Thursday, January 29, 2015

Era Bistro: 4/5

Big 'ol Burger
Score: 3.9
Platter: $14

Greek Burger (feature)
Score: 4.1
Platter: $14

Era Bistro opened four months ago in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) at 85 Israel Asper Way at The Forks. It’s a beautiful space designed by the Number Ten Architectural Group that also envisioned the Metropolitan Restaurant. “Gorgeous décor with a lovely bistro aesthetic and upscale furnishings” wrote Sande. The spacious restaurant seats around 80 and features a large open kitchen - there’s a row of chairs where diners can watch the cooks work their art. Half of the seating is at long wooden communal tables which suited our group of fourteen perfectly.

The CMHR is famously still under construction and the entrance isn't obvious. If you spot Gandhi at the trailhead, you’re close. Along with the erection of the Esplanade Riel bridge tower, the 'Broadway Promenade' was created tracing a line to Union Station and Broadway Avenue to “restore the original linear connection between downtown Winnipeg and St. Boniface.” The cobblestone trail included an 'Aboriginal interpretive site' complete with fire pit, which people took as an invitation to have a bonfire, so it was eventually
filled in with boulders reminiscent of a bell shape and renamed the 'Peace Meeting interpretive site'. In anticipation of the CMHR, Gandhi’s statue made an appearance and the walkway is now known as 'Gandhi Way' highlighting the true multiculturalism of Winnipeg and the ability of civic politicians to leverage the same real estate to recognize three different groups of people. I digress though, the CMHR entrance is by the skate park.

One thing all fourteen of us agreed on was the service was top notch. Jason seated us and didn't blink an eye when he first removed an extension table that I said we wouldn't need, then pulled it back and reset it again when I realized our number was to grow. Our server, Jereme, was very respectful, efficient and quick to greet us and take drink orders. Our visit coincided with Winnipeg’s city wide boil water advisory so he poured each of us a sparkling glass of Era bottled water. When Jereme delivered our meals, they all came at once and everyone got what they ordered.

There’s one burger on the menu – the Big ‘ol Burger, and on this day Era’s lunch feature was a Greek burger. The cooking and final assembly was all done in front of our eyes. I don't think I'd like working under that kind of scrutiny! The burgers were presented bun open with ripe, red tomato, fresh leaf lettuce and red onion on the cold side, and two big slices of leathery bacon and cheddar cheese crowning the large beef patty on the hot side.

If you ordered the Greek burger, it was topped with a balsamic reduction and feta cheese. After uniting the two burger halves, a very shiny Gunn’s Bakery brioche bun looked back at you. The side dishes shared the plate and dipping sauces were garnished with bright little flowers. Les ate his.

My Big ‘ol Burger was very juicy and I enjoyed it. It reminded me of The Keg burger patty but without the grill crust. It wasn't dense and it wasn't soft – some described the texture as fluffy. Sous Chef Steve told me they buy the premade 6 oz. AAA prime-rib patty unseasoned and cook it in their own recipe of herbs and spices. Era had made a beef patty in-house, but received such good feedback on the Sysco burger they decided to go with it.

However, most of the flavour of the stack came from the maple smoked bacon and some char flavour from the grilled bun. Some of our group thought they didn't have any cheese until looking at the photos afterwards. The bun was right-sized to the patty and did a great job of holding the assembly together and soaking up the grease from the succulent patty. The fairly plain tasting sandwich probably won't win any awards, but also won't offend any palates.

Nelson had the Big ‘ol Burger and wrote “Balanced burger flavours, but none stood out individually except the bacon.” Sande had the Greek feature and noted “Burger looked promising - juicy patty, generous size, shiny bun - but was underwhelming.”

The carrot fries were a hit. They were lightly battered, and the seasoning reminded me of a Chinese five spice salt. They were served with a cucumber dip. Nelson said the white potato “fries tasted good but were nothing special.” I believe they came with a curry dip - I didn't have a chance to try it. The creamy Carrot-Ginger soup packed a surprising punch from an abundance of fresh, spicy ginger. I really enjoyed mine.

Some thought the price a little steep for a good quality, but routine burger. Of course much of the value from our pleasurable dining experience came from the wonderful service and striking restaurant design. Located inside the beautiful CMHR building, and with somewhat limited hours, but still offering menu items like fillet mignon, pickerel and lamb, I imagine higher prices are a necessity.

Era Bistro on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Pint: 3.9/5

Great Canadian
Score: 4.0
Platter: $15

Mushroom Cheddar
Score: 4.0
Platter: $15

Score: 3.6
Platter: $15

Fiery Blue Cheese
Score: 3.1
Platter: $15

The Pint caught my attention with five tantalizing burgers and “Table Kegs” clinched the deal. As luck would have it, our Wednesday Burger Club supper coincided with The Pint’s $29 Table Keg special.

274 Garry Street was most recently occupied by Aqua Books and EAT! but you'd never recognize it now. The crab cakes are gone and replaced with Beefshires. Geoff wrote "Grand opening week at The Pint and first impressions are positive. Very different than the old Aqua Books - now a spacious sports bar! The music was straight off my iPod, the decor is all wood and dark motifs, could become quite popular." The completely renovated interior is beautifully finished with  full height windows and a tin ceiling. The walls are covered in framed prints interspersed with TVs. Tall wooden chairs and tables are black – which the serving staff all helped stain and finish just before the restaurant opened on Dec 23. Each of the two levels has a large central bar with 26 beers on tap. The DJ booth is on the main level and the upper has great spaces for groups including a private room. The Pint is a 100 m dash from the Winnipeg Police Cadets HQ and the downtown indoor skywalk in winter months.

I've been to The Pint three times and expect to be back many more. It was a few hours before they opened on my first visit when I bumped into the owner, Thomas, who made a point of coming over to shake my hand and say hello. This is his thirteenth restaurant opening. The second visit was at lunch and they were staffed up and ready. We were greeted and seated immediately and our waitress showed up a moment later to take drink orders and hand us menus. It was obvious staff were well trained. On the third visit a few of us arrived about an hour early for our 6:00 pm Burger Club reservation and caught them between shifts. We found our tables on the second floor overlooking Garry St and defended them from usurpers. The lone waitress working the upper floor was cheerful and quick, but it took her a bit of time to make the rounds. Our server Karly arrived before 6:00 to take over our table and she was all smiles, full of energy and fun. She can carry twice her weight in Table Kegs and the beer started to flow.

After Karly put in our food orders I asked if I could visit the kitchen. She checked with Chad, who was in Winnipeg to setup the new operation, and came back to get me as our burgers were being assembled. I’m not sure if it was my “outsider” presence or Chad overseeing, but the kitchen staff were very well behaved. Usually there’s considerably more shouting and swearing in the organized food prep chaos. There must have been a dozen people working the kitchen and they got all sixteen of our burgers assembled and lined up at once – no small feat!

The sixteen platters were delivered by Karly and some helpers resulting in momentary mayhem. Karly was very careful to track our custom burgers, and the kitchen was careful to keep the plates in order, but there was still a momentary panic with burgers in the air and hungry diners trying to politely, and sometimes unhelpfully, meet their meat. It was not unlike two groups of Canadians trying to enter and exit an elevator at the same time. Eventually the burgers were all set down in front to the appropriate stomachs.

The presentation was a rectangular plate with the assembled burger and side balancing each other. The dish was on a paper napkin (black of course) to keep from clattering and sliding around. The bun shiny and skewered with two pickle slices on top. Russ wrote “Impressive to look at.” Cutlery and basic condiments were placed in a common basket.

The 8 oz beef patty was thick and filled the bun to its edges. It was beefy tasting, very lightly seasoned, coarsely ground and lean. The Pint franchise does not form the patties in house “due to the volume the five locations sell”, but the patties are made to their secret recipe from 100% Sterling Silver Alberta beef without any filler or preservatives. With oil prices so low, Alberta can use a hand up from Manitoba so now we can support them through beef exports instead. Interestingly enough, the buns travel all the way from Vancouver to crown the assembly. According to Riley, who is returning to Winnipeg after managing the Calgary Pint, the “bacon is ultra fresh, of the best quality and double smoked. The cheese is fresh and the finest money can buy.” You can’t get any better than that! It was a good and very filling sandwich.

The Great Canadian bacon-cheese burger was the popular choice and Karen wrote “My burger was nice. Well constructed with lots of beef. Patty was fairly plain. Very nice bun with decent amount of bacon and cheese.” Dani added the “BBQ sauce on the burger is tasty, reminiscent of Bulls Eye original. Patty is big and moist.” Brian observed “The burger was well-constructed with bacon, lettuce, and tomatoes clearly visible.  The beef patty was large and seasoned well.  The bun was maybe a little small for the patty but fresh and held up well. The maple BBQ sauce made the burger.” Jeff critiqued “Good Burger:Bun ratio; held together perfectly right to the last bite. Loved the sauce, great combo of smoky and sweet.”

A few people chose the Mushroom Cheddar burger. Liz scribbled “Patty was formed perfectly. Bun was the right size and delicious. Mushroom sauce was very good and tons of mushrooms. Cheese was not overly obvious - could have been more. Best burger for me so far.” April noted “The burger was hot until the last bite and the meat was tasty. My burger came out with everyone else's even though I ordered after everyone.” Sandy swooned “I looooove a good mushroom burger - this one is one of the better ones I've had in the 'Peg. The bun held the whole mess together. Tasty cheddar sauce - more of it would have balanced the under seasoned beef.

Geoff went rogue: “I got the bison Great Canadian Burger. Same price for bison, beef and chicken - why not break the Golden Rule of Burger Club for once? They're both ruminants. Burger was pretty and tasty, a bit dry as may be expected with bison. Bacon wasn't bad but not top tier.”

As to the side dishes, the poutine was hugely popular. Jeff wrote “Awesome gravy - could drink shooters of the stuff a la Al Bundy.” I had the Mac ‘n Cheese and it was creamy with just enough jalapeño to make is interesting. I gobbled it up. Some of us started with the Beefshires (only $5 for eight pieces during happy hour) and they were divine. I may come back and eat nothing but Beefshires. Dani had the lemon  rice soup with chicken in meatball form. It was tasty. I had the potato bacon soup the first time and it was hearty. Stephanie sampled the wings and cautioned "their super hot wings (7 pepper) are hot. Burn your face hot. Get them to share because you’re only going to eat one."

The Pint is one of several Urban Sparq Hospitality concepts. Nurturing of the soul through burgers, beer and bodacious fun is not left to chance at Urban Sparq. The hospitality business depends on word of mouth so they use their social media company, Oilers Nation, to put out all the engaging Tweets. I ran into their marketing manager, Daniel, also in town for the opening, and asked him why Winnipeg and why Garry St. He said Winnipeg’s market still has untapped potential and if you present Winnipeggers with a better product, they’re willing to pay for it. The Norris building was affordable and located near the SHED in the thick of downtown condo development. “We're always within a block or two of the ice.” Daniel also talked about Urban Sparq’s concept of “mini-clusters” so another restaurant or bar is a possibility.

The Pint on Urbanspoon