Home » Traveling Gourmet — Culinary Wonders in Winnipeg

Traveling Gourmet — Culinary Wonders in Winnipeg

by Jeff Heilman
(Photo by Inside Creative House)

With its vibrant and multicultural community, Winnipeg has become a culinary melting pot, offering a wide array of flavors from around the world.

(Photo by Inside Creative House)

More than 50 locally owned cafés, restaurants, bars, and breweries beckon within the cobblestone corridors of the Winnipeg, Canada arts and culture Exchange District, one of North America’s best-preserved heritage neighborhoods.

Acclaimed addresses include James Avenue Pumphouse (2-109 James Avenue. Tel: 204-560-5210. jamesavenuepumphouse.com). Housed in a 1906 brick pumping station built to fight downtown’s frequent fires, this industrial heirloom features Manitoba-inspired fare and drag brunches backdropped by spectacular preserved machinery.

Renowned for its flagship 1919 Belgian Pale Ale, Little Brown Jug (336 William Avenue. Tel: 204-500-0441) is a craft brewery and taproom housed in a century-old transportation depot.

Winnipeg is big on breakfast and brunch, and one of our favorites places is Modern Electric Lunch (232 Main Street. Tel: 204-306-6404. melunch.ca), so named after contractors found food receipts in the walls from the site’s 1919 incarnation as “Electric Lunch No. 2”, reportedly Winnipeg’s first restaurant with electric refrigeration. Facing historic Union Station (from the architects of NYC’s Grand Central Terminal), this cheery update, locally referred to as “the gay café,” is perfect for house-brewed coffee and breakfast sandwiches, Tiramisu pancakes, and other yummy bites. Artwork includes the framed receipts.

Smoked Artic Char at Clementine Cafe (Photo by Jeff Heilman)

Smoked Artic Char at Clementine Cafe (Photo by Jeff Heilman)

Located in the basement of a 1905 type shop, Clementine Café (123 Princess Street. Tel: 204-942-9497 clementinewinnipeg.com) is another daytime champion. Chef Chris Gama nails it with his hearty menu. Fruit-flavored porridge; Turkish eggs on hummus; smoked Artic char; maple braised bacon; and fried chicken on toast drizzled with spicy honey. Bullseyes all, with a sweet staff to match.

Gama’s road to success included staging pop-up dinners. That puts him in the company of Mandel Hitzer, chef-founder in 2012 of neighboring, nationally celebrated deer + almond (85 Princess Street. Tel: 204-504-8562. deerandalmond.com).

Hitzer’s boundless 26-year track record in Winnipeg includes co-creating RAW:almond with Joe Kalturnyk, founding director of Winnipeg’s RAW:Gallery of Architecture and Design.

Grilled Maitake at 2023 RAWalmond (CREDIT Simeon Rusnak)

Grilled Maitake at RAW:almond (Photo by Simeon Rusnak)

Headlining Winnipeg’s mix of annual food festivals, their singular culinary project RAW:almond (raw-almond.com) is a must-attend event. Over 22 nights, successive leading local and national chefs prepare multi-course dinners for two seatings of 96 guests within a uniquely designed temporary structure on the frozen rivers of Winnipeg. Seats were $225 (Canadian) in 2023, wine excluded; bookings for 2024 open this November.

Star power at the 2023 event included Winnipeg-born Gus StieffenhoferBrandson, whose Vancouver restaurant Published on Main was crowned Best Restaurant in Canada in 2022. Sharing duties the night I attended were Emily Butcher, former chef de cuisine at deer + almond who now runs her own superb restaurant Nola, and Christine Sandford of Biera Restaurant in Edmonton, who served our table.

Acclaimed for her ingredient-driven, wood-fired cuisine, Sandford’s six-course parade included her signature sourdough bread, beef tartare in smoked beef fat, and sublime grilled maitake mushroom. The clustered maitake is known as “the dancing mushroom” in Japan for its nutritional and medicinal properties. Sandford’s rendering, bathed in fermented maitake bouillon oil and allium (garlic family) oil, was sensational.

The concept has expanded to other destinations including RAW: Tokyo and RAW: Churchill in Manitoba’s polar bear country. While always dreaming big, Hitzer remains grounded in his passion for feeding people. Outside, as he grilled maitake for the second seating, he described how Sandford used lacto-fermentation, mushroom stock, mushroom glaze, and other touches to unleash the maitake’s earthy goodness.

Human interaction is a 6,000-plus year tradition at the rivers’ junction in Winnipeg. Designated as The Forks National Historic Site in 1974, and since redeveloped into a vibrant mixed use campus, Winnipeg’s birthplace is the city’s most visited destination.

Connecting two renovated historic railway stables with a glass and steel atrium, The Forks Market (1 Forks Market Road. theforks.com), housing some 24 eateries plus shops, is Winnipeg’s communal dining room.

Vendors include outposts of local institutions such as sweet sensation Jenna Rae Cakes (jennaraecakes.com) from twin sisters Jenna Hutchinson and Ashley Kososwan.

Originated in 1981 as the Grain of Wheat Church bread co-op in the ethnically diverse, restaurant-rich Wolseley neighborhood, Tall Grass Prairie Bread Company (tallgrassbakery.ca) is devoted to scratch-baking with heritage varieties of Manitoba-grown organic wheat. Stone-ground milling their flour onsite, Tall Grass makes breads, buns and other baked goods with love. Swooning bites include the cinnamon buns and light sourdough rye.

The food hall’s fine-dining destination, contemporary Italian-driven Passero, is one of three exceptional small plate concepts from Montreal-born, Winnipeg raised Scott Bagshaw. At Máquè, across the Assiniboine River in Crescentwood, Bagshaw draws on Vietnamese, Korean, and Chinese influences. We met at his American-French-Italian gem Enoteca (1670 Corydon Avenue. Tel: 204-487-1529. maque.ca/enoteca).

Beef Tartare at Enoteca (CREDIT Jeff Heilman)

Beef Tartare at Enoteca (Photo by Jeff Heilman)

From my experience (think Los Angeles), five-star restaurants in strip malls never disappoint. Updating a former Quiznos in a plaza between the ritzy Tuxedo and upscale River Heights neighborhoods, Enoteca seductively exceeds the mark.

Bagshaw has a renegade reputation and looks the part, somewhere between Nick Cave and Lee Van Cleef. Translated, Bagshaw drives on impeccable preparation and presentation, evidenced by his no excuses tattooed hands and flawless tasting menu.

As the room filled and the rock music played, my three-hour journey began. Coffee-infused foie gras. Golden beets with grapefruit and whipped walnut ricotta. Yellow fin tuna with charred jalapenos. Beef tartare with pho aioli and quail egg. Porcini risotto with cremini and oyster mushrooms. Dark chocolate tart with orange caramel. With all this exceptional food, the top service, and excellent wine pairings, this was truly a night to remember.

Designed by preeminent Canadian landscape architect Frederick Todd, nearby Assiniboine Park incorporates The Leaf, and indoor horticultural jewel billed as “Canada’s Diversity Gardens.” This new $130 million attraction features four themed biomes, including a butterfly garden, Canada’s largest indoor waterfall, and small plate dining at hot ticket Gather Craft Kitchen & Bar (145 The Leaf Way. Tel: 204-927-7222. gatherattheleaf.ca). Winnipeg-born chef Mike DeGroot’s winning “Modern Prairie” menu incorporates ingredients harvested onsite and from local and provincial sources, vegan and gluten-free options included. My lunch of cured Artic char and cast-iron roasted Brussels sprouts was delicious.

Wild Salmon on Bannock Bread at Feast Café Bistro (CREDIT Jeff Heilman)

Wild Salmon on Bannock Bread at Feast Café Bistro (Photo by Jeff Heilman)

Winnipeg is also home to Canada’s largest urban Indigenous population, including First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people. At Feast Café Bistro (587 Ellice Avenue. Tel: 204-691-5979. feastcafebistro.com), Winnipeg-born owner Christa Bruneau-Guenther, of Peguis First Nation heritage and one of Canada’s first female Indigenous restaurateurs, pays homage with modern dishes rooted in traditional Indigenous cuisine.

Self-trained at home, Bruneau Guenther’s bounty includes chili and Manitoban poutine, both featuring Manitoba grass-fed bison, and wild salmon on bannock bread, an Indigenous staple. The cinnamon sugar bannock is a sweet sensation.

Her welcoming West End restaurant lies within a stretch of ethnic and community based eateries. Nearby neighbors include Eadha Bread (577 Ellice Ave. Tel: 204-783-3064. eadhabread.com), a renowned queer-owned sourdough bakery, and The Tallest Poppy (103 Sherbrook St. Tel: 204-219-8777. thetallestpoppy.com), for all-day comfort food, daily happy hour, and drag brunches featuring Prairie Sky, Tyra Boinks, and other resident queens.

Immigrant success stories in multilingual Winnipeg include Chaeban Ice Cream (390 Osborne Street. Tel: 204-475-6226. chaebanicecream.com). Over scoops of scratch-made gourmet ice cream at his South Osborne store, west of downtown, founder Joseph Chaeban shared his remarkable story.

Born in Germany to Lebanese parents, he came to Canada with his family at age six. After running a trucking company with his artisanal cheesemaker father to make ends meet, Chaeban became a dairy scientist and consultant, later settling in Winnipeg with his Syrian wife Zainab Ali.

With Zainab’s family scattered in Lebanon and Turkey, Chaeban began attending meetings of the South Osborne Syrian Refugee Initiative at a local church. There, he met software engineer Darryl Stewart, who, impressed by Chaeban’s entrepreneurship, partnered in launching his ice cream business in 2017. He also sponsored Zainab’s family’s safe exodus to the city. In 2020, Chaeban launched his line of artisan cheeses.

Other culinary artists in Winnipeg include Amanda Kinden, who redefined gourmet donuts in 2014 with her Oh Doughnuts (ohdoughnuts.com). Scratch-made from organic Manitoba ingredients, sinful creations include the Cherry Cola Float and Everything Bagel.

With a store in St. Boniface, Winnipeg’s historic French Quarter, Constance Popp Chocolates (180 Provencher Blvd. Tel: 204-897-0689. contsancepopp.com) has customized creations for the Golden Globes, Oscars, and Juno Awards.

This francophone neighborhood is also home to small plate dream Nola (300 Tache Avenue. Tel: 204-505-0760.nolawpg.com). Helmed by Chef Emily Butcher, Nola showcases her nouveau Canadian menu, and was Named one of Canada’s Top 30 Restaurants in 2022 by Air Canada’s enRoute magazine.

The well-choreographed staff elevate the experience, with black uniformed servers gracing the floor (Butcher trained as a ballerina). Nods to her Chinese heritage include the tasty twist of replacing toast with Wonton chips for the beef and beet tartare. The luscious cured albacore tuna comes with poached persimmon, charred scallion yuzu chimichurri, and coconut. Go too for the Japanese-style fried chicken, seared scallops and lo bok bo, and sweet desserts.

During my recent visit, I stayed at The Fort Garry Hotel (222 Broadway. Tel: 204-942-8251. fortgarryhotel.com). Built in the classic Manitoban Gothic Chateau-style by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, this 1913 landmark exudes Old World charm throughout. Recently restored to its original look, The Oval Room Brasserie, with its magnificent ceiling, is a grand stage for brasserie-style wine and dines. The smoked goldeye, a small local freshwater fish, was a subtle treat, complemented by fresh oysters and a crispy-skinned fresh wild king salmon.

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