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Tiny River Heights bistro big on creativity, flavour, details

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Chew Restaurant features pork belly, seared scallops, and roasted mushrooms with frisee greens.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Chew Restaurant features pork belly, seared scallops, and roasted mushrooms with frisee greens. Photo Store

Restaurants don't come much smaller -- a mere 21 seats -- but don't mistake Chew for an ordinary mom-and-pop hole in the wall. Neither is it just a good little local bistro, with most of its clientele within walking distance (although we could use a lot more of those, too). The menu and the quality of the cooking make this congenial neighbourhood gem worth the trek from even far-flung suburbs.

Chew actually is a mom-and-pop restaurant, with both new mom Kristen Chemerika and pop Kyle Lew in the kitchen (Chew is a composite of their names), but in this case the cooking is contemporary and sophisticated. There may be the occasional flaw but when the food is good (and most of it is), it is exceptionally good.

Even though the space is small, they are generous with it. Entry is through a sweet little foyer which some bean-counters might have used to squeeze in another table or two. Not here, and that little foyer -- currently displaying some huge, fantastically coloured pumpkins -- is an area of calm between the strip mall outside and the little jewel box of a room, where there's plenty of space between the tables, and the minimalist warm brown decor is brightened by crisp white table linens.

The menu is small, too, and some items may change from day to day -- last week's flank steak may have been replaced by this week's bison tenderloin, which, incidentally, was tender and full-flavoured, glazed in bone marrow butter and served with a parsnip purée ($25). Another marvellous and (one hopes) permanent main course was crispy pickerel, with fennel, pearl onions and tomato dice in a clear, flavourful emulsion ($21).

Others that I hope will never disappear include such starters as the seared scallops, which (like some other dishes) come in two sizes -- two scallops for $15, four for $23. They are cooked to the exact, appropriate second for flavour, tenderness and juiciness, served over a kind of creamy cauliflower purée with a hint of saffron, and garnished by crisp slivers of beet chips. Or the pork belly, which was one of the best I can remember, with a touch of tang on the skin that is aptly described as crispy (the crunch is audible when it's cut), garnished with little cubes of beet and a citrusy fig mustard ($13).

Roasted mushrooms were gorgeous when mixed with the bed of frisée greens and the soft poached egg yolk on top, with a few shavings of Parmesan and hazelnuts for crunchy contrast ($11.50). Mushroom perogies could have been plumper and the promised truffles were hard to detect but the flavour was still excellent ($14).

The closest thing to comfort food was meltingly soft gnocchi with pieces of duck ragout, a creamy chèvre cheese sauce and dandelion greens ($18 small, $24 large).

One of the rare lapses was scorched chicken slices in an otherwise nice dish of quinoa with bits of beet ($18). Another was the Cornish hen, which is done two ways -- the legs (the better way) were moist and crisp, but the roasted breast was dry, and the most flavourful part of the dish was the sumac-tangy slices of variegated carrots ($22).

Dinners begin with a generous platter of house-made focaccia, with a butter and bone marrow spread. There are a few la carte sides, among them truffled frites, but the truffle was truffle oil, which was beyond faint -- just as well in my opinion, since it rarely approximates real truffles, and, in my experience, isn't always pleasant ($6).

Many of the dinner entrées are available at lunch as well, but there are also a few sandwiches, which range from $9 to $12, plus $5 if they include either a salad (lovely greens with apple slices) or soup (lightly spiced acorn squash). A loosely assembled sandwich of guanciale cured pork with greens, tomatoes and herb aioli on thick pieces of focaccia kept falling apart, and was impossible to eat with dignity. Another of duck prosciutto with raclette on challah, topped by a fried egg, was more easily managed. Both tasted good, but in both the amount of meat was skimpy.

The desserts I tried were exceptional, among them caramelized banana cake garnished with bacon ice cream (a misbegotten trend, in my opinion), a dense, dark chocolate cake paired with caramel tones of sponge toffee, and brown butter ice cream with a chocolate almond cookie ($8 each).

The ambience is warm and welcoming, words that also describe the attentive and efficient staff. The eclectic wine list isn't long but it is very well selected and there are some classic cocktails at $8 each for 1.5 ounces. Chew is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday, and reservations would be wise, especially on weekends.

Oh yes, there's more bliss the morning after, in the complimentary little muffins you're given when you leave. Or, for tomorrow's lunch, a crunchy cookie.

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 17, 2013 C5

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Updated on Thursday, October 17, 2013 at 8:53 AM CDT: Adds photos, adds map

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