Eat Drink and be Prairie

By Margaret Webb
Canadian Geographic Travel, Winter, 2007

My first bite into bison made me think of beef then grass. I was expecting something tough and gamey, but rib-eye possesses a deep, mature flavour – what beef should taste like if taste were not sacrificed at that Triple A alter of tenderness. Yes, this pasture-grazed bison had a satisfying chew, but it quickly released a rewarding zing – a tantalizing sweetness that tasted of spring grass.

The bison was not the only dish that caught my rapt attention at Winnipeg’s Fusion Grill. The compact dining room – only 13 tables, a few booths and large picture windows overlooking the tree-lined Academy Road – manages to lure in local foodies and such stars as Richard Gere, Robin Williams and Susan Sarandon when they’ve been in town shooting movies. I imagine they come back, as I would, for Fusion’s Japanese meets Manitoba meets Nova Scotia crab cakes – tender and sweet pickerel cheeks crusted with panko. Or their French twist on the Ukrainian perogy — tender morsels of Yukon Gold tucked into tiny envelops of dough, which are sautéed, set on a round of duck sausage, then drizzled with walnut cream sauce and lightened with a zest of truffle oil. I swear it stirred taste buds on the back of my head.

The eclectic menu is what owner and driving creative force Scot McTaggart calls “a fusion of prairie, ethnic and contemporary,” a surprising mix that he admits can sometimes leave people “confused.” But Fusion’s bold experiment, carried out exquisitely by Chef Lorna Murdoch, sounds completely logical when McTaggart explains his inspiration.

As a prairie boy, first generation off the farm, he grew up comparing fresh produce from his grandparents’ land with bland groceries shipped from afar after industrial agriculture reduced Manitoba’s family farms to monocultures, largely of grain. With Fusion, McTaggart determined to recapture that lost flavour. In ten years of cultivating sources, he’s become a culinary champion for Manitoba’s local farmers and fishers. This fall, he plans tours to his favourite food sources: farm-raised elk and wild boar, Gimli for the tender and fresh Manitoba Golden Caviar made from the roe of white fish, and Brian the mushroom guy for quixotic prairie shitakes and meaty, musky morels.

The flip side of McTaggart’s memory is growing up in Canada’s first truly multicultural city. For a self-described precocious foodie even in his teens, this was a dream place, rich with footprints from the past — First Nations, English and French fur traders who met at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers; later, Metis traders who retired to start market farms along the muddy shores of the Red; East Europeans who came to farm the vast prairie, Icelanders to develop Canada’s largest fresh-water commercial fishery on lakes Manitoba and Winnipeg and Asians in the 19th century to build the railroad. In an attempt to satisfy a craving for home while establishing lives here, they built restaurants, hundreds, giving birth to a thriving food culture – only Victoria, BC has more restaurants per capita. McTaggart – in a nod to both the city’s red clay earth and its cultural diversity — calls Winnipeg’s terroir, “Red River gumbo.”

Certainly, a thriving theatre, alternative music scene, burgeoning movie industry and a slate of cultural festivals are reason enough to visit. But ask a local where to eat and you’ll hit on the city’s true passion – and you better have a notebook on hand for the suggestions. It’s hardly surprising then that McTaggart’s fusion of prairie/ethnic has caught on, well, like a prairie wild fire, reinvigorating Winnipeg’s culinary scene and inspiring a host of chefs across town.

At LuxSolé, farm suppliers dictate what goes on the menu — quite literally. The four brothers — Eugene, Eric, Lawrence and Chris Warwaruk – opened the bistro six years ago with an initial mission to make enough money to buy back their family’s farm, which the bank had repossessed. As farm boys, they knew where to source quality ingredients and how to get them cheap – by cutting out the middle man and buying directly from farmers. As restaurateurs, they made it their mission to promote local produce and meats – a theme that warmed their customers. Uncle Julian’s lamb isn’t a label – it’s actually their uncle’s succulent naturally raised lamb, which the boys serve according to their own take on Winnipeg fusion – with Garam Masala spices and coconut basmati rice. Farmer-friendly, they usually buy whole animals rather than just prime cuts, forcing a degree of ingenuity in the kitchen. They are very likely the only restaurant in Canada to trade hay from their farm (yes, they got it back) for bison – which appears in an oriental sticky ginger garlic sauce or as the pepperoni on their pizza.

At In Ferno’s Bistro, chef and owner Fern Kirouac, uses local ingredients to inject a playful wackiness into his casual bistro cuisine: bison spring rolls, farm-raised artic char with mascarpone cheese and raspberry poppy seed sauce, a soup of poached bulrushes. As a teen, he started cooking at the side of a master – his late father, one of Winnipeg’s most pre-imminent French chefs who launched the superb La Vieille Gare restaurant. For his first restaurant, Kirouac Jr. set out to entice a new generation of Winnipeg diners, transforming a furrier’s shop in the French Quarter of St. Bonifice into a funky dining room with a romantic patio and rooftop deck. The slim menu serves as so much decor – the real adventure here are the seven or eight specials Kirouac creates daily, which account for 75 percent of the orders. As Kirouac says, “I get up in the morning and decide what I want to cook.” For a guy who plays rock and roll on the side and studies Reiki, that could be just about anything.

At Mise, chef/owner Terry Gereta doesn’t mind if his cooking reminds you of home — but don’t mistake that for a lack of sophistication. He headed up the kitchen at Fusion before striking out on his own three years ago so that he could spend more time with his wife, Sue, who works the front of the their restaurant, and their five children. Family says a lot about Gereta’s style. Though his cooking leans to contemporary French, his Ukrainian father “was all about comfort food,” while his English mother insisted on the Sunday family dinner. “There’s a notion that contemporary cuisine and comfort can’t go together,” says Terry, “but this is Winnipeg. On a cold winter night, food is fuel.”

Like countless waves of restaurateurs before them, the Geretas took advantage of cheap rent in Winnipeg, found charming basement digs with exposed brick walls and did most of the renovations and decorating themselves. Dinner here, like the rest of Winnipeg, is lighter on the credit card than comparable big city restaurants. But the major reason to visit is Terry’s careful and deeply satisfying cooking, his creative play with flavours. A take on fish and chips is artic char, lightly seared, topped with crisped wild boar bacon, sided with Manitoba Golden Caviar and perched atop a sharp dill potato salad, an ode to his mother’s recipe. The latke fries that accompany pork ribs are made with boiled potatoes and wild rice that aboriginals pick from Manitoba’s marshes, seared then baked, cut into steak frites and finally deep fried.

As a counterpoint to the rich mains, his ices are enchanting – a mossberry sorbet made with Manitoba cold-pressed canola oil suggests blueberry; lilac and bee pollen give wild strawberry ice cream a honey elixir; the nuttiness of wild rice teams with cinnamon to create an ice cream that hints at apple pie.

He tells me about a new recipe he’s working on to accompany his bison ribs, northern beans simmered in pork belly — in other words, pork and beans. For a thirty below night, with a howling snowstorm, it’s perfect.

Fusion Grill
550 Academy Rd

Lux Solé
726 Osborne St.

In Ferno’s Bistro
312 rue Des Meurons St.

22-222 Osborne St.