The only other time I've started a review by writing about a restaurant's wine was the first time I reviewed Santa Ana. But in a city where a markup of double is considered moderate, and markups of triple not at all unusual, this place deserves bravos for its average markup of $5 on its well-selected list.
What's more, not only can you take your unfinished bottle home, you can even bring your own wine with you, if you choose, for a mere $5 corkage fee, which is one reason Santa Ana is one of this year's bargains.
The other reason is the food. The menu isn't long on choices, but most of them are delicious. Portions are so huge they necessitate sharing (or at least doggy bags containing tomorrow's lunch), and prices so reasonable that two diners who share an appetizer and a pasta, for instance, will have dined very well for $26 (plus wine, tip and taxes, of course).
All appetizers are $10, which bought the most extravagant portion of plump, juicy shrimps I can remember (close to two dozen, I think), Mediterranean-style, in our case -- simply floured, lightly spiced and sautéed in olive oil. All'arrabbiata, with garlic, herbs, chilies and white wine is an alternative. Sausages come in two versions also -- the fiercely fiery Sicilian, with roasted red peppers, dabs of thick, spicy La Bomba sauce and Parmesan, or the milder Neapolitan with tomato sauce and asiago.
The one-price policy prevails in other areas as well. All of the mammoth salads, for instance, are $6 single or $9 double. Our single Santa Ana -- greens, bits of asparagus, sun-dried tomatoes and Parmesan -- was more than enough for three of us.
There are no entrées, just pastas, and all, with only two exceptions, $16. My favourites were the fungi linguine, which is spiced up by La Bomba sauce and liberally fleshed out with crunchy wild mushrooms, and a satisfying old-school rendition of penne tossed with a really meaty meat sauce.
The exceptions to the $16 pastas are the $21 linguine with mixed vegetables (good), topped by either wood-fired salmon (just OK) or chicken breast (unsampled).
Most of the food is cooked in a wood-fired oven, and how you feel about the pizza may depend on whether you have the wood-fired ($13 for 11 inches) or the stone-baked ($23 for 15 inches). I was disappointed in the latter in the past and tried the wood-fired this time -- much better, with a thin, tasty crust. Satisfaction may also depend on your choice of topping. Severely anemic tomatoes -- and skimpy at that -- turned the margherita into one big blah, but the four-meat version was delicious. There are dessert pizzas as well ($10 each) but after a starch-laden meal one of the luscious gelati might be a wiser choice ($6).
Entry is through a kind of foyer where shelves are stocked with jars and packages of Italian products. It is separated by a wall that is one huge wine rack from a spare but smart and softly lit dining room, with dark grey walls, and a few splashes of colour in the big prints of wine glasses
Although takeout is available from 11:30 a.m., the restaurant is open at 4 p.m. -- the safest time to arrive without a reservation, although, personally, I wouldn't try it. The place is perpetually packed and, according to our server, they already have bookings for April. There are only 40 seats, and even on a weeknight you may be told that you can have your table for two hours only. But while you are at that table the service will be exceptionally friendly, helpful and attentive.
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Of course, it's cheaper still to drink your own wine in your own home, and if you pair it with a spread of Portuguese food you'll have a delicious meal at unbeatable prices. Much as I wish Ninho de Portugal were a restaurant, this grocery store-cum-bakery does the next best thing: preparing hot meals for takeout. There are always a few meats available on any day of the week but for the motherlode you have to come on Saturday.
Most of the prepared meats cost from $17 to $27 a kilogram, among them two always-available pork preparations: small but meaty ribs that are aromatic with garlic and paprika; and pork belly with a more intense salty-sweet flavour, which is almost as chewy as jerk, but remarkably low on fat.
Also available daily is the bifana sandwich, an incredible bargain at $3.25 for a roll packed thick with slices of wine-marinated pork loin, sautéed onions and (if wished) a splash of the house-made hot sauce.
On Saturday there's also marvellously moist, flavourful chicken -- sold by the platter of three pieces with equally big chunks of roasted potatoes for $4.25. (If you can't wait until Saturday, a day's notice will guarantee you an entire roast chicken with potatoes for $15). They also make two of my favourite desalted cod dishes: bacalhau a bras -- sautéed strips of the cod, potatoes and onions with scrambled eggs; and the deep-fried, fluffy-centered codfish cakes, which make ideal appetizers. Rabbit has also occasionally been available, but not on my last visit.
You could start by nibbling on slices of the house-made chourico sausage (mild or hot), and, for a rare and delicious cheese course, pick up a wedge of the semi-hard, slightly sharp Topo Sao Jorge.
For dessert there are wonderful little custard tarts in puff pastry, or a creamy, cinnamon-sprinkled rice pudding. And nothing goes better with my morning coffee than their coconut buns, the crisp cinnamon twist or a slice of brioche-like sweet bread.
Pick up a Portuguese wine or two, and you've got dinner. And if you go on Saturday, get there early -- the food is ready to go by 9 a.m., I was the first one there at 9:15 a.m., and by 9:30 a.m. there was a lineup behind me.
Correction: The phone number for The Grove Pub is 204-415-3262. An incorrect number ran in last week's Uptown.
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.