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Prairie Ink is the only local restaurant that reminds me of some of the great café-restaurants of Paris, albeit not in appearance. It's a simple but sophisticated space, two-stories high in parts, with massive windows on two sides -- granted, the view is only over the parking lot, but there is a weeping fig tree growing dramatically up the middle. Are the tables more tightly spaced than I remember from a few years ago? If so, come to think of it, Parisian cafe tables are at least as tight.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/11/2010 (4407 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Prairie Ink is the only local restaurant that reminds me of some of the great café-restaurants of Paris, albeit not in appearance. It’s a simple but sophisticated space, two-stories high in parts, with massive windows on two sides — granted, the view is only over the parking lot, but there is a weeping fig tree growing dramatically up the middle. Are the tables more tightly spaced than I remember from a few years ago? If so, come to think of it, Parisian cafe tables are at least as tight.

No, it’s mainly a question of attitude. Many Left Bank cafés have been hangouts for writers, philosophers and artists, and while Prairie Ink isn’t exactly Bohemia, it is attached to the McNally Robinson bookstore, and home to book launches, readings and displays of works by Winnipeg artists. And although there’s no resemblance in the kind of foods served, either (oh, if only oysters were possible!) there is in the all-things-to-all-people philosophy that offers anything from a morning muffin to a full-course dinner, with sandwiches, soups, snacks and salads in between. Also including, incidentally, many gluten-free options.

You can have a soul-satisfying soup, either the current hearty beef and barley du jour or the always-on and slightly sweet African peanut and sweet potato, both with slices of the sturdy house-made bread. Salads are fresh and crisp — the spinach with wedges of grapefruit in a gingery vinaigrette; the house salad dotted by sunflower seeds and cranberries in a citrus-melon dressing.

RUTH.BONNEVILLE@FREEPRESS.MB.CA Executive Chef Gord Harris (left) and master baker Eric Bari with Prairie Ink's three-tiered appetizer tray and a white strawberry cake.

There are only a few appetizers, but all I tried were top-notch. They cost from $8.95 to $10.95, but the three-tiered tray bearing any three choices for $27 is a great buy, and generous enough to make a light lunch for two. Ours were chicken livers sautéed with wild mushrooms in a rich brown sauce, served with a creamy white polenta; three slightly gingery crab cakes that were truly crabby (with almost no filler), with an aioli that was spiked with lime juice, if not with the essential garlic; and three massive, marvellously flaky samosas with a spicy potato, chickpea and other veggies filling, and a great veggie sambal to dip them in.

Sandwiches are generous and satisfying, from $8.75 to $12.95, including a spear of dill pickle and a so-so coleslaw. There are no regular burgers on the menu but you won’t miss the beef if you have the moist and flavourful bison burger, doused with one of the better barbecue sauces of my experience. And if you ask for your mayo on the side you’ll have the perfect dip for the included potato wedges.

The pork in the pulled pork sandwich wasn’t really pulled but thickly sliced — delicious though, in that excellent barbecue sauce. An open-face sandwich of house-smoked salmon was made, not with those familiar satiny slices, but with thick slabs of the flakier hot-smoked variety, on bread slathered with cream cheese. Vegetarians can opt for a sandwich packed with roasted eggplant, zucchini and red peppers, as well as goat cheese and tomato pesto.

Of course there are a few pizzas ($11.50 to $11.95) — margherita, vegetable and chicken florentine, which I didn’t try. Pastas too ($13.50 to $14.95) — mushroom-chicken pappardelle, seafood linguine and spicy chorizo penne, the last of which I did try, a zesty mixture that also contained peppers, mushrooms and spinach.

Entrées are good buys at $14.50 to $19.50, especially since prices include either soup or salad. The tower of sweet-fleshed pickerel and portobello mushrooms, bathed in a light dill cream sauce, was possibly the most successful of those sampled. Actually all I tried were basically good, although some would have been better still if they’d been hotter.

The red meats were served rare and, although full of flavour, posed a problem that proper utensils could have solved. An eight-ounce strip loin for instance, was slightly but not impossibly chewy. Ditto the duck breast and the bison filet that were part of a mixed grill that included as well a terrific elk sausage and lovely little gnocchi in light tomato sauce. But the serrated knives provided were utterly useless, and all they could do was tear the meats into big, raggedy chunks. At lunch the following day the leftovers were much more tractable when sliced thinly with a proper steak knife, and the restaurant would be wise to invest in a few.

There are great pastries from an in-house bakery, some of them gluten free, most $2.25 to $6. The ever-changing lineup includes everything from some rich chocolate concoction to the huge and superbly crumbly scones. A surprising disappointment in such a pastry-savvy kitchen was the caramel-drizzled mixed fruit crisp which would have been wonderful if the crisp hadn’t been zapped into submission, ending up as mush among the fruits.

The strong, hot coffee is certified organic and fair trade; the wine list is small but well selected (any unfinished bottles will be corked to take home); and the friendly staff is, if not always knowledgeable, willing to return to the kitchen for answers. The sound level is quite bearable, even when the place is crowded. Which is pretty much always — reservations are accepted and, during meal hours, advisable.

marion.warhaft@freepress.mb.ca

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