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Smooth landing

Kitchen encounters little turbulence at airport hotel's Bistro 1800

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Think of the word 'bistro,' and chances are you'll think small, intimate and cosy. The monumentally misnamed Bistro 1800 is none of the above.

It's a big, comfortable room that offers generous space between the tables, and a hushed tranquility for weary travellers. But it is also dull, neutral to a fault in shades of taupe, beige and brown -- even the paintings are done in shades of brown. The institutional look is accentuated by the empty breakfast buffet stand at one end of the room -- screens would effectively disguise it, and something as simple as white linen on the marblized table tops would add some spark. Although the views are bleak, the walls of windows would probably brighten up the room during daylight hours, but the dinner items I tried were good enough to deserve a more cheerful setting, too.

I'd reviewed the place several years ago, and the experience had been a near-fiasco -- mainly because of the dreadful service by one waiter in particular. Nevertheless, several dishes had shown promise, and when a reader asked for advice on where to take friends who would be between planes for a few hours, I remembered them. As it happened, the question of promise turned out to be beside the point -- that dreadful waiter was no longer there, and the kitchen is now under the direction of a different executive chef, Jamie Szabo.

One dish in particular would be worth the trip from anywhere in the city, whether one needs to be near the airport or not.

To wit, the sumptuous St. Jacques appetizer, one of the hotel's signature items (denoted by an H in the margin). It's a generous portion of shrimp and scallops, true jumbos all, cooked to the precise moment of tender, juicy doneness, and almost enough for a main course ($14). Bathed in a luscious Riesling cream sauce and glazed with asiago, they were surrounded by a huge puff of garlicky whipped potatoes, so good it took all my willpower not to finish them off.

There are escargots as well, in a slightly creamy sauce with diced tomato and mushrooms that was nice, but not (for my taste) as perfect a match as the simple and classic garlic butter. All the snails were bigger than most I've been getting elsewhere, but not all of them were as firm as they should have been. They didn't rate an H, like the St. Jacques, but they were OK. ($11)

Entrées range from $20 to $36, and the kitchen does a particularly good job on the meats. Carnivores can have either a 10-oz. striploin, or -- that genuine rarity -- a 12-oz. prime rib steak on the bone, in port-infused jus. It wasn't quite as big as it looked because of the bone and the sizable surround of fat (in the restaurant's dim light it was hard to tell when we were putting a slice of meat in our mouths or a chunk of fat), but when we did get to the meat it was richly beefy and tender (although we still could have used better steak knives).

A half rack of lamb, crusted with herbed Dijon mustard, was luscious, and a hefty grilled pork chop, glazed by wild berry port jus was also excellent.

On the other hand, a sockeye salmon steak was moist but under-seasoned and bland, a condition that might have been improved had there actually been some of the promised Chardonnay cream sauce.

The only other entrées on the relatively short dinner menu are a chicken breast filled with bacon and cheese, Cajun-spiced pickerel, barbecued ribs and a filet mignon topped by Cambozola. An all-day menu offers as well salads, burgers, sandwiches and a few pastas (from $12 to $18, including salad or fries).

Sides and garnishes varied from dish to dish. Marvellously meaty fresh shiitake mushrooms came with the steak and lamb. With some dishes, nicely done basmati rice, with others those lovely whipped potatoes, and with still others, another rare and welcome treat, the mis-labelled barley risotto -- a pilaf, actually, but wonderful by any name.

With all the entrées, there was a plethora of fresh vegetables, simply but competently prepared -- a few spears of pencil-thin asparagus, chunks of cauliflower, broccoli and off-white zucchini, and slices of red and yellow pepper, as well as one night's wisp of broccolini. Actually, I'd have preferred fewer of them, and those preferably green and better colour-coordinated, avoiding the white on white blah of cauliflower and pale zucchini with the potatoes or rice. And almost any other kind of bread would have been preferable to the plain white -- and on one visit, dryish -- slices.

There are only a few desserts ($7 each), among them the white chocolate soup. I can't say that the idea appealed to me but, in the interest of duty (it is the house signature dessert, after all ) I tried it, and it turned out to be creamy, and surprisingly light -- almost the texture of a soft custard -- dotted with berries and bits of other fruits. Quite lovely, and not in the least cloying. The caramel-glazed pecan tart offers a more substantial finish, and is also delicious.

The wine list is short but decent with three whites and three reds available by the glass. Service is friendly and attentive.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 18, 2011 D3


Updated on Friday, January 6, 2012 at 9:49 AM CST: Adds map, adds fact box

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