Marion Warhaft

  • Table Scraps

    Tap is short for taproom -- in other words, a pub -- and there's no mistaking the St. James Tap for anything but. Yes, the space in front is designated as the dining area, and yes (unlike the practice in some others), children are allowed there, but there's nothing that differentiates that space from the rest of this long (300-plus seats) dark cavern -- certainly not the mixture of high bar tables with stools and standard dining tables and chairs. Of course there are television sets throughout -- mercifully silent in the dining area, when we were there (but I wouldn't expect serenity on game nights). Pubs seem to be a growth industry, and I chose the Tap mainly because (unlike many others) it isn't a chain or franchise operation. I don't know that it would have made much difference since, with a few exceptions, mediocre was as good as it got.
  • Local Japanese eatery offers comfy, cute dining experience

    The name translates loosely as Dwarf’s Hiding Place. “Cute” is the description I’ve most often heard, and Dwarf No Cachette is self-described as kawaii (Japanese for cute), so I expected an excess of tchotchkes. But I was surprised at the sweet and almost rustic charm of the room. In fact, the eponymous dwarfs lurk discreetly out of the way on shelves and on the windowsills.
  • Boulevard of culinary dreams

    With the addition of a second good, full-scale restaurant, choice-deprived Charleswood residents have a reason to celebrate. The Boulevard is a modern but cosy place, with an interesting wall of sliced stone strips, attractive chandeliers of twisted metal loops, comfortable booths and a civilized noise level. I love the chic little salt-and-pepper grinders on each table -- more pretentious establishments could take a lesson and get rid of those ridiculously huge grinders, which are offered before you know if you'll want them, and not around when you find that you do.
  • Four places to grab sumptuous sandwiches

    If the Chinese zodiac were composed of food, instead of the animals it comes from (I have eaten horse meat, but draw the line at rats) this could be the year of the sandwich. Sandwich shops have been springing up like mushrooms in a wet season and -- although I have trouble keeping up with them -- I'm a nut for sandwiches. With one exception, the following have limited seating, hours and parking, and may be more suitable for takeout or delivery orders (by Skip the Dishes) than for eating in. I've given their hours (as of last checks), but some are in a state of flux (especially during the fringe festival), and it would be wise to phone first.
  • Fish dishes shine at new Charleswood spot

    The Capital Grill and Bar is an L-shaped space, as it was when it housed Asahi, but the spaces have been reversed. The one-time short part of the L has become a long, narrow dining room, with a decor that is sleek, spare and cool, in shades of grey brightened by paintings by a local artist. The formerly short L is now a small lounge, which I find cosier (as long as there’s no sound on the television). Capital’s chef/owner, Wayne Martin, comes with a reputation based on his highly-praised Vancouver Crave and Fraiche restaurants, and, for the most part, lives up to it, bringing some much-needed upscale cooking to Charleswood. I wish he’d brought more of it. Unlike some menus, with more items than the kitchen can competently prepare, this one is so short I kept expecting it to have grown each time I returned. But after two-and-a-half months, it hadn’t budged.
  • Peking duck remains a rare treat at St. James standby

    Most traditional recipes I've seen for Peking duck involve several intimidating stages -- glazing the duck in sweetened soy sauce, hanging it for a day, inflating the skin to separate it from the meat, blanching the duck in boiling water, applying more glaze, hanging it again overnight, and then roasting it vertically in a wood-fired brick oven. Which explains why it doesn't appear on many local menus. It is listed on a few, with no need to pre-order, and those I've had were pretty good (although some turned out to be just barbecued duck). It isn't on Dragon Palace's menu either, sales relying, it seems, on word of mouth.
  • Tiny Wolseley café features big values, local ingredients and homemade flavours

    Could it get any more Wolseley than this? A pocket-sized space with 10 seats inside and a few more on the sidewalk. A labour of love by a mostly one-man show (with occasional help from family and friends) — Ross Jeffers, a fanatic locavore, right down to the Pic-a-Pop. The tiny room is pretty basic, but the ambience is warm and friendly. There are paintings by local artists on the walls, an ancient cash register, a charming old wooden high chair tucked into a corner, and a few fresh flowers in little carafes on the tables. Perfecting the picture, an accordion player wanders in, and I’m about to make a donation (he’s playing Edith Piaf), but he’s not busking — he’s just part of the neighbourhood.
  • Interesting pastas, zesty ’zas stand out at Italian restaurant

    It’s a narrow, L-shaped room, with a sleek, understated decor (rather dark in the interior) and a long, communal table down the middle — a waste of space, possibly, since it remained empty when all the other tables were occupied. The room seems tighter than I remember from my last visit, and noisier. My memory may be at fault about the interior, but it isn’t about Nicolino’s menu — I have my last review of five years ago to remind me. At that time there were forays into other cuisines — quesadillas, perogies, souvlaki, linguine with Thai chicken green curry, all no longer available. As it happens, the menu has changed more than once since then, and some of the dishes I’d most looked forward to have also been dropped: veal meatloaf with lentils; and risotto with Italian sausage, alas.
  • Deli's delicacies DELICIOUS

    It used to be Fitzroy, but although the name and the focus have changed the co-owner/chef hasn't. Jon Hochman -- a member of the Hochman family of the long-gone and still lamented Oasis -- comes by his deli cred honestly. And although many readers are reminded of Schwartz's in Montreal, Sherbrook's website (and my personal) references are New York's Katz's Delicatessen, of When Harry Met Sally fake-orgasm fame. The long, narrow room is lined with a counter and stools on one side, tables and chairs on the other, under a wall plastered with old photographs of the city -- Winnipeg, that is, not New York. The food may not be kosher, but, in the old New York and old North End tradition, it is certainly Jewish.
  • Formerly four-starred bookstore restaurant has lost the plot

    "BUT you gave it four stars,” a less-than-satisfied reader complains. Well, yes, I did, but that was five years ago. And a lot can change in five years. The basic concept for one. Prairie Ink's something-for-everyone menu has been pared down, and not everything that remains is available at any time (no sandwiches in the evening, for instance). More to the point, the kitchen doesn't aim as high as it once did -- no more chicken livers with mushrooms on polenta, for instance, or crab cakes with lime-flavoured aioli. And not everything that does remain is done well.
  • Greek specialties shine at charming St. James restaurant

    It was the critic's nightmare. The restaurant I'd planned on visiting, which was supposed to be open that Monday night, wasn't, and phoning ahead hadn't been an option since the restaurant -- like a growing number of others -- leaves the answering to voice mail. However, I wasn't a novice in such situations and had come prepared with a backup. More than one, actually, but (a word of warning) Monday nights are apparently slow nights, and two other restaurants, which, according to their websites, should have been open, were also closed. Olympia actually was open, but not for us -- a five-course Greek and wine-paired dinner by a visiting chef was scheduled for that night, by reservation only. The special menu included such non-routine dishes as house-made pasta with mizithra and crisp smoked pork and roasted lamb shanks with smoked eggplant purée -- neither available now. But I was intrigued enough to return a few weeks later to try the regular menu.
  • Some French-inspired differences separate Stella's St. B outlet from its sisters

    Stella's, which started out 16 years ago as a modest little place on Osborne Street, known mainly for its all-day breakfasts and baking, has branched into a little empire of eight. I hadn't been at this venue since before it was Cora's, and it has changed beyond all recognition. The cosy, semi-circular, two-level room I think I remember has evolved into a long, narrow L-shaped space, nicely partitioned into more intimate areas, with a cooler, contemporary ambiance, an industrial-style ceiling, and, on one wall, a huge, colourful montage of paintings by a local artist.
  • Charming bistro serves up satisfying soups and sandwiches in attractive surroundings

    The family that owns BerMax Caffe also owns BerMax Design, which -- unsurprisingly -- was responsible for the decor. It's a multi-windowed charmer, with a stunning arrangement of teardrop light bulbs hanging from a high, industrial-style ceiling, hardwood floors and well-spaced, hexagonal faux-marble tables. Not least among its attractions are the deep coral, moulded plastic chairs from Italy, which are among the most comfortable in the city. This is a rabbi-certified kosher restaurant; since meats and dairy products mustn't be mixed, BerMax concentrates on the dairy side. Orders are placed at a counter, and the food -- in attractive white plates and bowls -- is brought to your table by pleasant, helpful staff. It's an engaging place that offers a range of café foods from all-day breakfasts to sweet and savoury crepes, sandwiches, salads, pizzas and a few pastas, all fresh and well prepared.
  • Chef Bagshaw ups his game at new restaurant Enoteca

    Deseo Bistro on Albert, four stars. Deseo Bistro on Osborne, four-and-a-half stars. Enoteca, on Corydon, five stars. Following Scott Bagshaw from venue to venue has been an increasingly interesting progression culminating, in this newest enterprise, in exciting creations by a chef at the top of his game. The decor is spare, intimate and mellow, adorned mainly by a few prints — and although I’d always avoided using it when I lived there, the legend of the New York subway system on the wall behind me raised pangs of nostalgia. There’s nothing nostalgic about the food though, which is contemporary, imaginative and unique to Enoteca.
  • Short but sweet

    This modest little place is where I had my first revelatory experience with Vietnamese iced coffee. Since then, the name has been changed more times than I can remember, but there was always one constant -- the food was always Vietnamese. And today, at Pho Hoi An, it still is. The menu is short, as Vietnamese menus go, but most dishes cost less than $10, and many of them are big enough for two. Some standards are missing -- no salads, for instance -- and the appetizers are limited mainly to crunchy spring rolls or plump, fresh salad rolls. But, as in any Vietnamese restaurant, there's a variety of soups, most of them meal-sized.
  • Popular Italian restaurant dishes up perfect pastas, excellent entrées and super specials

    Seven years ago I was greeted at Bellissimo with an icy and downright rude reception, followed by an attempt to seat us in the cramped, tiny cubicle that was walled off from the dining room. Under other circumstances I would have walked out, but I was there to work, so I persisted, and was finally, grudgingly, granted a table in the dining room. Which, by the way, was totally empty. Some of the food that followed was good enough to almost compensate for the unpleasantness, but not nearly enough of it. Thankfully, my recent visits were infinitely more pleasant in every way. We were greeted with smiles, given the table we asked for and, more to the point, the food had become consistently good enough to earn an additional half-star.
  • Cafe Dario's prix fixe dinner offers sophisticated cooking with Latin twists

    One convenient restaurant custom in France is the prix fixe -- a set-price meal of three or four courses (sometimes more, in higher-end establishments), with choices in each course. It can take an effort of will, or a money-is-no-object attitude to order la carte. Dining in these parts is almost always la carte, and if you're hungry enough for more than just one course, money can often be an object. Although la carte lunches are available, the only all-week prix fixe I know of is Cafe Dario's five-course, $39 dinner.
  • Hotel has scaled back its legendary brunch, but it's still a splurge-worthy spread

    Whenever I've been asked to name the city's best brunch, I've never had to think twice. The answer was quick and easy -- the Fort Garry's vast and pricey Sunday buffet. However, that Sunday brunch has just been discontinued, although there will be even more elaborate buffets on special occasions such as Easter, Mother's or Father's Day, Thanksgiving and Valentine's Day. But these days, when I'm asked the same question, I still give the same answer: the Fort Garry. There is a catch -- the hours aren't for those who like to sleep late. On the other hand, it's available every day -- from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. Monday to Friday, 7 a.m. until noon on Saturday and 8 a.m. until noon on Sunday.
  • Say yes to Ye's

    It's is an enormous hangar of a place with a soaring ceiling, soft lighting, well-spaced tables and some colourful murals that remind me of an abstract dreamscape. Surprisingly, it's not noisy and, despite the vast, sprawling space and dizzying array of Pan-Asian dishes (two visits barely made a dent in them), Ye's even manages to seem cosy. On Friday, Saturday and holidays the dinner buffet is $24.99, Sunday to Monday it's $22.99; lunch is $13.99 Monday to Friday, $16.99 weekends and holidays. Seniors get 20 per cent off, and it's a mere $1.99 for toddlers four and under. Inevitably some items will be better than others, but much of it is surprisingly good -- especially the seafood on the dinner buffet.
  • A few dishes stand out at downtown fixture, but many others fall far short of excellence

    Things have changed at Bombolini, in more ways than one. The long, narrow dining room has been sleekly redesigned, with chocolate brown drapes at one end, and a matching brown wall at the other. Banquettes line the outside wall under a row of striking chandeliers of gleaming metal balls; the inside wall is one long, almost geometric display of wine bottles which, one hopes, are empty since the space can't be opened. It's a cool, handsome place, but I still find the softly lit lounge cosier and quieter. The major change, though, is that the open kitchen is gone. Rumour always had it that some dishes had come from Amici's, upstairs, but now there's no doubt about it, and every dish (we were told) is prepared by Amici's chefs. But I doubt that all of them get the kind of attention that they do upstairs.
  • Two Chinese restaurants offer up delicacies not often found on local menus

    I once had a fortune cookie that read (I swear), "You love Chinese food," and regular readers of this column know that's true. But although we now can choose from a variety of Chinese provincial cuisines, there are a few items I can find only rarely. Personal favourites, as it happens. The familiar dishes listed on Hai Shang's regular menu are delicious, but for culinary adventure I go for the house Shanghainese specialties, which are listed on a separate sheet -- mostly entrées on one side, dim sum on the other. And the good news is that most of the dumplings, which had been available at Sunday noon only, can now be enjoyed every day, at either lunch or dinner (most $7.95 for eight).
  • Decadent sandwiches, house-made takeout will satisfy comfort-food cravings

    With a name like King + Bannatyne, this little sandwich cafe isn't hard to find. It's a pleasant place with a cool, friendly vibe, but it isn't designed for lingering -- certainly not during meal times, when there will be lineups waiting for your table; nor, for that matter, on the hard, unpadded wooden banquettes. The small wallboard menu lists only three permanent sandwiches, which are served on attractive wooden boards and priced from $8 to $9.50. But there are always weekly specials, as well as also varying salads and soups. Orders are placed at the counter and brought to the table -- at least, sometimes, when they aren't too busy.
  • Perfect crust, delicious toppings, quality ingredients -- what's not to love at pizza joint?

    I'm no maven on authentic Neapolitan pizza. My only truly authentic experience was a slice, bought from a street vendor in Naples, and I've had nothing like it since. It was strewn with tiny fish -- wee silvery things, I remember -- barely brined (if at all) and delicious; if they were anchovies they certainly weren't the kind we get here. Vera Pizzeria's crust is how I remember the one in Naples, but only some of the toppings (none of which include tiny, silvery fish) could be called Neapolitan. But whether classic or creative innovations, they are delicious.
  • Rave-worthy Japanese food the flavour of a chef at the top of his game

    So there's another new Japanese restaurant. What else is new, and why choose this one to review over the dozens of others? Well, for starters, I knew that Fusian's owners had owned Asahi, which I had liked when it was on Broadway, and liked even more when it moved to Charleswood. And now I'm over-the-moon in love with the best Japanese food I've had since the glory days of Edohei. It's a spiffy little place, minimally but charmingly done in scarlet, white and black. The name is obviously a play on "fusion," which describes much of what's on the menu. But these dishes aren't just misguided gropings for the unusual; they are the work of a genuinely creative chef with complete mastery of his art.
  • Disappointment, à la carte

    The decor, done in shades of light grey to black, is cool and stylish, its most dramatic aspect the huge, intersecting circles of brushed steel that hang from the ceiling, Two long communal tables of pale wood that dominate the centre of the room offer a view of the open kitchen, and individual tables line the outer wall. But it's noisy wherever you sit -- all the surfaces are hard, and the most grating sound of all is of chairs scraping on the concrete floor. The menus, which are divided into Small Plates and Mains, make for an interesting read, and the prices are high enough to further raise expectations.

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