travel / travel magazine / winter 2006

Hot Tips

Eat, drink and be prairie
Winnipeg's latest generation of chefs heats up the kitchen with fresh fusion fare. A little ethnic, a lot local, it'll make you wish lunch would never end.
By Margaret Webb with photography by Thomas Fricke

My first bite of bison has a tantalizing sweetness reminiscent of spring grass. I had been anticipating a gamy flavour and tough texture from the buffalo that once lumbered across the North American prairie. This farm-raised rib-eye is mature and complex, what beef — neither quickly fattened on corn and grain nor sacrificed at the triple-A altar of tenderness — should taste like. Each savoury morsel releases a rewarding zing.

The range-fed bison was one of several dishes that caught my attention at Winnipeg's Fusion Grill. With large picture windows overlooking treelined Academy Road, Fusion Grill is a compact and unpretentious restaurant of only 14 tables, but its deft melding of culinary traditions manages to lure both local foodies and visiting stars, such as Richard Gere, Robin Williams and Susan Sarandon, when they're shooting movies in town. They all come, as did I, for the mouth-watering menu of Fusion Grill favourites: Japan-meets-Manitobameets- Nova Scotia crab cakes, made from tender, sweet pickerel cheeks crusted with panko, or Ukrainian perogies with a French twist — tiny sautéd envelopes of Yukon-Gold-stuffed dumplings set on a round of duck sausage in walnut-cream sauce and drizzled with truffle oil. "The eclectic menu is a fusion of fresh local ingredients prepared in a variety of cooking styles reflecting the ethnic diversity of the province," says Scot McTaggart, the restaurant's owner and driving creative force. "It's a surprising mix that sometimes leaves people confused but happy."



Bistro delights

The distinctive regional cuisine of Winnipeg's latest generation of restaurants is earning kudos across the country. If you're in the neighbourhood, here's a select list of eateries that offer a one-of-a-kind Manitoba feast of the fields.

550 Academy Road
(204) 489-6963


726 Osborne Street
(204) 453-0222

312 rue Des Meurons Street
(204) 262-7400

22-222 Osborne Street
(204) 284-7916

McTaggart's bold experiment, exquisitely executed by chef Lorna Murdoch, has caught on like a prairie wildfire, inspiring a host of chefs around town and reinvigorating Winnipeg eateries.

McTaggart's signature cuisine has also reconnected local citizens to their proud food culture. Thriving theatres, alternative music, a burgeoning movie industry and a slate of cultural festivals are reason enough to visit Winnipeg. Ask a local where to eat, however, and you'll hit on the city's true passion — and you better have a notebook on hand to take down the suggestions.

Winnipeg's contemporary restaurant scene has a long agricultural history that resonates deeply with chefs such as McTaggart. As a prairie boy, only second generation off the family farm, McTaggart grew up acutely aware of the differences between fresh vegetables grown on his relatives' land and agribusiness produce shipped from afar, after the province's family farms were reduced to monocultures dedicated primarily to grain. In the decade since he opened Fusion Grill, McTaggart has popularized regional flavours and championed local farmers and fishermen, even planning food tours of his favourite suppliers: farms raising elk and wild boar; a fish plant that produces golden caviar from whitefish roe; and Brian the Mushroom Man in Glenlea, who grows exotic shiitakes and musky morels.


Teriyaki-glazed tenderloin tips with bell peppers, mushrooms and potato flan showcase the local-ingredients-first style of Luxsolé brothers (from left) Eugene, Lawrence and Chris Warwaruk. Today, few Canadian cities have more restaurants per capita. (Photo: Thomas Fricke)
The complement to Winnipeg's food-producing past is its status as Canada's first truly multicultural city. Winnipeg has been a historic nexus for new Canadians: English and French fur traders met at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers; Scottish, Irish and French settlers started farms along the Red's muddy shores; eastern Europeans cultivated the vast prairie; Icelanders established Canada's largest commercial freshwater fishery on lakes Manitoba and Winnipeg; and Asians enriched the culinary landscape following the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway. To satisfy a craving for their own cultures, these Canadians built restaurants — by the hundreds — and gave birth to Winnipeg's thriving food culture.

Wild foods are a source of inspiration for Fern Kirouac, owner/chef of In Ferno's Bistro, who adds bulrush down to his mascarpone and wild-rice mousse. (Photo: Thomas Fricke)
A few blocks away, farm supplies determine what's on the menu at Luxsolé Restaurant and Tapas Lounge. Brothers Eugene, Eric, Lawrence and Chris Warwaruk opened the bistro seven years ago, with a goal to make enough money to live and keep the family farm, which was in a financial crisis. The farmerfriendly foursome knew where to source quality ingredients at the right price for themselves and for producers. Eliminating the middleman whenever possible, they buy directly from farmers and have made it their mission to promote local produce and meat in the restaurant. It's a concept customers love. Uncle Julian's Lamb, for example, is more than a menu name. In Luxsolé's own succulent version of Winnipeg fusion, it is naturally raised lamb from their uncle's farm prepared with garam masala and served with coconut basmati rice. The Warwaruks also buy whole animals instead of prime cuts, and they are likely the only restaurateurs in Canada to have traded hay from their farm for bison that they serve in an Asian sticky-ginger-garlic sauce and use to make pepperoni for Luxsolé's gourmet pizza.

Local ingredients offer an opportunity for playful spontaneity in the casual bistro cuisine of Fern Kirouac at In Ferno's Bistro. As a teen, Kirouac learned to cook at the side of his late father, Fernie, a prominent classic French chef who launched Winnipeg's superb La Vieille Gare. In an effort to entice a new generation of diners, Fern transformed a furrier's shop in St. Boniface, Winnipeg's French district, into a funky dining room with a romantic patio and rooftop deck. He turns his creativity loose in the kitchen each day, preparing a menu of seven or eight specials that include delectable dishes such as a soup of poached bulrushes, bison spring rolls and farm-raised Arctic char stuffed with lobster, potato and Gruyère mousseline with a lemon verbena sauce. "I get up in the morning and decide what I want to cook," explains Kirouac, who also plays piano and studies reiki. "I'm constantly thinking about new dishes. At 5:30 in the morning, I'm in the park finding goldenrod flowers so I can make crêpes with goldenrod and bulrushes."


A sense of home is the recurring theme in Winnipeg's fusion cuisine, a tribute to immigrant enclaves in which meals expressed cultural identity and reinforced family ties. That link to home cooking, however, should never be confused with a lack of sophistication, says chef Terry Gereta of Mise. Formerly the chef at Fusion Grill, Terry and his wife Sue, who bakes desserts and works the front of the restaurant, set out on their own in 2003. The Geretas took advantage of cheap rent, gambling on charming basement digs with exposed brick walls, and did most of the renovations and decorating themselves.

Terry Gereta's seared Arctic char is topped with crisped wild-boar bacon and served with golden caviar, asparagus and a beet coulis. (Photo: Thomas Fricke)
Terry's cooking style leans to contemporary French, but family influences from both his Ukrainian father, "who was all about comfort food," and his British mother, "who served a traditional family dinner each Sunday," are strong. Creative with flavours, Terry toasts his maternal heritage with dishes such as fish and chips made with lightly seared Arctic char paired with crisped wild-boar bacon and served alongside a sharp dill potato salad topped with Manitoba caviar. His pork ribs are accompanied by latke fries made from mashed potatoes mixed with wild rice harvested from regional marshes. The potato-rice patties are seared, then baked, before being cut into slivers destined for the deep fryer. Moss-berry and cold-pressed–canola-oil sorbet, lavender-and-bee-pollen ice cream topped with wild strawberries, and wild-rice-and-cinnamon ice cream are delicate counterpoints to the hearty entrees.

"There's a notion that contemporary cuisine and comfort can't go together," says Terry, "but this is Winnipeg, and on a cold winter night, food is fuel." Which explains his current preoccupation with a "new" recipe made from great northern beans simmered with pork belly — in other words, pork and beans — that will accompany his bison ribs.

For a howling 30-below winter night in Winnipeg, it sounds absolutely perfect.

For the past year, Toronto writer Margaret Webb has eaten her way across the country in preparation for her upcoming book on Canadian cuisine. Winnipeg-based Thomas Fricke has been an editorial and commercial photographer for 12 years.


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