Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

You'll clean your plate at eclectic café

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It's a long, narrow room, with small tables and not a lot of space between them. A few at the front overlook Academy Road; some booths are tucked in at the rear, and there's also a counter for a quick bite. The tone is casual, the decor spare and modern, with soft lighting and a series of fine photographs on the muted red walls. But the decibel level is high, and regulars know better than to count on a quiet conversation, unless it's in certain parts of the cafe or during the off hours.

The sunny window tables probably offer the nicest seating during the day -- and good luck in getting one of them without a reservation. I couldn't, so can't report on the noise, although it does look as though there might be less of it than in the core of the cafe. But to be sure of relative serenity, opt for one of those booths at the back. They are darker, isolated from the rest of the cafe and -- although one big, six-seater is backed up against the tiny kitchen from which emerges the occasional bang of pots -- you won't have to yell to be heard.

And the noise is pretty well my only grumble with this excellent little cafe, which is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., with an eclectic menu that offers something for every time of day. Sandwiches in particular are stellar, but don't expect any of the usual deli standards. You won't find a ham on rye, for instance, but you can have your ham with asparagus on nicely chewy ciabatta under melted provolone. No burgers either -- no red meat at all, in fact, other than the pulled bison, which is sparked by a slightly zippy barbecue sauce and aged cheddar. The turkey is house-made, enhanced by a cranberry and citrus chutney and packed thickly between good bread.

Other possibilities are wraps of roast chicken with Thai peanut sauce, sprouts and vermicelli, or with salsa, jalapenos and Monterey jack cheese. A veggie wrap tucks zucchini, eggplant and hummus into a sun-dried tomato tortilla, and the burrito wraps adobo chicken, rice, black beans and corn in a flour tortilla. Prices are, well, pricey, ranging from $11 to $14, but not only do they include a choice of soup or salad, they are also massive, and a few of them -- wisely -- are offered in half portions, from $8 to $9.

Soup or salad with your meal? A tough choice. Two sampled du jours -- savoury lentil, and Italian wedding soup sporting little meatballs and minuscule bits of pearl pasta -- were good, but would have been more satisfying if they hadn't arrived at the same time as my hot sandwich, forcing me to let one of them cool off while eating the other. The à la carte salads are almost intimidatingly big ($8 to $12), and even those included with the sandwiches are impressively generous. They are also excellent -- a caesar with roasted garlic dressing; spinach in a sun-dried tomato vinaigrette with a sprinkling of feta; and a classic, lightly dressed Greek.

The Small Plates vary in size, some of them only enough for a snack, some big enough to serve as a light meal or to share as appetizers.

Six baked garlic shrimp, dotted by bits of tomatoes and green onions, hadn't much flavour to begin with, and not enough garlic to make a difference ($12).

Chicken satay -- three skewers of marinated chicken breast, with a Thai-style peanut dip -- was far more generous, and more flavourful ($9).

After five p.m. the cafe offers more substantial fare with the addition of four entrées. That's fewer, actually, than there were a few years ago, but they're well prepared and tasty ($23 to $25, including soup or salad). Coho salmon is baked under a gingery maple glaze. A chicken breast is perked up by a stuffing of prosciutto and mozzarella. Tender pork medallions are adorned with dollops of goat cheese (superfluous, for my taste) and glazed in balsamic vinegar. Garnishes, which varied with each dish, were delicious -- big, fat spears of asparagus, rice flecked with pesto, and roasted baby potatoes, in one case enlivened by wee bits of pancetta.

There are also three pizzas, which I didn't try, with toppings of chicken, salsa and avocado; spinach, mushrooms and feta; or chorizo and marinara sauce (all 10 inches, all $16). Also two pastas: a beef, ricotta and spinach lasagna ($15); and the sampled massive portion of cannelloni with a luscious stuffing of spinach and three cheeses, blanketed by a well-balanced tomato sauce and mozzarella ($14).

Rumour had it that Saucers was making its own desserts these days, unlike in the past, but rumour had it wrong -- at least on my visits, when all that were available had come from a few bakeries, possibly it was because it was "chocolate week." All were elaborate constructions and both a chocolate hazelnut cake, and a bombe-like affair were lovely. Rich too, and we longed for at least one that was lighter and fruity, and we ended up with the only other possibility -- a lemon chiffon cake, which looked better than it tasted, with barely a hint of lemon and less of character.

The coffee is first-class, there's a large selection of loose-leaf teas, and the wine list is short but well selected. Service is friendly and competent, but when the house is full -- which seems to be always -- far too rushed.

marion.warhaft@freepress.mb.ca

To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 15, 2011 D3

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