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Take a trip: Airport-hotel restaurant worth travelling for

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Duo of Squab basks in the ambiance at Blue Marble.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Duo of Squab basks in the ambiance at Blue Marble. Photo Store

Getting to the airport is easy; getting to the Grand Hotel's Blue Marble Restaurant, not so much. The parking is validated, but first you have to find it and, in my case, instructions on the phone varied from person to person on different days. Other sites were mentioned, but the official version seems to be the airport parkade, which, I was told, involves only a short walk to the hotel. It doesn't. In fact, getting from car to hotel is a bit of a hike, after which, reaching the entrance to the oddly placed restaurant, with its back to the lobby, involves another stroll along a bleak, curving hall.

Once there, though, you may find it was worth the trek. The decor is minimalist but beautiful, with a single wall of azure blue, other walls of taupe and pale grey, and seating either in handsome booths or on comfortable chairs. An illuminated fridge in one corner, which displays the herbs and micro-greens used by the kitchen, adds a fresh touch of green. It's the kind of elegance rarely found in airport-hotel restaurants, an elegance that extends to much of the food and to its presentation.

There are breakfast, lunch and dinner menus (about which more later), but what brought me to the airport was the list of tapas, or small plates, which are served after 5 p.m. only. Some of the dishes are small, if not truly tapas small; others could double as light entrées; and most were interesting and prepared with an obvious devotion to detail.

Three of those I tried were exceptional, and excellent value for portion size as well. One was the cavena risotto, made with a hull-less, gluten-free oat often described as the rice of the Prairies, and it was marvellous -- full of flavour, as moist and as al dente as risottos ought to be, dotted with porcini mushrooms and the occasional blueberry, adorned with shavings of Parmesan and a sprinkle of pea shoots, and paired with a chunk of seared pork belly ($13).

Two of the sampled meat dishes were outstanding. Possibly the superstar was the superb duo of squab -- the breast cooked sous vide, the leg confit, both tender, juicy and bursting with flavour, garnished with minuscule strips of green beans, prune and cherry-flavoured lentils, a fig sauce and a wedge of braised fennel ($19). The lamb duo was the other top choice -- part shank, braised in espresso, the other part a slightly spicy rack, served with mashed potatoes, a dab of minted yogurt, a drizzle of pomegranate molasses and a few pomegranate seeds ($16).

A roasted beet salad with shaved fennel, arugula, orange segments and little chunks of goat cheese was very good ($9), but other sampled dishes didn't reach the heights of the above. They came with a few wonderfully tasty morels, but the three, almost flat oxtail ravioli needed a lot more filling and flavour ($24). Still, it was more acceptable than the braised short ribs, which were not only tasteless, but tough as well ($13).

Among the remaining possibilities are venison carpaccio with chestnut purée; Berkshire pork tenderloin with pancetta creamed corn and braised leeks; sous vide duck breast with arugula and lentils; beef tartar with northern pike caviar; and grilled quail with potato purée and brussels sprouts.

The regular lunch-cum-dinner menu is surprisingly limited for a hotel restaurant. For starters, there's only the soup of the day ($9), an antipasto platter ($15) and calamari ($12). The serving of the latter was the smallest I've ever seen, but it was also one of the finest, composed of exquisitely crisp little squiggles, garnished with lemon yogurt and ultra-thin slices of cantaloupe and cucumber.

There are only five entrées, and two of those are pastas (alfredo and bolognaise, $14 each). The grilled rib-eye was tender and flavourful, with a choice of barbecue or a madeira sauce that wasn't bad, but a tad heavy on unreduced madeira ($27 for eight ounces; $31 for 10). A grilled salmon fillet was excellent, glazed in a citrus and pink peppercorn salsa ($22). The only remaining choice is a chicken breast stuffed with cranberries and brie ($19). With the entrees, broccoli, carrots and cauliflower, and a choice of fries, fingerling or puréed potatoes, all of them excellent.

The winner among the four burgers was the lamb burger, stuffed with goat cheese, dressed with (among other things) avocado and a lovely black olive tapenade. The cheddar-stuffed beef burger, topped by bacon and the other usual suspects, would have ranked higher if the meat had been juicier and the tomatoes less anemic. Both are $15, but both are a hefty seven ounces and include a choice of fries or salad -- in our case, a delectable arugula salad with poached pears, blue cheese, prosciutto and candied pecans in a saskatoon-flavoured vinaigrette ($14 la carte). The only other possibilities are two sandwiches -- black-truffle cheddar with bacon and poached pear ($14), and a bacon, avocado, tomato and lettuce ($12), both with fries or salad -- and four pizzas ($13 to $14).

Desserts are pricey at $10 each, but the stunning chocolate raspberry tart is worth every penny. There's barely a hint of raspberry, but the chocolate is dense and rich, surrounded by glorious gobs of lemon curd, orange confit, lemon mascarpone and dark chocolate ganache. The saskatoon mousse is also surrounded by such little delights as marinated blackberries, crème friache, dark chocolate ganache, honey gelée and a wedge of honeycomb, but the mousse itself was a flavourless letdown.

Coffee comes in a two-cup french press but it's weak ($2.50). On the other hand, the complimentary chocolates with soft chocolate centres are wonderful.

The wine list is well selected with some decent choices by the glass. I can't generalize about the service since, on two visits, we had the entire restaurant to ourselves, as well as the undivided attention of the pleasant and thoroughly knowledgable staff.

marion.warhaft@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 20, 2014 C5

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Updated on Thursday, March 20, 2014 at 7:40 AM CDT: Replaces photo, adds map

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