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Winnipeg’s Best New Restaurants of 2015

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The Merchant Kitchen, photo by Ian McCausland

This year brought Winnipeg diners plenty to rave about. The Merchant Kitchen tops the list, and has been chosen as one of Canada’s Top 10 New Restaurants by WHERE editors.

THINK GLOBAL

As globalization has thinned borders between culinary cultures, chefs have become pioneers exploring a whole new world of flavour. The Merchant Kitchen is pulling Winnipeg along on its frontier journey with vibrant mash ups of Asian-Latin flavour.

Owner Bobby Mottola and chef Eric Lee have built a cohesive menu of vibrant dishes that capitalize on the high points of South American and Asian cuisines – spicy, salty, briny, and herbaceous flavours. Grilled rare tuna abandons the sushi roll for a tortilla, piled with smoky jalapeno salsa and kicky kimchi, while wok-charred Brussels sprouts are sauced with soy and a hit of chile. A scattering of fried garlic completes the city’s best version of this popular veggie.

The space, inside the new ultra-cool Alt Hotel, is loud and proud, popping with blasts of red, colourful print banquettes, and a brick wall dominated by a giant rooster mural. Worn-wood communal tables set the stage for family style eating, while the sleek bar and clean white open kitchen churn out drinks and plates with energetic efficiency.

The talk of the town is Merchant’s Korean style (that’s double fried and extra crispy) fried chicken. The crust cracks away to reveal juicy breasts, wings, and legs rendered ultra-tender from a brining stint.

Lighter fare is on hand to break up the parade of fried, meaty, and spice-punched eats, like a twist on som tum featuring wide orange ribbons of papaya, touched with chile-lime vinaigrette. Super food salad is a colourful jumble enlivened with sweet pops of pomegranate and salty cotija, chased with unexpected fire from minced jalapeños.

The kitchen’s wild spirit is good to the last drop, with sweets like towering chile chocolate cake putting the finishing touch on the mash up of tongue tingling flavour and hip flair that keeps us coming back for more. 

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The Merchant Kitchen, photo by Ian McCausland

SUDS & GRUB

It was two years ago that Barley Brothers’ first location opened its doors, setting the stage for a beer revitalization in Winnipeg. This year’s new open, Barley Brothers Stadium, ups the ante with 150+ varieties supported by a menu of prairie comfort food that reads not as an afterthought, but a tribute to the land and to good brews.

A grain bin as the entrance and a backdrop of beer kegs act as the space’s visual manifesto. A cue is taken from sports bars, with a view of one (or three) strategically placed television screens easily accessible from handsome leather seats or the bar. At each table, a craft beer flavour wheel informs diners of tasting notes from tart to alkaline, and affable waiters offer pairing suggestions along the way.

Food pays homage to traditional sports bar grub, while reflecting the range of Manitoba, like the Manitoba social board, a nostalgic spread of cheeses, cured meats and pickles.

Pub grub like hearty burgers, sandwiches, and comfort food complete the spread. Favourites like mac ’n cheese are elevated with confit pork belly and smoked jalapeños.

Lighter items, like salads and flatbreads, balance the selection. A sprinkling of quinoa in lemon buttermilk dressing gives a bounteous pile of kale slight nuttiness.

Hop heads and game day crowds may flock to this zealous brewhouse, but underneath the suds is a big-hearted dedication to cooking from the prairie land. 

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Photo courtesy of Barley Brothers Stadium

READY FOR THE PICKING

Manitoba’s nutrient-rich soil is ideal for the wide variety of crops that have traditionally earned our province the title of Canada’s bread basket. Out of this same soil springs Ripe Bistro, where time-honoured traditions and prairie product create a menu of edible odes to Manitoba ingredients.

Décor is minimal, with chalkboard specials and deep red walls creating cozy bistro atmosphere. Plump tomatoes and aromatic herbs grown on-site surround patio diners during warmer months, stressing connection to the land.

Chef Thomas Pitt’s dedication to from-scratch cooking and comfort food shows in meals that have been enjoyed through generations, like fluffy French toast amped up with star anise marinated figs and sautéed bananas. Ingredients reminiscent of family traditions, such as bannock (Pitt’s mother’s recipe), pickerel, and sauerkraut, figure heavily on the menu.

House smoked meats make sandwiches worthy homages to Winnipeg diner culture. Tried and true favourites are rechristened with playful names, like The Jewish Cowboy, a mountain of tender brisket piled high on a soft bannock bun.

For a taste of the lake, the pan-fried pickerel in the shore lunch reigns supreme. Flaky and tender flesh is accented simply by sautéed potatoes, onion and crispy bacon.

Pitt and his team have successfully created an homage to Manitoba cuisine, blending fresh local flavours with homey comfort. 

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Courtesy Ripe Bistro

DELI DELIGHT

Sherbrook Street Delicatessen opened its doors in March 2015, and has been bustling ever since. This neighbour-
hood eatery is notable for its revival of one of the staples of the city’s dining scene which has dwindled in recent years: the traditional Jewish deli.

Springing from the multicultural hotbed of New York in the early 20th century, delicatessens spread like wildfire over North America.

With the rise of processed food, and with few members of younger generations taking up the mantle, Winnipeg’s deli contingent has shrunk. It is against this current that Sherbrook St Deli owner Jon Hochman has decided to swim, drawing on a family history of kosher style cooking. It’s not a cool market, or an easy one – scratch made fare is high cost and labour intensive – but tradition runs deep, and so does Hochman’s passion for the delicatessens of yore.

Bucking the trend has paid off. Food is straightforward and comforting, with items like matzah ball soup, golden housemade latkes, and warm knishes graced with a hearty dollop of sour cream and scallion.

Sandwiches made with thick slices of City Rye bread are piled high with house cured cuts, like exquisitely marbled and lightly tangy corned beef.

The deli’s walking neighbourhood location keeps in step with delicatessens’ long history as gathering places for community. Servers bounce from packed table to packed table, slinging sammies with the teasing familial affection that turns diners into regulars. 

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Courtesy Sherbrook Street Delicatessen

HIDE AND SEEK

Down a set of steps under an unmarked awning, a nondescript swinging door opens onto the dreamy, charming world of Sous Sol. Cheekily doling out a dash of mystery, this neo-speakeasy creates a dining experience that thrives on hush-hush theatricality but warmly welcomes those who seek it out.

A backdrop of mismatched antique chairs, tapers dripping wax, and patterned china sets the stage for elaborate cocktails and classic cuisine, executed superbly. Though updated weekly, the menu of cheffy French classics is always sure to raise the bar while keeping the familiar feeling of comfort food – like all French menus, there is no fear of butter here.

Meat is showcased in divine preparations, from surpassingly rich duck confit to perfectly seared and juicy beef noisette. Lean horse tartare finished with an orange orb of yolk gains a light briny note from chopped capers, accenting the richness of the jewel-pink meat.

Fish is also handled deftly. Pan fried sea bream on one visit was crisp and flaky, served skin-on. A scattering of kale, sautéed leeks, plump capers, whole hazelnuts and chopped eggs cloaked in a light, zingy mousseline delivered a perfectly balanced complement.

The restaurant’s sense of humour makes its way onto the menu in the form of playful appetizers and wild cocktails, like addictively crisp frogs’ legs, or a tall rum-based concoction lit on fire and delivered to the table with a housemade marshmallow and mini roasting stick.

With a charming blend of craft, elegance, and playfulness, it’s clear that despite its best efforts, this gem won’t stay hidden for long.

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Sous Sol, photo by Michael Schafer

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