Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Café fare affordable, filling and just fabulous

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We're a ravenous foursome, eager to taste everything on the menu that I didn't get to on my first visit. And we are doing pretty well, evoking admiration for our appetites from the server. There just isn't enough room on the table for everything we've ordered but fortunately, the small table next to us is unoccupied, and that's where the overflow of dishes goes. Not that there are many empty tables -- business is brisk, and this delightful place is a prime example of a restaurant doing well by doing good.

The Ellice Cafe was founded by that "Urban Saint," the late Rev. Harry Lehotsky, as a not-for-profit cafe to serve the community, as well as anybody from other neighbourhoods. No liquor is served, at the request of community residents who are in recovery from addictions; prices are reasonable, (from $3.99 for an egg salad sandwich to $11.99 for a hefty serving of lasagna with garlic toast and salad); and ingredients are locally sourced, whenever possible.

I'd heard good reports about the food, but I wasn't prepared for the nostalgic charm of the place. The façade is modest, and there are no frills within, but the pressed tin ceiling is the real thing, salvaged from a nearby renovation; sunlight streams through the beautiful, oversized windows; and big and little pots of healthy plants add fresh, green accents. There are wonderful vintage photographs on the walls, as well as a current display of drawings by kindergarten and elementary school children -- charming enough to draw raves from two artist friends. The ambience is relaxed, and lingering isn't discouraged.

You seat yourself, peruse the menu, then give your order and pay for it at the counter. But after that everything will be brought to your table, and the service couldn't be nicer or more attentive. The menu isn't huge but it touches several bases, offering a number of familiar and satisfying classics.

For starters, this is one of the town's better burgers -- big (six ounces) hand-made patties that are juicy and full of flavour. They come as is (plus the usual lettuce, onions, tomatoes and mayo), or with bacon, with cheddar, with both, or -- as in The Rancher -- with all the above plus onion rings and ranch and barbecue sauces. There's also a vegetarian yam burger, served with rhubarb chutney and curry mayonnaise.

Sandwiches, which come on good, substantial breads, include a tuna melt with both cheddar and mozzarella, a clubhouse with crisp bacon and freshly cooked chicken breast; and a reuben thick with corned beef, sauerkraut and swiss cheese. I don't know what they do to the nicely chunky egg-salad filling, but it too is superior.

You can have them on their own, or as part of a platter with either regular potato fries, or yam fries with a curried mayo dip, and it's a toss-up as to which is better. Both are top-notch, but if you're into yam fries, these -- coated in a light batter for extra crispness -- are spectacularly good, beating most others I've had anywhere, hands down.

Breakfast is served until noon, but the rest of the menu is in effect all day, and you can have anything from a snack to a meal. There's the usual eclectic mix -- soups (French onion seems to be a regular), teriyaki chicken, chili (both meat and vegetarian versions), and such appetizers as quesadillas and nachos, none of which I tried. I did try the good, slightly grainy hummus though, which came with veggies for dipping. Salads, which can be ordered à la carte or as a side with some of the entrees, were fresh and well-dressed: caesar with house-made croutons, and a feta salad (I can't approve of sliced olives, but at least they were sliced kalamatas.)

Even the pizza was a success, with a thin and particularly flavourful crust, and a generous "O Canada" topping of sausage, bacon and ham under an un-Italian mixture of mozzarella and cheddar. The lasagna is also topped by the same mixture of cheeses, but it too was savoury and satisfying, with a mellow tomato sauce.

Fish and chips delivers two pieces of sweet-fleshed cod in grease-free, crunchy batter. My personal comfort food favourite -- meat loaf with mashed potatoes -- was full of down-home flavour. The cheddar-potato perogies are one of the few non-house-made items but they too were satisfying, with a generous sprinkling of crisp bacon and onions (roasted veggies are an alternative).

Don't leave without one of the desserts, which are displayed in the coolers (from $1.29 for a cookie to $5.19 for a torte). Trying to choose among them can make you crazy, but I managed, and all I tried were as good as they were beautiful: a tart-sweet rhubarb pie; the ultra-rich banoffie (banana, melted toffee and creamy custard); a homey date-apricot square and an irresistible something dubbed "almost like a candy bar" -- a cookie crust under a raisin-dotted, near-solid chocolate topping.

The coffee is hot and strong, with a choice of dark roast or medium, and even the iced tea and lemonade are house-made.

In case I haven't yet made myself clear, I love this place.

To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 13, 2011 D3

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