Neighbourhood: St. Boniface
Address: 111-131 Provencher Blvd
Phone: (204) 231-8308
Just over the Provencher Bridge at the entrance to Old St. Boniface lies a unique culinary experience. From the outside it looks like a typical cafe, but inside is the city’s first and only Tunisian restaurant, Les Jasmins de la Tunisie.
Located in northern Africa between Algeria and Syria, almost half of Tunisia lies in the Sahara desert. The rest consists of fertile soil and an impressive coastline where the Mediterranean laps onto white sand beaches. The country’s location shapes its cuisine—desert-dwelling staples like couscous are popular, along with seafood and distinct spices influenced by its Mediterranean neighbours.
Opening just over a year ago, the restaurant might seem an odd fit for the francophone neighbourhood, but it’s actually ideal. Tunisia was colonized by the French from 1883 until 1956; today the language is still widely spoken there. Owner Mohamed Manachou speaks fluent French and lists menu items in French and English.
Lively Arabic music sets the mood upon entering this humble restaurant. At night, strings of white fairy lights illuminate windows that face onto busy Provencher Boulevard. A smattering of desert photos and an impressive hookah lends an Arabic flair.
If you stop in for any one item, make it the brik. This deep-fried triangular pocket features a soft-boiled egg wrapped in crispy phyllo. Mozzarella, parsley and flaked tuna are nestled alongside the spongy egg, resulting in an addictive salty taste. To quench your thirst, fragrant Tunisian mint tea is a must. Served hot with floating mint leaves, add a palmful of almonds for a hit of sweetness.
A bowl of hissou soup offers an unusual combination of flavours that work brilliantly together. The potency of curry, vinegar and harissa—a hot sauce made of red chile peppers, coriander, cumin and tomatoes—is pulled back with mint in this flour-based soup. Expect to see harissa reappear as a spice or garnish in many Tunisian dishes. Mint is also found in the two house-made beef meatballs buried within the soup’s freckled brown broth; we wish there were more.
The restaurant’s specialty is Tunisia’s national dish couscous. The entrée lives up to its status with lightly-cooked chunks of vegetables, chickpeas and a generous portion of lamb. Ground pepper and coriander season the flavourful meat served atop a mountain of puffy couscous, where the spice level can be adjusted to taste.
Tunisian tajine is not to be confused with the more familiar stew-like Moroccan tajine. Similar to a quiche, grated mozzarella and eggs are beaten and baked into a moist, fluffy square with a choice of meat and vegetables. The eggplant and chicken version is perfectly complemented with a tangy garnish of olives, vinegar, garlic, zucchini, caraway and chiles, showcasing the cuisine’s Mediterranean influence.
Diners can venture beyond the North American version of steak and potatoes with an order of koucha. Oven-baked potato strips are fanned around a juicy piece of beef tenderloin. Ketchup will seem like yesterday’s condiment after dipping the soft potato strips into the herbaceous rosemary and turmeric marinade pooled on the plate.
A basket of baguette-style bread accompanies an order of ojja. The semolina bread is baked in-house daily. When dunked in the spicy sauce of sautéed tomatoes, the taste is reminiscent of gourmet pizza. A poached egg floats in the stew alongside house-made beef meatballs and merguez, a spicy beef sausage commonly eaten in Tunisia.
The Tunisian pastry plate offers a trio of bite-sized delights for dessert—be prepared to fight over them. A highlight is sugary almond and hazelnut cake topped with phyllo pastry and drizzled with honey.
Les Jasmins de la Tunisie is open Tues-Sat 11 am-10 pm.