Neighbourhood: The Forks
Address: 147-1 Forks Market Rd
Food halls have surged in popularity the world over. Like their cousins, mall food courts, they offer an abundance of casual eats in convivial settings, with the added bonus of local ownership and chef-crafted menus. In this city, the Forks Common answers this trend, a sleek dining hall lined with vendors and filled with a crowd happily sharing communal tables.
While Passero, the latest brainchild of chef Scott Bagshaw, is touching distance to the Common it is distinct by its architectural details – and its menu. Bagshaw’s obsession with the small stuff is revealed as the dishes roll out, teasing new flavours into dishes we thought familiar. In a city rich with Italian fare, Passero challenges norms and redefines contemporary Italian fare at its whim. This innovation and masterful attention to detail sets Passero apart from the pack securing it Ciao! magazine’s best new restaurant of 2018.
Set under old brick archway, the contemporary setting is surrounded by angled wood slats along the ceiling and one wall, giving the space a sense of motion. Sit along the open kitchen on bar-style seating and overlook cooks assembling memorable dishes sprinkled liberally with Italian cheeses.
Bagshaw has a penchant for putting innovative twists on longstanding cuisines, as at his previous ventures like Spanish-inflected Deseo Bistro and pan-Asian inspired Máquè. Here, his attention turns to Italian cuisine with a menu that is always evolving.
This is no red sauce restaurant. Rigatoni in a cauliflower purée with creamy cave-aged gruyere is punched-up by the sweetness of orange segments. Melt-in-the mouth ricotta gnocchi covered in Parmigiano-Reggiano and dotted with sweet black garlic has notes of balsamic vinegar. Wild mushrooms mixed in add an earthy flavour.
The holy trinity of Italian cooking – tomatoes, mozzarella and basil – are remixed into a colourful, sweet and sour play on caprese salad. Cherry tomatoes, basil, crema di buffalo and olive oil are joined by orange and grapefruit segments along with a touch of heat from Calabrian chiles. A sweet beet salad features the vegetable done three ways; roasted, pickled and dehydrated. Sour grapefruit segments contrast the sweet beet and crème fraîche balances the texturally diverse mixture. Tender asparagus is paired on the plate with luscious hollandaise and sprinkled with fresh herbs, grains and fish roe to make a lasting impression.
The seafood is pristine; close your eyes you’ll imagine you’re on the coast eating the daily catch. Seared wild scallops are served on a smear of cauliflower purée and topped with pine nuts, raisins and caper agra dolce. Large white prawns and meaty butter beans swim in a satisfying tomato brodo.
Finish the meal with a warm lemon cake, sprinkled with salt, on a bed of basil cream sauce, which gives the dessert a savoury edge.
While tastes are elevated, the space easily adapts to the informality of its food hall proximity and caters to a diverse clientele. By day, Passero becomes Corto, serving up masterful Italian sandwiches (with toppings like porchetta, apple mostarda, mascarpone and bitter leaves) and coffee at its takeaway counter.
But by any name it’s just as sweet: a complex, exciting challenge to our notions of Italian food.
THE BLACK BIRD BRASSERIE
Neighbourhood: St. Boniface
Address: 101-300 Tache Ave
Like pubs, tasques, or biergartens, the brasseries of France are informal restaurants that draw locals in with simple, hearty food. An ocean away, in our prairie province, the newly opened The Black Bird Brasserie is doing a first-rate job at living up to its name.
Flavour-packed French comfort food is cooked up in the kitchen headed by chef Norm Pastorin, part of the team behind The Grove and The Cornerstone, popular pared-down spots for mouthwatering meals. He believes food is a conduit for community, and Black Bird is quickly becoming a neighbourhood favourite as well. Delectable dishes are so well executed and seemingly effortless that one might guess it has been turning out top-notch food for decades, rather than mere months.
Large windows provide a sunny look out onto Tache avenue at lunch, and reflect the restaurant’s smoky-blue walls in the evening. The décor is simple; the food being prepared in the open kitchen speaks for itself.
Begin a culinary adventure with olives escabeche. The marinated green olives are garlicky with a hint of chili sauce, topped with carrots, peppers, and a sprinkling of sesame seeds, served with slices of buttery grilled baguette. Poutine Monsieur marries French cuisine with a Quebecois favourite. Fine-cut fries layered with smoked ham, cheese curds are lavishly covered in buttery béchamel. Bits of cornichon punctuate with a hit of sour.
The delectable chicken confit sets a new flavour bar on how a chicken dinner should taste. A succulent chicken leg sits atop buttery mashed potatoes, sweet French green beans, and large pieces of pancetta, all surrounded by a pool of intensely flavoured mustard infused jus.
Succulent steak and crispy frites are a brasserie classic. Create the perfect bite; soak up the Madeira sauce with a piece of juicy flat iron steak, add slices of sautéed mushroom and braised shallot, and enjoy. French fries and a bowl of dressed greens accompany the meal.
Pickerel à la meunière presents a favourite Manitoba fish, Frenchified. The lightly breaded filet sits on a mound of plump Israeli couscous covered in a tangy lemon caper butter sauce topped with radish and chives for a pop of colour. Fried capers sprinkled on top add crunch.
Don’t overlook Black Bird’s bourguignon, a long-simmered version that would have made Julia Child swoon with delight. Tender braised brisket, pearl onions, carrots, potatoes, mushrooms and pancetta are covered in a silky, thick Burgundy wine sauce ready to be sopped up with a grilled baguette. After dinner, step through into the connected Canteen Coffee Shop, owned by Black Bird, for a steaming cup of joe. Leaving a meal feeling warm and satisfied is surely what the brasserie is all about.
CHO ICHI RAMEN
Neighbourhood: Fort Garry
Address: 1151 Pembina Hwy
In Japan, alongside fish and rice, the noodle that rules is ramen. An explosively flavourful bowl of messy calorie laden noodles is the signature staple of the masses. Ramen rules, and for the last 100 years or so it’s been eaten on the daily. Styles vary by region; fatty and salty, chicken and pork, miso, shio, shoyu, distinguishing flavours of every broth.
In the heart of Canada, ramen is just beginning to see the light of day. Until this summer, it appeared on precious few menus, winning favour with early adopting foodsters and citizens of Japanese descent. In June that changed. As the season’s temperatures soared, Cho Venevongsa added Cho Ichi Ramen to his Wasabi Group of restaurants, betting heavily on hot steamy bowls of ramen. Mere months later, its 80 seats fill up regularly, already revealing an opportunity realized. Chef John Garcia from Wasabi heads up the kitchen, bringing singular focus to selling every customer one product, one that takes 6-12 hours to prepare.
Daily pots of chicken and pork stock are always on the go, each providing rich depth for signature flavours to be added. Pork is the bigger seller satisfying cravings with its fatty full bodied liquid. The top pick either way is prominently listed on the single sheet menu as “The Original”. This signature bowl delivers the pure flavour of its long simmered broth. It is the fully loaded option complete with an egg, tender sous vide cooked chicken and pork, bamboo shoots, spinach, green onion and nori. It is perfection.
Miso, shoyu, shio offer flavour variations infusing every bowl with its own characteristics. Add-ons vary slightly from one to another, a list of toppings encourages customization. Order miso, and a satisfying mixture delivering umami goodness awaits. Sweet corn punctuates each bite. An alluring red spicy garlic option rewards the heat seekers, and challenges the wannabes. It hurts, but the delicious pain that comes with every spoonful only slows the eating slightly, revealing amateurs in the room from the pros.
Although most of the world’s ramen is made from manufactured dry noodles bought from mass suppliers, this eatery makes its own on site. The process plays out in plain view, entertaining those who look up between slurps. These freshly made artisanal noodles, exquisitely add a delicate wheat flavour to the mixtures.
Starters at Cho Ichi Ramen are impressive too, offering unexpected flavour mash ups. Sweet kewpie mayo, fishy bonito, nori and a sprinkle of green onions add an explosion of tastes to Okonomiyaki fries and takoyaki. Bao buns are moist, the sweet soft dough wraps around crunchy fried chicken or impossibly tender pork accented with sweet mayo and a crunch of lettuce. Calamari is fried nutty brown, dipped in spicy garlic mayo setting it apart from anything we’ve known.
Cho Ichi Ramen is fun and lively and habit forming. One thing is clear; the success of this new hotspot is evident by the families, couples and friend groups leaving with bragging rights to having crushed their bowl.
Neighbourhood: St James
Address: 2615 Portage Ave
Once upon a time, French food meant candlelight, starched table linens, and a maître d’ in tails. But times have changed. Now, chefs are looking beyond Paris’ Michelin-starred kitchens and finding inspiration in the rustic flavours hiding beneath the lid of grandmere’s Le Creuset.
Little Goat, which opened its doors in late 2017, is doing just that. This charming spot, where every bite is an ode to la campagne, is a French revelation. Situated on a stretch of west Portage Avenue dominated by take out spots, it has become the hip haunt for St James dwellers and francophile foodies alike. Owners and husband/wife duo chef Alex Svenne and Danielle Carignan-Svenne honed their ability to craft cozy neighbourhood restos in underserved areas of the city ever since opening Bistro 7 ¼ in 2006.
Blond wood, whitewashed brick, chairs upholstered with colourful floral fabric, and cloth napkins adorned with a single navy stripe, all contribute to the welcoming atmosphere. Beginning with the selection of “bouchees,” like pâtés, rilletes, and smoked oysters, dinner has the feeling of a picnic. A pâté of mushrooms arrives neatly packed into a mini mason jar, scented richly of wine and deeply earthy. Luscious pork rillettes are savoury and lightly smoky, hidden under a thick cap of fat.
Offering a balance to the butter and cheese laden staples of French cooking, starters plunder the country’s rural areas for light, bright dishes. The French salad, a melange of arugula, snap peas, radishes, celery and licorice-scented fennel is well dressed in a lemony vinaigrette. Chickpeas and clusters of nutty quinoa give it some body – the sort of hearty touch that unfussy, rustic cooking does so well.
Rustic is the buzzword informing the entrée section of the menu. The line up features large cuts of meat lovingly braised and simmered to exquisite softness, like tender boeuf bourguignon, redolent of red wine. Sausages, a homey preparation originally born out of efficient butchery, here are plump and juicy from a white wine braise and paired with a thick pink slice of smoked pork. A pile of baby potatoes and wedges of sourdough are provided for sopping up the juices, while a tangy sauerkraut and vinegar punched house made pickles deliver hits of acid to cut through the rich dish.
Pommes aligot appears as a side for several dishes, but nearly steals the show. A dish from France’s southern Aveyron region, starchy potatoes are whipped with a nutty soft cheese, butter and cream until they break into an almost stretchy texture. An earthy ratatouille, flecked with thyme, pairs beautifully with herb-studded chevre.
The menu’s appeal is an all-day affair, and Little Goat has become as likely destination for a morning croque madame or noontime tartine as a languid dinner. All good things must come to an end, but the welcoming room is surely bidding au revoir, not adieu – one thing’s for sure, we’ll be back.
Neighbourhood: South Osborne
Address: 557 Osborne St
Residential South Osborne, with its walkable strip of storefronts, has always held some gems, but now the neighbourhood may be hitting a trendy tipping point. Recently added to the mix of hip restos and shops is Oxbow. Wine bar vibes and beautiful, elevated small plates have combined to make this new restaurant a can’t-miss destination.
A gorgeous dining room sets the scene. It must be the warmth of the rustic wood, exposed brick walls, pendant lighting and stunning four-paned, floor-to-ceiling windows that feel so inviting. Then again, it may be the impressive list of natural wines – conviviality comes easily with a glass in hand.
Natural and pet-nat (sparkling) wines have gained popularity in recent years as growers harness the surprising, full, and funky flavours that come from embracing the grapes’ inherent qualities. Any night of the week, Oxbow’s bar seats are lined with eager sippers sampling from the globe-spanning selection, by the glass or bottle.
The importance of terroir is carried through to the menu, where “farm-to-table” is literal: one of the restaurant’s owners also runs a small farm, and its bounty makes it to the kitchen. It’s all about seasonal eating, and the ever-changing menu sports local favourites like pickerel, beets, root veggies and Arctic char.
Chef Sean Bernard previously honed his talents for well-edited menus of small plates at Corydon Ave hideaway, The Roost. Despite more room to spread out in The Oxbow’s spacious open kitchen, his menu shows thoughtful restraint. Each dish is an homage to its central ingredient, with preparations and accompaniments selected to draw out new, surprising flavours.
Smoked beets are whipped into a light and airy dip hit with yogurt tang, ready to be slathered on a chewy pillow of flatbread. Thick wedges of pork belly, crisp on the outside and buttery with molten fat on the inside, are set on a tower of gingery slaw and a barbeque sauce touched with apricots’ jammy sweetness.
Typically overlooked, the humble turnip becomes the star of a dish that highlights its candy-like sweetness and earthy undertones. After a char on the grill, it is bathed in nutty browned butter, topped with a cloud of miso-laced sauce, and topped jauntily with gloriously indulgent sheets of aged parm.
Fried chicken is the dish of the moment. Oxbow’s entry is juicy and sports a crackly crisp skin, the bird’s umami flavour taken to new heights with a soy sauce caramel – sweet, salty, and sticky. To bring things back into balance are brightly acidic housemade pickles, on one visit, mild shishito peppers fresh from the garden.
It’s easy to nibble through most of the menu on one sitting, but dessert shouldn’t be skipped. One is an ode to blueberry in a bowl: silky blueberry mousse topped with pomegranate gelee, blueberry panna cotta, and an icy granita made from chevre. Underneath the careful plating and cheffy components, what transmits in each bite is a depth of understanding, of respect, for the dish’s ingredients. That may just be what Oxbow does best.