Don’t Judge a City by its Beige-nessPosted by Mark Busse on Thursday, July 16th, 2009
Tags for this Article: french, local, mirlycourtois, restaurant, review, tallest poppy, winnipeg
I recently spent four long days in Winnipeg—winner of the Most Beige City in Canada Award—attending a series of meetings at The Fort Garry Hotel by day, exploring the city by night. Having spent time in The ‘Peg in my youth, I must admit my culinary expectations were rather low. But one of the nice things about low expectations is how you can end up rather pleasantly surprised—and I was! Little did I know the culinary delights that were in store.
The first bar we went to as a group almost made me lose my dinner. Not kidding. Called The Kings Head Pub (120 King St.), it tries to sport the stylings of an English pub (so original!), complete with darts, pool, and imported beer, but the last time I was in an authentic English pub I don’t remember the strong smell of moldy hockey bag mixed with dried vomit. Who puts carpet down in a pub anyway? One quick beer later and we moved on, with me dreading that this might be an indication of things to come.
The next spot of note we encountered was called The High & Lonesome Club (234 Main St.). This place smelled clean, which was almost a shock considering the cluttered walls covered in knickknacks of all kinds, including numerous bathrobes hanging from hooks (these could be handy on a particularly hard night of drinking I suppose). This was more of a purists bar than a pub—and a small one at that—with a live music stage taking up 25% of the entire place. On it while we were there was Dan Frechette and The F-Holes (seriously) soulfully performing a rockin’ mix of roots music ranging from old tyme to rockabilly. When the bill came after numerous drinks (and nachos) I was surprised by the low total, which is when I first encountered the phrase “you’re in Winnipeg, not Vancouver”—oh right.
After an especially long day on Saturday, thoughts starting drifting to dinner plans. Many in our large group were keep to try out an Indian place called Ivory (200 Main St.), but having eaten enough high quality Indian food recently, I set out to find the best French food in Winnipeg. And I found it.
Called Mirlycourtois (188 Princess St.), not the easiest name to remember (though I’ll likely never forget), this place is as authentic as I’ve found outside of France or Montreal. Named after Chef Bernard Mirlycourtois, the restaurant doesn’t give the best first impression as you rise the linoleum-covered stairs to the second floor, but once inside the interior is as charming as the woman who greats you. It turns out that Chef Mirlycourtois was awarded a Michelin star when he was a younger Chef back in Burgundy. A Michelin-starred Chef in Winnipeg? That got my attention.
Our group settled into a table in one of the sprawling restaurant’s spacious rooms surrounded by candles, brick walls, and a wood fireplace with candles all over it. After pouring some delicious Côtes du Rhône ordered from their impressive wine list, we ordered a number of traditional dishes such as escargots, frog’s legs, foie gras, côte de boeuf, and the most delicious prosciutto I’ve ever encountered. Chef himself came out to explain how important it was for him to prepare his dishes with as much local ingredients in traditional French ways, even using rooster (as opposed to hen) for his coq au vin. None of his dishes disappointed and crème caramel ended a terrific meal. Needless to say, my trip to Winterpeg was looking up. But it wasn’t over yet.
The next morning was a Sunday, and after a frustrating walk through the city in search for a breakfast spot that didn’t open at noon (was everybody in church or something?), we stumbled upon a small restaurant called The Tallest Poppy (631 Main St.) that had room for us. Expecting the standard offering of bacon, eggs, and toast, we were pleased to learn that this humble café-style spot served up a set menu of gourmet dishes made from organic, local ingredients (as much as is possible in the throws of a prairie winter) slow cooked and lovingly presented.
Their meats are natural and locally raised. Their coffee is outstanding and roasted right down the street. The bread is made fresh in-house each day. The eggs are free run from local farms. The menu changes as ingredients become available, and although normally the menu is a set multi-course affair (our brunch was five courses!), if you have dietary restrictions they are happy to accommodate. Our meal, served by friendly staff willing to stop and chat awhile, was phenomenal. of the calibre of some of the finest brunches I’ve ever enjoyed—and I’m a bit of a breakfast food fanatic.
I asked the owner, Talia Syrie, why the restaurant was called “Tallest Poppy” and she explained it was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the social phenomenon when people are criticized or resented because of their talents or achievements—like a poppy being cut down first because it grew higher than the rest. The name serve as a snarky and effective expression of their attitude toward food, food provenance, and its preparation. It also gets people like me to ask why, creating a chance for them to tell their story.
You can’t miss The Tallest Poppy’s bright red door located next to the old Occidental Hotel, which is being refurbished along with many of the buildings in the North Main neighbourhood. Originally looking for a space to run a catering business, this former café with its spacious kitchen was ideal, but the owner had one condition: instead of just catering, she had to open a restaurant for the local community. So she did and was an immediate hit. The restaurant is now open Tuesdays–Sundays.
As we seemed interested in the building, Talia generously gave us a tour of the immaculate kitchen, private dining room, and the old lobby and bar of the hotel— both under renovations. While still a work in progress when we visited, you could easily envision the grand elegance of the place in years past. It’s terrific that the owner is putting so much time and money into the place to bring it back to life.
It’s worth pointing out that my family is FROM just south of Winnipeg, so this trip was a little like going home in some ways. But having spent so many years in colourful Vancouver—vibrant dayglow colours actually by comparison—I hadn’t expected to discover two wonderful restaurants led by foodists passionately dedicated to the best local ingredients, wonderful recipes, and terrific service. It may have been a beige-fest outdoors, but inside it was an explosion of colour and flavour. Now that’s a town I can go back to!