The past few years have been marked by a welcome trend towards casual, moderately priced, chef-driven restaurants, where the food is as ambitious, and at least as good as what once was found only in pricey, formal establishments.
PEASANT COOKERY — my nomination for top restaurant of the year — is a perfect example. The evocative French bistro ambiance alone could reduce this nostalgic Francophile to weeping into her wine — which, by the way, is excellent, sells for a less-than-double mark-up and offers many choices by the glass.
More to the point, Chef Tristan Foucault's food is delicious and, with entrées at $16.99 to $28.99, is also great value for money. Among the high notes, mussels with crackling crisp fries; mustard-crusted wild salmon with beurre blanc; an ultra-flavourful cassoulet of duck confit, sausage and beans; a massive pork chop stuffed with oka cheese; and what must surely be the city's creamiest créme brûlée. They also deserve a medal for such after-five specials as the wonderful house-made charcuterie platter (a steal even at its regular $14.95) for half price on Mondays; or the plump, briny oysters (usually $3 each) for $1 each on Wednesdays. 283 Bannatyne Ave., 989-7700.
The menu at BROOKLYNN'S BISTRO may be short but the prices (pastas and entrées from $16 to $30) are also good value, and it's a showcase for the talent that gave chef Darryl Crumb a respectable run on the Top Chef Canada competition. His mussels in white wine with cherry tomatoes were exceptional, as were roasted sablefish in a slightly sweet and sour sauce, and a wild mushroom risotto with roasted pickerel fillets. Spaghetti Bolognese comes with killer beef-and-bacon meat balls, bucatini in rose sauce with hot Italian sausage and a massive prawn, and squid ink pasta with squid in a tangy, caper-studded tomato sauce. The thin-crusted, wood-fired pizzas were also delicious, notably the Della Nonna with capicolla, sausage, eggplant, olives and mozzarella. 177 Lombard Ave., 415-4112.
BONFIRE BISTRO has been the near-perfect little neighborhood restaurant, serving delicious and moderately priced pastas and main courses ($14.95 to $27.95), its only flaws, the minuscule space and no reservation policy. You still can't reserve, but an added room has more than doubled the space, which is now under the direction of Chef (formerly long-time sous chef) Sean McKay. Two terrific appetizers are large enough to share, or double as a small entrée: manila clams with chorizo and artichokes in a saffron marinara sauce, and mussels in a Pernod-spiked cream sauce, both with marvellous grilled water bread. Fish and seafood, on their own or in the excellent paella and cioppino, are particular strengths, as are the wood-fired, thin crusted pizzas. Don't miss the pear and apple crumble for dessert. 1322 Corydon Ave., 487-4440.
Some people don't like the name, DEADFISH, but I'm not the first to ask "What's in a name?" And although not all of Chef Robin Maharaj's specialties succeed, those that do are excellent, among them the curried shrimp with chickpeas roti, and the prime rib panini with aged white cheddar ($14 and $15 respectively, including soup or salad). Also tops were shrimp in a creamy lemon basil sauce ($17), the Mac and Cheese of penne with bacon, asparagus and smoked gouda ($18), the Big Taco pizza folded over salsa, beef, avocado and créme fraiche ($19) and the glorious chocolate chip banana bread pudding ($8). 167 Osborne St., 477-6609.
I loved the nostalgic charm and the down-home food of the non-profit ELLICE CAFÉ. Prices range from $4.29 for an egg salad sandwich to $12.49 for a hefty portion of lasagna, and in between there are big, juicy burgers, crisp-battered fish and chips and a savoury meat loaf with mashed potatoes. Delectable desserts vary but might include a tart-sweet rhubarb pie, the ultra-rich banoffie and a gorgeous concoction of cookie crust, raisins and chocolate topping. The organic, dark or medium roast coffees come hot and strong, and how often do you find house-made iced tea or lemonade? 587 Ellice Ave., 975-0800.
Local Asian chefs are usually anonymous, but invariably skilled enough to offer some of the city's best cooking, at prices that rarely exceed $10. LAO THAI, for one, has recently returned to its original 20-seat location (it's wise to reserve), and it's where you'll find a superb red curry with chicken, as well 10 big Thai fry shrimp; the garlicky, jerk-like seen hang pork; and chili-fired souk gai broth with chicken. 763 Selkirk Ave., 589-0065.
Reserve your table also at wee WATER LILY, where top-notch Indian dishes include aloo tikki potato patties, eggplant bharta mashed with tomatoes and onions; shrimp korma in a creamy sauce with cashews and raisins; and yogurt-enriched lamb rogan josh. They come with basmati rice, a papadum and terrific house-made chutneys. 166 Meadowood Dr., 255-2973.
It's a rare year without a good new Vietnamese restaurant, and this year it's T.H. DANG, where the banh xeo stuffed crepe is just great. Other top dishes are cole slaw with shrimp, pork and jellyfish; sweet and sour soup with shrimp; and Number G118 fried chicken -- legs that have been flattened, marinated and deep-fried. 1425 Pembina Hwy., 415-5588.
When summer returns keep in mind the steak and kidney or chicken pot pies and sticky toffee pudding at SAWNEY BEANS, 340 Main St. in Steinbach, 204-320-2632; the wheat germ and blueberry pancakes; cheese-glazed chicken breast with cranberry chutney and grilled perogies at ROXI's, 219 Manitoba Ave. in Selkirk, 204-482-1903; and the generous sandwiches, perfect scones, Saskatoon crumble and loose leaf teas at McLEOD HOUSE, 292 Main St. in Stonewall, 204-467-2303.
Happy New Year, and may 2012 be just as delicious.
To see Marion's top picks of 2011, click on the links above or see the map below.