It wouldn't surprise me if the name Sawney Beans was as unfamiliar to most readers as it was to me. He was the legendary head of a Scottish clan in the 15th or 16th century, who was executed for the mass murder and cannibalization of more than 1,000 people -- for the really gruesome parts of the story you can check it yourself on Wikipedia.
The account may or may not be a myth, but although it may not be the most appetizing tale with which to start a restaurant review, the mere existence of a pub by whatever name is news in a town which had been dry until 2003.
The place really looks like a pub, a dimly lit warren of spaces done in dark woods and deep reds, with seating at either tall-backed booths or solid tables. The menu lists such generic Canadiana as burgers, wings, nachos, the inevitable stir-fries and pastas, and a few curries as well, none of which I can report on. What we had come for was the short list of more traditional British pub classics.
We had one disappointment before we even got started. One of the main attractions for me had been the listing, on the pub's website, of shepherd's pie -- not just the listing itself, but the fact that it was made with that authentic but locally rare ingredient of minced lamb. Sad to say it was no longer being served; not just the lamb, but the pie itself. Apparently it just didn't sell.
Another disappointment came with the mussels, which our server thought might have been frozen -- she wasn't sure (even after checking with the kitchen), but finally decided on frozen ($9.99). She may or may not have been right, but since frozen mussels (along with fake crabmeat) are among my dislikes, we decided not to take a chance on them.
It was one of those few hot days that aren't soup weather, so we also gave the vegetable soup du jour a pass in favour of the salad, either of which was included in the price of some (but not all) of the entrées ($14.99 to $16.99). The salad itself was a blah of limp greens in an intense dressing, but little else that night disappointed.
Certainly not the two beer-battered fillets of haddock fried crackling crisp and golden. Or the steak and Guinness pie with tender chunks of braised beef (and plenty of them) in a flavourful brown gravy. The chicken in the chicken pot pie was mostly white meat and every piece of it tender, in a pleasantly creamy white sauce with a delicate oniony flavour. Neither the chicken nor the beef were actually pies since they weren't encased in pastry, but simply topped by a smallish round puff of flaky pastry. But we didn't quibble; both dishes tasted good.
Since the shepherd's pie wasn't available, and the only other British listings were bangers and mash and an all-day pub breakfast (complete with baked beans, scones and, if wished, black pudding), we strayed into the Canadiana section and tried the barbecued baby back ribs instead ($17.99). The menu describes them as "famous," and they were indeed meaty, flavourful and tender, without the steamy flavour and flabby texture that so often mars ribs elsewhere. The sauce was, well, saucy, but nice and zippy, and the portion was enormous -- for those with the capacity, Thursday is rib night when all you can eat goes for $22.99.
The best of the sampled sides were the fries -- crisp, thick and meaty, in the English chip tradition (we did have to ask for vinegar, and when it came it wasn't malt vinegar). The mound of mashed potatoes was huge but dry, needing both butter and seasoning. The baked potato had a nuked texture and came already topped (even though not requested) with the apparently automatic topping of sour cream, green onions and bacon bits. Broccoli -- the veggie du soir -- was simply, inoffensively cooked, with no seasoning but with a decent texture.
Among the desserts ($4.49 each) there are such classic temptations as banofee pie, a brownie splashed with Bailey's Irish liqueur and, from the New World, a New York cheesecake. The Bread and Butter pudding we chose was just OK, but needed a lot more custard to correct its dryness.
But the Sticky Toffee Pudding -- oh my! Whatever else you have, don't leave Steinbach without trying this glory of steamed, super-moist chocolate sponge cake, dotted with bits of dates, glazed with toffee sauce and paired with vanilla ice cream.
The well-stocked bar offers a large selection of beers, including several on tap, Guinness among them ($4.29 to $5.99). Also a group of British beer mixes, an interesting choice of whiskies, cocktails in more variations than I've ever heard of and a moderate selection of wines.
I don't usually comment on washrooms, but it needs to be said that the women's loo, although clean, was far too dark, and the paint was peeling. Service by waitresses in low-cut black dresses was friendly, if not always knowledgeable. If you're driving out from the city (approximately 60 kilometres) a reservation might be wise, because the place -- sidewalk patio included -- was packed. On a weeknight, at that. Apparently a British pub is what Steinbach had been waiting for all those dry years.
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.