Marion Warhaft

  • 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.
  • Top-notch Chinese dishes deliver wonderfully spicy flavours

    Even among the excellent Chinese restaurants that line Pembina, Golden Loong is a standout, featuring a cuisine from Xian in northwest China that is dramatically different. Prices are slightly higher than on many other Chinese menus (most main courses are $11.95 to $17.95) but the food is wonderful and the portions, at the upper price end, enormous. The fresh, flavourful noodles are star turns. All are handmade, some hand-ripped; some are served cold, some hot; and it was a toss-up as to which were more fabulous -- the cold noodles with cucumbers in chili oil (No. 2), or the hot spicy pork with the wider, hand-ripped noodles (No. 3).
  • Tasty compromises

    High prices don't guarantee quality. I've often dropped a bundle and been disappointed, and I've often had wonderful food for surprisingly little. Which is why -- at a time when the holiday bills are rolling in -- I always devote three columns to bargains, retesting restaurants that were reviewed favourably in the not-too-distant past. Viena do Castelo's bargains come in two ways -- for eating in or taking out. It is a grocery store, its shelves stacked with Portuguese imports, but there are also seven little tables where one can have lunch or a snack. Not only is everything still delicious, but -- in a city that just doesn't have enough Portuguese food -- Viena's menu is constantly evolving.
  • Looks can be deceiving

    The sleek modern decor is striking. Huge, black-hooded lights hang like space pods from the ceiling. One wall is covered in what looks like ivory leather, another by dark wood shingles, which appear again on big square columns. The wooden chairs are handsome but hard, unpadded and not very comfortable. All the surfaces are hard, and the noise bounces around, creating a very high decibel level -- even in a half-empty room we felt bombarded by other people's conversations. One night's appetizers raised expectations for a fine dinner. A generous portion of steak tartare, mixed with a quail egg, was outstanding ($21), and chicken livers with a touch of spice from wee bits of chorizo, served over grits were also delicious ($14). However, another night's grilled sweetbreads with mushrooms, in a lacklustre cream sauce, badly needed salt, but there were no salt shakers on the tables ($16). In any case, those first two appetizers were as good as it got.
  • Local restaurants impressed in 2014 with specialties that stood out

    Choosing the year's best restaurants can be agonizing. So many must be omitted -- some for reasons of space; some because they may be ultra basic; some because only a few of their dishes are exceptional; and some because their menus, if they exist at all, are limited. But last year, all the following restaurants came up with some specialties that are worth seeking out this year. Their complete reviews can be found on the Free Press website.  
  • A mouthful of magnificent

    If there was any doubt about today's major trend, two of the best restaurants reviewed during the past year specialize in tapas, a.k.a. small plates. Oddly enough, what they also share is out-of-the-ordinary locations, and a smaller clientele than they deserve.  
  • Persian, Somali food in short supply in Winnipeg, so this duo is a great discovery

    Several years ago we had a few Persian restaurants and, in the more recent past, the occasional Somali restaurant. With the temporary closing (several months now) of Kabob Palace, and the permanent closing of Sa'aadal Kheyr, we lost our only sources of Persian and Somali food. Recently, though, I found a new source for each of those cuisines -- limited in both cases and definitely not run-of-the-mill. It seems almost axiomatic that the more difficult the communication, the better the chances of good food; at least that's how it was in today's two subjects. Ordering may be difficult, but what George's and Palm Tree have in common is the smiling welcome and warmth of the owners who, despite the difficulties in communication -- or possibly because of it -- are exceptionally eager to please those who show an interest in their cuisines.
  • Frantic festivities wearing you out? Treat yourself to a takeout meal

    In this hectic season, even energetic social animals can get tired of eating out and partying, and even the most dedicated of hosts may want a cosy family meal at home. Of course, it doesn't necessarily follow that they'll want to cook that meal, and fortunately they don't have to -- there are other options. Hanukkah -- the eight-day Festival of Light -- is coming up, but for those who keep a kosher kitchen (the Jewish equivalent of halal), there's only one source of prepared meats that are certified kosher: Desserts Plus. They do stock cold cuts, but also several ready-to-heat items for real meals.
  • New Tallest Poppy location offers expanded menu, extended hours

    If you loved The Tallest Poppy on Main Street, you'll probably love this new and more ambitious incarnation. It's much roomier than the original, but has the same casual, quirky charm, right down to the mismatched tables and chairs. That extra space also offers more room for art -- two enormous blue abstract paintings by Sharon Johnson hanging on opposite walls, two smaller abstracts by Shawna Conner and -- tucked into a corner-- Jade Harper's lovely small prints of poppies. Even the ceiling is a striking composition of Mondrian-like squares. Owner Talia Syrie has a new partner in this location -- mixologist Steve Ackerman -- and between them they have created an engaging addition to the neighbourhood. But although the vibe may be Wolseley, the appeal is city-wide -- the lineups by 10 a.m. for the weekend brunches can't all be from the immediate area, any more than they were on Main Street. But unlike those huge family-style breakfasts, these are all la carte (about which more later).
  • Roll the (delicious) dice

    The problem in some Chinese restaurants is deciding what to order from those rambling menus which -- when the specials and the Chinese only pages are included -- often exceed a daunting 200 items. That's not the problem at Fu Lin. Au contraire. A very short menu lists the usual westernized standards ($4.99 to $8.99), with mentions of lunch and dinner buffets ($6.99) -- all for dining in or taking out, none of which I can report on. There is no other menu, not in English, not even (despite the all-Chinese clientele on my visits) in Chinese. The modest exterior offers no hints at what to expect -- just a little corner building which might once have been a grocery store. But it turns out to be surprisingly nice within and spotless (the washrooms as well), with a huge Chinese fan on one of the pale lemon walls, and a lovely printed fabric hanging on another. There are only four tables, seating a mere 16 on handsome, comfortable chairs, and one might wonder what kind of business sustains such a tiny place. Much of it, I'd assume, would be takeout orders from that standardized menu.
  • The Mitchell Block: Good, bad... indifferent

    Amazing what a difference a few details can make. I haven't been here in years, and the bones of the room are the same, but Tre Visi's mosaic-like paintings are gone, replaced by a minimalist decor brightened by a few vibrant modern paintings. No, it isn't Italian any more, said the person who greeted us, although, as it turned out, pastas are what The Mitchell Block does best. But I'm getting ahead of myself. First things first. The reception on one visit wasn't exactly cold, or even cool; just sort of indifferent. I didn't take it personally, at least not until we were led to the worst table in an almost empty dining room, jammed in right next to the kitchen doors. Surely, I suggested (mildly, in case you're wondering), he wasn't planning to seat us there. Well yes, that was exactly what he was planning; all the tables were reserved, he said. But so was ours, I said, and asked if all the other reservations had been for specific tables. Of course they weren't, which was when he caved, and gave us our choice of any table in the room (not all of which, by the way, were occupied by the time we left).


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