Hey there, time traveller! This article was published 24/1/2018 (727 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The ongoing reinvention of The Forks’ food hall gets a big-name boost with a beautiful new opening from Scott Bagshaw. A star Winnipeg chef with a national profile, Bagshaw and his restaurants (including Enoteca, Máquè and the late, lamented Deseo) have consistently attracted attention and acclaim.
This new double-duty venue — Corto is the daytime lunch counter and Passero is the elegant full-service evening incarnation — centres on food that combines big, ambitious scope with tremendous thoughtfulness and care in the small details. Dishes reference classical Italian roots while adding a contemporary finish.
The menu is built on small plates, with choices clustering around several categories — salads, raw options, pasta, vegetables, meat and seafood. Most options are easily shared between two people, and they come out as they come out, one at a time, allowing for unhurried concentration on each course.
And this food deserves unhurried concentration. Many of the dishes are eminently Instagrammable, with lots of shavings of this and schmears of that. In lesser hands, these kinds of offerings can be flashy but empty, all those photogenic ingredients remaining unmelded. At Passero, the distinct flavours merge into a nuanced final effect.
Take the octopus — which is octopus even for people who aren’t crazy for octopus, the server said, and he was right. This dramatic dish involves a curve of charred tentacle, a romesco sauce darkened with squid ink, and smoked crème fraîche, all these elements coming together for the kind of dish that makes you stop talking and just make inchoate moaning noises for a while.
Other photo-worthy options are the flat-iron steak — a cut that’s flavourful and tender when handled right, as it is here — offset with a silky celery root puree and an intense beef glace, as well as medallions of cured tuna paired with charred endive and a smudge of gorgeous black garlic.
Standout pastas include fusilli with rich duck ragout and whipped chevre, and ricotta gnocchi, pillowy with just a bit of chew, and simply dressed with the nutty sweetness of brown butter and the earthiness of truffle.
An asparagus and broccolini salad does interesting things not just with flavours but with scale, the veg cut into preciously small, beautifully crunchy dice, which is counterpointed by creamy soft egg and drifts of pecorino. Salt-roasted beets are tossed with a complex mix of pistachio, cambozola, blood orange and sweet aged vinegar.
Brussels sprouts are garnished with crispy bits of truffled sausage, lemony crumbs and garum, a Roman salted fish sauce, which adds lots of depth (but also meant the sprouts were over-salted in patches).
Desserts include a chocolate tart notable not just for its smooth, dark ganache but for the outstanding and unexpected rosemary mousse that accompanies it. Also good is the bundt cake, which doesn’t sound super sexy but combines a densely moist crumb with a citrusy infusion, proving that it’s often those quiet desserts that get you.
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The space, designed by Number Ten Architectural Group, uses a system of wooden ribs to frame a sheltered and intimate space within The Forks Market. There are comfortable tables, as well as counter seats that look onto a sleek, cool open kitchen that manages to avoid that too-much-information issue often associated with its kind. Here the messy grunt work goes on in a hidden area in the back, and what we get to see is mostly deft, intricate plating.
Service is just charming, with a nice balance of the professional and the personable. Servers have a down-deep knowledge of the food as well as the wine menu (which is a condensed but ranging list of French and Italian selections).
Passero is the sophisticated centrepiece of this operation, but Corto is a testament to the deeply held Italian belief that even a quick, casual lunch should be a celebration of good food. Sandwiches are $9 and sides run from $6 to $7, or you can get a sandwich, side and wine or beer (yes!) combo for $19. Coffee is dark, strong and very Italian.
For sides, you can get the same gorgeous beet salad or deconstructed romaine salad served at dinner. Also recommended are the crunchy, small, yellow-fleshed potatoes, soft inside, smashed to maximize the lovely crispy bits on the outside, and finished with a dusting of herbs and a drizzle of black garlic aioli.
A sandwich of thin-cut porchetta, sautéed bitter greens and a sweet-tart apple mostarda was delish, a convincing demonstration that this hardworking kitchen puts the same consideration into a simple sandwich as an extravagant entrée.
Alison Gillmor Writer
Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.