I'm no fan of the Food Network's shoot-out competitions, partly because the brutality of the elimination process bothers me, and partly because I don't believe in creativity on cue. I know, I know, inspirations do come in flashes, but usually after reflection and under less pressure.
However I made a point of watching Top Chef Canada, for one reason only: one of the competitors was Darryl Crumb, who happens to be the chef at Brooklynn's Bistro. Considered one of the underdogs, he nevertheless had a really respectable run, lasting through at least two-thirds of the series.
I was impressed by his good-natured attitude, especially in contrast with some of the prima donnas on the show, and I was also rooting for the home boy (from Anola). Also -- and for no logical reason at all -- I liked the fact that he had once played pro hockey.
But I know that success in competitions doesn't necessarily translate to success in a restaurant -- I can't count the number of disappointing meals I've had that were prepared by "award-winning" chefs. So I came to Brooklynn's with mixed feelings: hope that Crumb would prove to be as talented as he seemed, and wariness about how that talent might survive in the pressure cooker of a restaurant kitchen. Well, hallelujah, hope won.
As well as training at the Cordon Bleu in Ottawa, Crumb also worked in Paris for super-chef Alain Ducasse, and as sous chef and chef, respectively, in a couple of well-established bistros. It shows in his cooking, which is deceptively simple but characterized by an impressive attention to detail.
Prices are moderate for the quality, with starters from $l0 to $14, pastas $16 to $19, pizzas $11 to $15, and main courses $21 to $30. If I have a complaint it's that the menu is so short, with only five main courses and three desserts. Seven appetizers are listed, but three are salads, one is a trio of bruschettas and another is an antipasto platter -- foods I enjoy but seldom order since they are rarely a test of ability.
Dinners start with a fluffy focaccia and a little puddle of olive oil and a balsamic reduction. Complimentary amuse bouches are only a sometime thing, apparently -- a pity, since our one-time-only was a lovely little circle of cucumber spread with roquefort, topped by smoked salmon and a sprinkle of pink roe. I did try, and liked, the beet salad with little chunks of goat cheese and arugula, lightly dressed in a citrusy vinaigrette, but the outstanding starter was the mussels -- plump, juicy and flavourful, steamed in white wine with cherry tomatoes and arugula, and a whiff of chili.
Brooklynn's owner is Italian, and so is much of the menu; although Crumb's training and experience may have been primarily French, his mastery of Italian secondi is impressive. The risotto, in particular, calls for superlatives -- moist, al dente perfection, flecked with earthy wild mushrooms, sparingly (thankfully) seasoned with truffle oil and just the right amount of Parmesan, and topped by two slices of roasted pickerel and slivers of fried leeks.
Pastas are also exceptionally good, and generous enough to provide tomorrow's lunch as well. Spaghetti comes in a riff on the classic Bolognese -- in a cloak of fresh-tasting tomato sauce, and topped by a massive and marvellous meatball of beef and double-smoked bacon. The rose sauce with the bucatini packs a wee bite from the bits of hot Italian sausage, and is crowned by an impressively huge grilled prawn. Squid-ink pasta is decked out with tender squid in a tangy sauce of tomatoes, capers and chili peppers.
If I were forced to choose one entrée only it would be the superb roasted sablefish -- moist and silken (even the incredibly crisp skin was irresistible), resting on a bed of fennel and onions in a slightly sweet and sour sauce and finished with a final scattering of those crunchy slivered leeks. The Parmesan-crusted rack of lamb was also excellent, but a roasted veal chop would have been juicier with a minute or two less cooking time. A fillet of beef was prepared precisely as rare as ordered, but for my money the fillet, while tender, is the least flavourful of all steaks, and I think a winey demi-glace would have done more for it than the Parmesan butter it came with.
Sides of orzo pilaf with the sablefish, and little roasted potatoes and crunchy cauliflower florets with the veal chop, were both good. The risotto with snap peas that came with the fillet would have been more successful with less lemon juice. Ditto the lamb's garnish of a bean and tomato ragout, which was overwhelmed by a powerful flavour that tasted like too much, and/or insufficiently reduced wine.
There are also excellent thin-crusted wood-fired pizzas, with a choice of toppings that range from a simple margarita to our spicy Della Nonna with (among other items) a perfect balance of capicolla, sausage, eggplant, olives and mozzarella.
There are only three desserts, and one of them, lemon gelato, isn't house made. The two that are, though, are delicious -- a foamy, marsala-spiked zabaglione with mixed fruits ($8), and the frangelico Vesuvius cake -- a molten dark chocolate cake, paired with candied hazelnuts ($9).
The setting in the century-old heritage building is strikingly handsome, with a soaring ceiling, huge windows and colossal dark brown pillars. The room is divided into two levels by wrought-iron railings, and can be noisy -- for relative quiet ask for an off-centre table in the lower level. The wine list reads well, but there are very few bottles under $30, and only a few by the glass. The white on beige prices are almost impossible to read, and the bartender needs some serious training in cocktails, two of which were return-to-sender poor -- a bellini that tasted mainly like canned peach juice, and a far too sour mojito. On the other hand the service is consistently warm, attentive and helpful.
To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below.