22 Murray Ave.
Winnipeg Beach, 204-389-5007
No wheelchair access
Four stars out of 5
IN a non-descript little house across the street from the park in Winnipeg Beach, just inside the entrance, there's a dusty-looking copy of a review I wrote five years ago.
I complained, in that one, about arriving to discover a number of specialties weren't on the menu that night.
This time around, after calling again beforehand, the osso buco turned up missing, but almost everything else that had been mentioned over the phone was available.
More to the point, Casa Bianca is still serving the best resort food I have ever found -- quality ingredients prepared from sophisticated recipes with a sure and accomplished hand.
In fact, not only could chef Alex Vaziri's Italian cooking hold its own on Corydon, much of it might outshine many of the efforts on that strip.
We sampled two of the appetizers (most $5.95 to $13.95), and both were outstanding. One was the always available crostini assortiti, a delicious saute of chicken livers and onions in a piquant red wine and tomato sauce, served over toasted Italian bread. The other was a special that evening, a generous heap of tender, sweet little mussels steamed in butter and white wine, enlivened by a touch of fresh tomato.
Other possible starters are shrimp and avocado in mayonnaise, cajun shrimp sauteed with peppers in lemon butter sauce or smoked salmon with goat cheese crostini. Or one night's special of escargot in a portobello mushroom. An alternate (or additional) starter could be the excellent caesar salad with lots of fresh-tasting parmesan and savoury, crunchy croutons ($6.95, and enough for two or more).
Pastas cost from $11.95, for spaghetti with olive oil, garlic and hot peppers, to $16.95 for penne with shrimp, jalapeno peppers, garlic and tomatoes in a vodka rose sauce. Others are penne, either with spicy Italian sausages, hot peppers, basil and tomato sauce or in a pesto and parmesan cream sauce with sun-dried tomatoes; fettuccini in creamy lemon dijon caper sauce or spaghetti with scallops, sun dried tomatoes, garlic and scallions in a white wine sauce.
However, since many of the entrees come with spaghetti in tomato sauce (an unaccountable throwback to the inauthentic bad old days) my bunch didn't order any a la carte pastas, but opted for entrees, instead. These cost from $14.95 to $17.95, although some daily specials may run higher, such as rack of lamb ($30), beef filet ($28 for 10 ounces) or fresh salmon ($23.95).
One of the best I tried happened to be the least expensive, a marvellously flavourful hot Italian sausage pattie topped by rings of banana peppers and slices of tomato, zapped by a blast of the house-made serrano hot sauce and baked under a blanket of mozzarella. It was served -- properly, in this case -- over perfectly al dente spaghetti tossed in a light tomato sauce.
A tie for top choice was a seafood soup of mussels, scallops, shrimp and salmon in a tangy, almost bisque-like white wine and tomato broth.
Other entrees were acceptable, although the sauces they came in were more distinguished than the meats they covered. Veal scallopini were mostly tender, but bland; the portobello mushrooms they came with and the winey sauce were excellent, but pairing them with a side of spaghetti in tomato sauce was a misalliance.
Chicken cardinale -- an even blander boneless chicken breast -- came in a lovely light paprika-flavoured tomato sauce, paired with good shrimp and, interestingly, with crunchy strips of fennel. In this case, the garnish of tiny new potatoes was more appropriate (an option with the other entrees, if requested) and, in all cases, a mixture of stir-fried broccoli, red onions and peppers was good.
Only a few desserts are offered, but one of them was a sumptuous Grand Marnier-spiked tiramisu, which (and it's not an oxymoron) managed to be both rich and light. The expanded wine list is quite respectable, and if you order a cocktail it may come with a sprig of fresh tarragon. Vaziri (and it's a measure of his culinary ambition) grows his own herbs in the backyard.
For fresh-air fanatics, there are a few tables on the porch; indoors, apart from several paintings by local artists, it's pretty much beach basic. The service on the other hand, is attentive, perfectly trained and familiar with the food, something not to be taken for granted outside the city. Or inside, for that matter.
Casa Bianca is open daily for dinner, and for lunch from Friday to Sunday. Reservations are a good idea, and cottagers may be happy to know that almost everything is available for takeout, that there are picnic packs (on advance notice), and that the kitchen also does catering.