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Winnipeg’s best places to eat: the spoils of a food revolution

Bang in the middle of Manitoba, Winnipeg was once a major trading centre for First Nations people, and later for Europeans who dealt in furs and produce. These days some think of it as little more than a pit stop on the Trans-Canada railway, and Winnipeggers have become used to being the butt of jokes – perhaps most famously in a sign in The Simpsons reading, ‘Welcome to Winnipeg: We were born here, what’s your excuse?’ But, with the recent transition of the city’s foodie culture that’s seen innovative chefs transform pedestrian ‘meat-and-potatoes’ fare into creative, cutting-edge cuisine, it’s the locals who are laughing now.

In the last five years or so, local chefs have revolutionized the food scene in Winnipeg. While, for the traveller, Winnipeg and its neighbourhoods boast trusty Canadian diners, grungy hole-in-the-walls and some fabulous ethnic eateries (often under-represented as key players), funky eateries are blossoming, thanks to adventurous chefs who are serving up contemporary takes on Manitoba’s seasonal produce – from bison to Pickerel (a local fish), or from wild berries to wild rice.

Winnipeg’s best chefs

Local Winnipegger Ben Kramer is touted as the ‘Jamie Oliver of Winnipeg’ for his work at Diversity Foods, a progressive food and nutritional program he and his business partner, Kirsten Godbout, introduced to the town’s university. His on-campus, not-for-profit restaurant Elements serves up simple, tasty fare to students and the public, and it trains chefs and staff, too. Sustainability is its key. ‘We maximise the seasonal produce and everything follows sustainable practices: we know where the food is from, who employs whom [at the suppliers], all about the packaging, how they deliver, how much waste it created, and the urban footprint,’ says Kramer. The result? Delicious, simple bites from huevos rancheros to a bison burger.
In Osborne Village visitors can dine at ‘Peg’s first tapas bar: Segovia Tapas Bar & Restaurant (segoviatapasbar.com). Here Chef Adam Donnelly applies a modern take to Spanish recipes using local (where possible), organic ingredients: duck confit empanadas, fried Brussel sprouts with feta mousse and delectable Iberico meats.

Back in the city, pickle jars line the window sills of the rustic-style eatery Peasant Cookery where Chef Tristan Foucault serves up French-style classics. Headlined as a ‘meat maverick’ for his love of curing meats (his charcuterie plate is sensational) as well as his love of pork, Foucault is the definitive ‘nose-to-tail’ man.

Cool (And Sweet) Experiences

If anyone can conjure food magic, it’s Mandel Hitzer, owner of Deer + Almond (deerandalmond.com) and Winnipeg’s ‘Personality About Town’. Hitzer’s cuisine, in his words, is: ‘simple, home-style cooking without boundaries.’ His menu is populated with strange, tasty-sounding bites like stinging nettle linguini and vodka tempura crudites. Hitzer and Joe Kalturnyk, Director Winnipeg’s RAW:Gallery of Architecture and Design, are the creative partnership behind RAW:almond, Winnipeg’s annual pop-up restaurant-on-ice, located at the confluence of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers. Each January, in severely minus temperatures, high profile chefs collaborate with Hitzer to whip up five-course menus for the ‘coolest of cool’ experiences.
Another restaurant name frozen on foodies’ lips is Deseo Bistro (deseobistro.com), a meat-centric eatery run by Scott Bagshaw who, he says, is after ‘equal parts delicious and inventive’. Or there’s Enoteca, a slick spot focussing on share plates.

You might’ve seen a trend here: the one thing missing from Winnipeg’s food revolution seems to be women. With the exception of Kelly Cattani (of Elements) and several outstanding pastry chefs, males seem to dominate the restaurant scene. But there are a few. Winnipeg’s Queen of the sweet tooth, Chocolatier Constance Popp (artisanchocolates.ca), is the mastermind behind imaginative chocolate creations comprising Manitoban ingredients. Get your mouth around a ‘Manitobar’, a bar in the shape of the Province that contains a delectable mix of local hemp and sunflower seeds, lemon honey and flax.

Nostalgic Bites

Traditions die hard in Winnipeg. No matter how fancy the food, firm favourites still thrive and their sources – considered ‘institutions’ – are integral to many locals’ childhoods: summer walks along the river, first dates and regular family outings. For the traveller, these are a fun way to get your head and heart around town.
Locals will tell you that the ‘best burgers in town’ are at VJ’s Drive Inn (170 Main St), a hole-in-the-wall located on a parking lot (where you must go for the ‘iconic’ VJ’s Special, a chilli-flavoured thrill). Up there too is Salisbury House (known locally as ‘Sals’; salisburyhouse.ca) which introduced ‘nip’ to the local burger lexicon (for its ever-so-slightly lesser amount of meat).
Bridge Drive-In (or ‘BDI’ as the locals call it) in Jubilee (several kilometres south of the city centre), is an ice-cream institution located by the Red River. Since 1957 this modest spot has whipped up quirkily-named confectionaries: banana bonanza, sleeping beauty and saltzberg. Try the famous ‘goog’, a blueberry shake with a hot fudge sundae, bananas and whipped cream.

To tip you from a sugary high into saccharine frenzy, don’t miss Baked Expectations (bakedexpectations.ca) where, for a few bucks, you can feast on anything from a range of cheesecakes to a shmoo, a sponge cake with caramel topping.

Farmers Markets & Food Trucks

Sated? We haven’t touched on the city’s 13 or so farmer’s markets dotted around the city, offering fresh fruit, vegetables, artisanal cheeses and farm-made goodies. The city’s largest, St Norbert Farmers’ Market (stnorbertfarmersmarket.ca) sells meats, preserves and baked products made only in Manitoba. Then there are the food trucks that serve everything from Thai food to Middle Eastern bites, from falafels to artisanal ice cream; having hit the streets only several years ago, they are up and revving.
Robin Summerfield, a Winnipegger and writer behind the local food blog, PegCity Grub (pegcitygrub.com), a useful read for any visitor, sums up Winnipeg’s vibrant foodie trends: ‘In the past, Winnipeg wasn’t known for its adventurous eaters. It’s also known as a city of people who like a good deal; this meant “franchise-heavy” eating. Now, there are a lot more independent, locally owned restaurants, more creative menus – and with that, more adventurous eating.’