Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Romantic hot spot more than just a pretty face

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The narrow, flowered path that leads to Step'n Out looks like an enchanting corner of old Europe, with a sheltered patio on one side, and the fieldstone-bordered purple wall of the restaurant on the other. The interior is equally enchanting. It's tiny (24 seats, plus 12 more on a mezzanine) but without an inch of empty space on the walls, which are covered by photos of the famous, as well as many you've never heard of. Gorgeous orchids in handsome jars line the window sills. Tiny lights twinkle in the lush, live greenery. And perched on wee ledges everywhere, the motif of the house, a multitude of miniature porcelain shoes and boots, most donated by clients.

It's often been described as the most romantic restaurant in town, and I'd agree, but it's not just a pretty face. Since its first incarnation on King and Bannatyne in 1998 it has also been one of the town's better restaurants, and after moving to this St. Boniface location in 2004 it got even better -- 41/2 stars at the time of my last review. But since that time the cooking of self-taught chef Alan Shepard (co-owner with life partner Verna Judge) has become increasingly sure and even more accomplished, and two recent absolutely flawless dinners have earned him a solid five stars.

Dinners start with house-made, buttery, almost brioche-like rolls, with just a hint of sweetness, and butter that (unlike some ice-hard pats elsewhere) is soft enough to spread. You can have more rolls for the asking but restrain yourself -- there are other treats to come.

Herbs and spices are used effectively but not aggressively, and the sauces on every dish are notably light and distinct from each other. Ingredients are top quality and the preparations are impeccable. Prime ingredients don't ever come cheap and that's reflected in some of the prices, notably those made with a mixture of seafoods, the rack of lamb and a Black Angus tenderloin that go for $39.95 each. But the same standards apply to all other entrées, which range from $25.95 to $34.95.

One of the top-priced dishes is the Louisiana seafood stew, a bountiful bowl of shrimp, mussels, crab and lobster tail, poached in seafood stock enlivened by cayenne, oregano, basil and a shot of Pernod. Another is linguini with shrimp, large lobster tails and asparagus in a gossamer dill and lemon cream sauce.

For me the pièce de résistance was the superb tender crêpes, topped by shrimp, crab and lobster in a delicate creamy sauce with mushrooms. It's listed as an entrée, but four of us shared it as an appetizer and, to tell the truth, it was so good I'd never again let anyone have more than a bite. It's a recurring regular, but fillings on other nights might be salmon with spinach, or chicken and mushrooms.

Pickerel from a pure northern Manitoba lake just doesn't come any better and is a great buy at $25.95 -- three thick, sweet-fleshed slices in a light caper remoulade, topped by a dramatic orange swirl of fried, julienned sweet potatoes. The chalkboard menu changes daily, so the pickerel you read about today might be grilled Chilean sea bass, salmon or sable fish on another night. If I had a nit to pick I could wish there were more than just one fish on the menu.

Lemon-scented risotto, surrounded by a little pool of dark basil oil, was creamy and still slightly al dente, mixed with fresh-tasting Parmesan and topped by huge grilled shrimp and a sliver-thin curl of baked Parmesan. Much of the emphasis is on seafood, which is what I always come for, but meat-seekers will do just as well with the tender rack of garlic- and rosemary-flavoured lamb in a port demi-glace, or with a gingery and sesame-seasoned duck breast. Each dish comes with its own garnish: baby potatoes with the pickerel; creamy potatoes au gratin with the lamb; and a Chinese-style mixture of stir-fried veggies with the duck.

I wish there were more seafoods among the appetizers (most $9.95 to $13.95), but the blue swimmer crab with avocado salad in a creamy, citrusy dressing was excellent and my obsessive search for top-notch mussels was rewarded here by sweet-fleshed, plump and juicy mussels steamed in lightly herbed Chardonnay and Pernod-spiked sauce enriched with cream. Other possible starters include fried calamari, Village Bay oysters, pan-fried shrimp on thin somen noodles, curried pumpkin ravioli or beef carpaccio.

I loved the crustless apple pie of mandolin-sliced apples that are baked and basted for hours, but turn out with the slices still distinct, sauced by slightly caramelized apple juices ($7.95). And dessert doesn't get much more decadently delicious than the multi-layered Callebaut Chocolate Sin cake, filled with chocolate mousse and ganache and doused with Grand Marnier ($9.95). Desserts are few and I could live the rest of my life without a shmoo torte, but next time I might be tempted by the limoncello chiffon or the crème caramel.

Dinner is served Tuesday to Saturday, lunch Tuesday to Friday, when smaller portions of some similar dishes are offered, from $12.95 to $19.95. The interesting wine list is heavy on Australian and Argentine wines, sold at a remarkably civilized markup of 50 to 75 per cent, with 10 available by the glass. Thursday is "bring your own bottle" night, with no corkage fee as long as the bottle has a Banville & Jones store sticker, and after a minimum food purchase of $25.

The super-warm service is knowledgeable, attentive and absolutely perfect. Everything about the place is five stars.

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 August 1, 2013 C5


Updated on Thursday, August 1, 2013 at 8:16 AM CDT: Replaces photo

9:24 AM: Corrects French accents

9:32 AM: adds map

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