Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

There's a new chef on Esplanade Riel

Chez Sophie wins bid to replace Salisbury House on bridge

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So long, triple cheese nip. Esplanade Riel is about to welcome an entirely different high-calorie concoction: The tartiflette, a casserole of pan-fried potatoes, onions, bacon and ham, smothered in a cream sauce and topped with bubbling, made-in-Manitoba Trappist cheese.

The tartiflette, which has origins in eastern France, is the signature dish at Chez Sophie, a St. Boniface pizza parlour and bistro selected by the City of Winnipeg to take over the pedestrian-bridge restaurant space occupied by the Salisbury House chain since 2005.

On Monday, city council's downtown, heritage and riverbank committee will consider a five-year deal that would see Chez Sophie become a tenant on Esplanade Riel, effectively fulfilling the original vision of the bridge restaurant as a higher-end destination.

Chez Sophie, which has operated on Avenue de la Cathedrale since 2005, is not a luxury restaurant. Operated by Stephane and Sophie Wild, a pair of immigrants from France's Alsace region, the homey spot has a menu featuring pastas, pizza and a few old-school French dishes such steak au poivre and beef bourguignon.

The Wilds are precisely the sort of entrepreneurs St. Boniface Coun. Dan Vandal hoped to see on Esplanade Riel when the city put out a call for proposals for the space over the Red River in January.

"They have come halfway around the world to be restaurateurs and they are taking on their greatest challenge," Vandal said Thursday. "(You) gotta love that. And I believe they will build partnerships with St. Boniface that Sals simply couldn't."

Eight years ago, Salisbury House was a controversial choice for what already was a controversial space on a controversial bridge. When the structure opened in 2004, former mayor Glen Murray was criticized for authorizing the expenditure of millions on a structure with more esthetic than practical appeal. Those claims were compounded by the cost of creating a restaurant space in the centre.

During the 2004 federal election, Murray's Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia opponent, Steven Fletcher, even held a press conference at the base of the bridge, citing it as an example of government waste. But within two years, the structure became a piece of signature architecture for Winnipeg, appearing on postcards as well as the covers of official business and tourism literature.

This esthetic success still didn't redeem the decision to create a restaurant space on the bridge. In 2005, when Salisbury House was selected to be the first tenant, the local burger chain was the only entity interested in operating on the bridge without receiving a subsidy.

Sals soon found it difficult to operate year-round on the bridge, even with rent of only $2,000 a month. After its original five-year lease expired in 2010, the city allowed it to continue operating at the same rent for two more years.

This past fall, when Daniel McIntyre Coun. Harvey Smith began asking why other restaurateurs weren't given a crack at the space, the city was negotiating a new lease with Sals. At one point, an official with the chain said he believed the two parties had a deal.

But in a report released Thursday, city accommodations manager Iain Day wrote Sals "did not exercise its option to renew." A subsequent search for would-be Esplanade Riel tenants, launched in January, yielded three responses, only two of which came in before the deadline. Property officials decided Chez Sophie was the best fit, city spokeswoman Michelle Bailey said.

The tentative five-year lease will involve free rent for the first year, as long as the restaurant performs $150,000 to $200,000 worth of renovations, which may include an area for a souvenir shop featuring the works of Winnipeg artisans.

Chez Sophie's rent will be $2,000 a month for the next four years of the lease, which also calls for the restaurant to ensure menus and staff will be bilingual.

There is no stipulation in the lease to be open for any specific period of the year, Bailey said.

Deluged by media requests on Thursday, the Wilds declined interview requests while they prepared for the lunch and dinner service at the 33-seat Chez Sophie on Avenue de la Cathedrale. They plan to keep the small restaurant open after moving into the Esplanade Riel space, said Norm Gousseau, CEO of Enterprises Riel, the development agency in St. Boniface.

"It can be done," he said. "They are good operators who are doing a very good job."

The question is, can one couple succeed where Winnipeg's largest and most beloved burger chain struggled?

"There are going to be challenges, no question," Vandal said.

For now, the Wilds are betting the tartiflette can do what the cheese nip could not. The proof will be in the pan-fried-potato pudding.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 1, 2013 A4

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives

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