Café Ce Soir is a bright, cosy room, with big windows overlooking Portage Avenue (and DeLuca's across the street), an open kitchen in the rear, and brick red walls sporting a few French scenes here and there.
The vibe is quiet, casual and relaxed, with seating for only about 20 at a few counters, and some tiny, blond wood round tables. Square tables would probably be more practical but -- since Café Ce Soir (ludicrously translated in an article on the Internet as The Coffee Tonight) is actually more café than restaurant -- possibly the round ones are appropriate for the ambience.
The menu may be limited -- two soups, three salads, three sandwiches and heaps of desserts -- but what the kitchen does well, it does very well. The soups, in particular, have been spectacularly good. The onion soup is one of the best I can remember. It comes in one of those classic brown crocks, gratinéed with stretchy cheese over a slice of good baguette, and is based on a rich, full-bodied stock slightly sweetened by a splash of port. I also had a great beet borscht that my mother would have approved of, and a tangy hot-sour soup that was crammed full with veggies and shreds of pork ($5.50 to $6).
The Salad Niçoise isn't exactly a classic version. Yes, there were tomatoes, a hard boiled egg, olives and a hint of anchovies, but the bulk of it was greens, with little soy beans instead of green beans, no potatoes and not quite enough tuna. That said, it was also delicious, in a perfectly balanced vinaigrette ($12). The other two salad possibilities are a caesar and a green salad with caramel pecans, cranberry goat cheese, strawberries and dried fruits in a balsamic vinaigrette.
The menu lists the sandwiches, oddly enough, under entrées, but the two I tried were meal-sized, as well as excellent and interesting. I liked the baguette topped by a combination of smoked chicken with blue cheese and a pear poached in red wine ($12), and the slices of particularly good corned beef piled thick on a brioche and topped with sautéed red onions and melted old cheddar -- not exactly in our old North End tradition, but a winner on its own terms ($14). Prices include a well-dressed green salad, generously fleshed out with lovely little tomatoes. (The third, unsampled sandwich is black forest ham and swiss on a croissant).
My experience with the two cooked French dishes, which are hand-written on the menu under the sandwiches, was far less satisfying than with the cafe foods. Beef bourguignon was tough on two tries, in a thin-bodied wine sauce on one visit and overwhelmed by heaps of green and red peppers on both, with sliced, instead of little pearl, onions, and accompanied only by grilled slices of baguette ($15). The ratatouille consisted mostly of oversize chunks of veggies (eggplant and zucchini among them) with no cohesion and little or no seasoning or herbs, Provenßal or otherwise ($11).
There's usually a daily special as well, such tempting offerings in the past as frogs' legs, beef tartare, salmon with pistachio pesto butter, braised rabbit and lamb chops with caramelized onions and cranberries.
I turned up one night hoping that day's lunch special of steak with peppercorn sauce and fries (which had been posted on the website) would be available at dinner also -- a reasonable assumption, I thought, but no such luck. The only option that night was liver and onions (part chicken, part beef) in a creamy garlic sauce -- not bad, but nothing more, and far less interesting than some of the others I'd hoped to try. The portion was massive enough for two, but with not so much as a potato or even a slice of grilled bread to sop up the sauce ($15).
Whatever else you have here, don't skip dessert. Owner Cam Tran studied pastry-making in France, so the fact that the mostly traditional French pastries are delicious comes as no surprise (most $6 to $8). The only problem is deciding what to choose from the many temptations in the display case, but I settled on and can recommend the Gâteau Rachelle -- sponge cake with pineapple, coconut mousse and custard; the Gâteau Basque -- a pastry filled with cherries and a chocolate cream; and the Tarte Tropezienne -- a brioche filled with a rich mousseline cream.
I might also have recommended the tart our server identified as a passion fruit tart (the only one not labelled in the cooler), if it hadn't turned out to be a chocolate passion fruit tart, with a dense, chocolate filling and only hints of citrus. It was as good as the others, but I'd ordered it hoping for something lighter and fruity... which leads me to the service, which was consistently friendly and attentive, but often unfamiliar with the foods being served.
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.