It’s a great time to be a food lover in Winnipeg. In the past five years the restaurant scene has exploded in this little prairie town. The biggest change has been the growth of the small, independent, chef owned or chef-lead restaurants. It might have started with Fern Kirouac and his Inferno’s Bistro or maybe it goes back to Scot McTaggart’s Fusion Grill, but today the Winnipeg culinary landscape is littered with these funky little restos.
A few years ago, I was interviewed by the local print media about how small businesses were coping with the recession. “What recession?” I replied. While the restaurant scene was struggling in other parts of Canada and the U.S., in the Prairies it was booming. The reporter, frustrated that he wasn’t getting the hard luck story he was after, eventually asked me, “but say there were massive job cuts in Winnipeg, would that effect your business?” But there weren’t massive job cuts and business continued to grow.
The exciting part is not that my little bistro is doing well, although I appreciate that, it is that more and more little, independently owned restaurants keep opening up. These restaurants are refusing to follow the standard Winnipeg format of “play it safe, make sure there is something for everyone”. These restaurants are challenging Winnipeg food lovers to try new things in a new way. Pizzeria Gusto is dishing up wood-fired pizzas and won’t let you settle for your old favourite “Hawaiian” pizza. Segovia opened with a small plates concept that 10 years ago would have just baffled us ‘peggers. Deseo is doing a funky take on Latin cuisine with not a single taco in sight. And Deer and Almond? I don’t know what they are doing, but people are loving Mandel’s food.
Wine lists are changing, too. There was a time when we were satisfied with whatever house wine from California the restaurant had in the box. Wine lists were populated with familiar names like Wolf Blass and Ernest and Julio. Now wine lists have become creative expressions of the restaurants. I was suitably impressed by Gusto’s all Italian wine list and then I saw that Segovia had the audacity to run with only Spanish wines. Other restaurants are mining smaller independent wineries, looking for quirky grapes in funky bottles. Six years ago it was all Aussie shiraz, now malbecs, tempranillo’s and even less known grapes are taking over. Even our tastes in cocktails have changed. When we opened, a fancy cocktail consisted of vodka, with a syrupy liqueur and fruit juice. Now people are into gins and bourbons with bitters, vermouths and lesser known spirits. Restaurants are looking to the great American cocktail tradition and putting their spin on the classics.
What really makes this new group of restaurants stand out is that they are all about the food and the fun. Getting rid of pretension, this new crop of restaurants has rid itself of starched white linens and snooty servers. You can’t even get the cooks to wear the classic chef coat and tall hats anymore! The food is tasty and innovative, but the atmosphere is always casual and lively.
As each new restaurant opened, people always asked me if I was worried about my new competition. I always answered, “no, the more the merrier!” The competitive spirit between this new group of “bad news bears” restaurants is fun and friendly. We all eat at each other’s tables; we inspire each other and help each other out. We are always willing to lend each other a bag of scallops or a box of fennel. We understand that together we are creating a culture of food lovers and restaurant goers. Go to any of these new independent restaurants any night of the week, any time of the year, and they will be packed, lined up at the bar or out the door. They will be loud, filled with energy, and the air will be filled with the aromas of good things coming from the kitchen. Far from hurting the business of any one restaurant, this new competition is helping all of us.
What is next? Who is opening the next hot new restaurant? On what new adventures is the next young chef going to take us? It is an exciting time to be a food lover in Winnipeg.
Alexander Svenne is the food writer for Spectator Tribune and chef at Bistro 7 1/4. Follow him at @ChefAlex
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