what they do best today -- tender and meaty with a slightly sassy baked-in sauce ($23 for the full rack, $15 for half).

In fact, if you were to compose a meal of only certain items you might think I've been stingy with my stars. Before your ribs, for instance, you could start with savoury croquettes of ground braised lamb, made with little if any filler, and paired with a light lemony aioli ($9).

Entrée prices include either soup or salad -- a difficult choice, since both my split pea soup du jour and the crisp, fresh salad in the house dressing (other dressings are commercial) were excellent.

But choose some of the other options, and you might think I've been too generous. Garlic prawns were plump, and a generous eight in number, but the white wine sauce they swam in was a watery pool in which it was hard to detect any garlic or, wine or, for that matter, any flavour at all ($9).

Other listings include a few steaks ($19 to $28), and the inevitable pastas ($17 to $18) -- spaghetti with shrimp, tomatoes and basil pesto; penne bolognese that includes chorizo with the ground beef and peppers, and is broiled with a blend of four cheeses; or fettuccine alfredo with spinach, zucchini and red onions -- variations that might not appeal to some pasta purists.

One entrée listing was a puzzler. One might logically assume that "bruschetta chicken" would come on toast but (according to the server) the name refers only to its topping of basil pesto, tomatoes and a four-cheese blend.

We opted instead for the pan-roasted half-chicken, which was dry, and came with a rsti potato cake that might have been delicious if it hadn't been so salty ($22). In fact, over-salting was a recurring problem, as with the pork tenderloin slices which were also hard and dry, partnered with a wild mushroom risotto that was gummy and -- apart from the overdose of salt -- totally flavourless ($24).

Sautéed pickerel wasn't too salty, but it was flabby and oily -- not a patch on the pickerel of the Saturday buffet ($21, or $12 for a half order). Shepherd's pie -- a very thin layer of ground meat with a very thick and lumpy sweet potato topping -- was an ill-conceived conflict of flavours and textures ($15).

We skipped dessert since none were house-made, and our server couldn't tell us which bakery they had come from. Service was genial but remarkably inattentive for a nearly empty room. The oddest part was when, halfway through our entrées, a sauceboat of turgid brown gravy was plunked down on the table -- without a word. We assumed it was meant for the mashed potatoes that had come with the ribs, but they were better off without it.

marion.warhaft@freepress.mb.ca

To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below or click here.

Restaurants marked with a red flag were rated between 0.5 to 2.5 stars; yellow flags mark those rated between 2.5 to 4 stars; and green flags mark those rated rated 4.5 to 5 stars. Locations marked with a yellow dot were not assigned a star rating.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 26, 2012 D3

History

Updated on Friday, October 26, 2012 at 10:32 AM CDT: adds fact box

10:57 AM: adds map

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