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Opinion

Denny's and Chop are both connected to the Sandman Hotel on Sargent Avenue near the airport.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Denny's and Chop are both connected to the Sandman Hotel on Sargent Avenue near the airport.

I'm as interested in serious matters as the next person, but if they are in any way connected to restaurants my personal obsession takes over. If I'm watching TV and there's a menu in the background I try to read it (the caf in Coronation Street offers a full English breakfast). If I overhear a conversation about a restaurant I'm shameless about butting in and asking perfect strangers, what restaurant. And when I learned that Air Canada was sending its flight crews to the Sandman Hotel, my second -- well, alright, my first thought -- was, where would they eat.

Which led me back to Chop, one of two restaurants that are attached to the hotel, and is open for dinner only (the other is Denny's, which is open 24 hours). I don't know what kind of stipends the crews get for meals on layovers, but -- since there are no other choices nearby -- I'm assuming they'd have to have their dinner at the high-end Chop, and breakfast and/or lunch at the other-end Denny's.

Chop prices rival some of the highest in the city, but they do buy plenty of style -- a darkly dramatic, ultra-modern room with a lofty ceiling and cushy velvet and leather upholstered booths (although the high noise level doesn't make for a relaxing experience). The service has become smoother since my initial review three years ago -- one welcome change; the servers no longer insist on introducing themselves (although three of them did ask how our day had been).

Much of the food has improved as well. Not all of it though. Chop is a self-described steakhouse, but our steak, which had been poor back then, was now, if anything, even worse. The menu describes the steaks as "aged a minimum of 28 days... selected for optimum marbling and tenderness," but our ribeye, which is usually the safest, tenderest and most flavourful of cuts, was in fact terrible -- devoid of flavour, riddled with sinew and too tough to swallow. And at a whopping $34 for 12 ounces of inedibility. On the other hand, braised boneless short ribs (another failure in the past) have improved enormously, and now are tender and tasty in a nice winey sauce ($25). A double-cut pork chop might have ranked higher but was done in by its own size, which was closer to a triple than a double cut; it was tasty on the surface, with its apple-bourbon salsa, but completely juiceless in the centre ($27). Fish dishes seem to be enduringly reliable, judging by the macadamia-crusted mahi mahi -- delicious then, delicious now -- although the huge circle of unadorned arugula seemed an odd garnish ($28).

Mashed potatoes were creamy and smooth, and the crisp fries would have been good too if they hadn't been overdosed with salt. Carrots and squash were nicely if simply prepared, and there's good, substantial bread to start you off.

For a starter opt for the delicious crab and shrimp cakes with hints of coconut and a wee nip of chipotle (three little patties for $12.50).Your satisfaction with the mussels might depend on which mussels you get. The lime-accented coconut cream sauce was luscious but our rather skimpy serving might have come from two different batches -- some big and fleshy, some no bigger than a thumb nail and leathery, and several with a decidedly musky flavour ($13).

Caribbean rum cake didn't taste at all of rum, or of anything else for that matter ($7.25). A rich fallen chocolate souffle cake was good, but surprisingly solid for something described as part souffle ($8). The wine list is extensive, with several choices available by the glass but only a few bottles under $30.

 

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Sandman room rates don't include breakfast, so those flight crews will have to go to Denny's, which also supplies room service for the hotel. Which may not be good news for an airport hotel -- we waited more than a half-hour for our egg dishes -- a seriously long wait if you have a plane to catch. And when they did come one of the orders was wrong. We'd asked to have the gravy on the side, but they had poured it over the eggs anyway. Would we accept it that way, we were asked, or wait while they did it over? We chose to wait, and a good thing too, since the gravy turned out to be a dreadful white paste that tasted of nothing at all.

A straightforward omelet and fried eggs were adequate, and I might have liked the Santa Fe skillet more if I'd found more than the few token crumbles of chorizo among the veggie mixture. Another dish called (I think) "country" something, consisted of eggs poached almost solid on an English muffin that tasted of rancid oil and paired with slices of soft, flabby turkey bacon and that dreadful gravy.

And then there were more of those old devil details. Buttermilk biscuits were nice and fluffy but dryish, needing either butter and/or something sweet. Grits came hot and creamy but without a spoon. And one would think that egg dishes averaging $9 to $12 would include toast, but ours didn't. Not even when we asked our server about it. Not even though bread is mentioned on the menu.

If you just want to nibble on pancakes without going through an entire stack you can have six little cinnamon-scented fried balls which taste more like doughnut holes but are irresistible ($1.90). Actually, they make a nice dessert.

I also tried two Denny's lunches -- a basic (single, no cheese, etc.) burger that was thick but without juices or flavour ($8.99, including ultra-dry, tasteless fries) and a sandwich of avocado-topped chicken breast with no flavour at all, ($11.99, with some raw veggie sticks). The regular coffee is good, the decaf isn't. The staff were clearly taxed by a full house.

marion.warhaft@freepress.mb.ca