Choosing the best restaurant of the year can be difficult, but when there's only one with a five star rating the choice is obvious. Step'n Out has always been excellent (four-and-a-half stars aren't to be sneezed at), but the meals I had this past year were flawless. My favourite was the superb crepes with shrimp, crab and lobster in a delicate creamy sauce with mushrooms, but I also loved the pickerel in a light remoulade sauce with capers and a swirl of fried julienned sweet potatoes; the linguini with shrimp, lobster tails and asparagus; the garlic and rosemary-seasoned rack of lamb in port wine demi-glace; and the glorious crustless pie of slightly caramelized apple slices. 157 Provencher Blvd., 204-956-7837.
The year's most impressive debut was Chew, a tiny (21 seats) but charming creation of owner-chefs Kristen Chemenka and Kyle Lew, with an also small menu that changes often. Some exquisite choices were crisp pork belly with little cubes of beets; mushrooms with frisée greens and a soft poached egg; bison tenderloin glazed in bone marrow butter; and crispy pickerel with fennel, pearl onions and tomato dice. For dessert, the brilliant dark chocolate cake with caramel-toned sponge toffee and brown butter ice cream, and they get extra kudos for the complimentary take-home muffin or cookie. 532 Waterloo St., 204-667-2439.
Two veterans held their own. The 25-year-old Cafe Carlo (other restaurateurs, please take note) solved its noise problem with acoustic panelling and baffles hanging from the ceiling, creating a calmer ambience in which to enjoy such top preparations as mussels in Pernod cream sauce, fish tacos of crisply fried tilapia in house-made tortillas, the seafood-packed chowder and a perfectly grilled veal chop in lemon caper sauce with spaetzle. And, to finish, the superb, flourless chocolate oblivion with crème anglaise and raspberry sauce. 243 Lilac St., 204-477-5544.
The other veteran was In Ferno's, which ranks high for that rare and very special treat -- moist, full-flavoured roast duck in an apple white wine sauce (not one of those invariably good but ubiquitous confits). I also enjoyed veal medallions grand-mère in a winey mushroom cream sauce, braised lamb shanks in a maple balsamic reduction and one night's special trio: ginger-and-mustard-coated rack of lamb, elk sirloin in a huckleberry sauce and a beef strip loin with port wine sauce. Much of the food has a French accent, but the grilled soy-marinated albacore tuna was also excellent. 312 des Meurons St., 204-262-7400.
Mercadito Latino's new space is a far cry from the previous tiny room behind the grocery store on Henderson Highway. The menu is bigger, too, and the Salvadoran specialties taste better than ever, above all the glorious tortilla soup floating strips of chicken, melted cheese and avocado in a bowl lined with strips of corn tortillas. Other musts are pupusas (soft, corn-masa pancakes stuffed with cheese, beans and/or pork); tostada-like enchiladas heaped with avocado, beans or ground beef, cabbage salad, salsa and cheese; and the fried cassava strips topped by lime-scented cabbage salad, salsa and crunchy, shredded fried pork. 570 Sargent Ave., 204-415-2870.
The Great Maharaja came up with the best Indian food of the year, most notably the elegant aloo tikki chatt of veggie-stuffed potato patties in a coriander-spiked tamarind and yogurt sauce, and the marvellous gosht Hyderabad lamb curry in a sumptuous sauce with minced lamb. They also did well by sizzled tiger prawns in a velvety onion gravy; a Goan fish curry in a mild, coconut-flavoured onion sauce; creamy dal makhni black lentils with red kidney beans; and potatoes stuffed with raisins in a chili-fired, tomato-based sauce. And don't miss the terrific gajar halwa warm carrot pudding. 510 Sargent Ave., 204-505-4229
Four-star Chinese restaurants aren't rare, but this year's choices were exceptional enough to rate four-and-a-half stars. Golden Loong's cuisine is from Northwest China, with many fresh noodle dishes, some of them hand-ripped. Among the former are the standout Xi'an chili-spiked cold noodles with cucumber, bean sprouts and squares of wheat gluten; among the latter, the wide, zingy noodles dotted with bits of fried pork and onions. But the noodle-less dishes are also great, among them brilliant Chicken in Iron Wok of cumin and anise-seasoned crunchy chunks of chicken with cloud ear mushrooms, garlicky potatoes and fried dough strips; or the deep-fried green beans with bits of peppery pork, or the Stewed Pork Burger, with an addictive, salty-sweet pulled pork filling. 2237 Pembina Hwy., 204-504-6766.
Many Hai Shang specialties are from Shanghai, such marvels as cold chicken glistening with sesame oil and dotted with diced garlic, green onions and chili flakes; the miraculously grease-free, anise-scented deep-fried duck; the Shanghai Special Fish -- basa fillets in a delicate rice wine sauce with crunchy cloud ear mushrooms; and the Spicy Eggplant hotpot with bits of pork. The dim sum are also special (most on Sunday at noon, but a few during the week as well). Manager Yan Yan Shen is a Shanghai-trained pastry/dim sum chef, and this is the only place I know for soup dumplings (with the soup inside) and the even rarer boiled fish-filled dumplings. Also two splendid flaky pastries, one with sweet red bean paste, the other with mashed turnip. 2991 Pembina Hwy., 204-505-1887.
Other top-notch Asian treats were Yujiro's sashimi, sea urchins, deluxe sunomono (with real crab meat) and seared black cod with miso sauce, 1822 Grant Ave., 204-489-9254; KYU BISTRO's izakaya small plates of agedashi tofu, skewers of marinated sirloin wrapped around pickled carrot strips, and shrimp gyoza, 185 Isabel St., 204-504-8999; and PHO BINH MINH's banh xao shrimp and bean sprout-filled rice flour crepe, green mango salad with shrimp and chicken, and marinated grilled meats on moist, warm vermicelli, 819 Sargent Ave., 204-505-1505.
There's a wealth of delicious dishes in many other establishments, and next week's column will be devoted to the best of them.