Café La Scala
Address: 725 Corydon Ave
Recent renovations have transformed Café La Scala into a hybrid of urban cool and fine dining. This new incarnation of one of Corydon Avenue’s long-time gems melds sleek nightlife elements with elegant style, catering to the after dark crowd without sacrificing quality.
The spot’s seasoned owner, Perry Scaletta, adopts a philosophy of getting to know his customers. Whether bustling around the open kitchen in a state of hyper-focus or pulling up a chair to go over the night’s specials with a group of diners, his energy is infectious.
Cooking is refined, with revelatory touches popping up subtly throughout the menu. Meatballs are as classically Italian as you can get, but the inspired addition of pear adds fresh sweetness.
The menu’s collection of small plates has enough complexity of flavour to hold diners’ undivided attention while still maintaining a casualness ideal for those who want food to play a supporting role to cocktails. Signature dumplings, swimming in a gingery sweet chile cream sauce, or a favourite lemon and honey suffused arugula salad, are still there to satisfy long-time (and new) fans, reformatted as a stop in a night-long parade of flavours.
Other shareable plates include a stick-to-the-ribs mushroom risotto, made, on one visit, with barley, and finished with an earthy swirl of truffle oil. Tender rings of Sicilian-style calamari, which eschews the batter-heavy deep fry popular at pubs for a simple turn on the grill, luxuriates under a flourish of wine-laced tomato sauce, and a dusting of Parmigiana.
Sleek new elements like colour changing tables and a backlit bar give the space a lounge-like atmosphere. These accents blend with traces of the restaurant’s fine dining past, like the Tony Tascona masterpieces that have long graced the walls, and a line up of traditional entrées. Flavours slant Italian and preparations are time honoured, from osso bucco (made with lamb shank, not veal) to pastas. A stellar cioppino piles tender seafood beneath a shimmery red stock, with a hit of Sambuca to give this classic a modern edge.
Cafe La Scala is open Mon-Tue 5 pm-12 am, Wed-Sun 5 pm-2 am.
Beaujena’s French Table
Neighbourhood: St Boniface
Address: 302 Hamel Ave
Entrées: prix fixe $55
Beaujena’s French Table is the definition of a passion project.
The cozy St Boniface restaurant helmed by husband and wife duo Beaujena and Randy Reynolds clearly operates out of a love for food and an enjoyment of cooking. They serve what they want to serve—in a 7-course surprise tasting menu—open two nights a week, and even take to the streets in a food truck during the summer.
The proof of this zeal is in the pudding, as they say; or in this case, in the perfectly crisped skin of a sockeye salmon, or an airy slab of semifreddo.
Before your meal begins, Beaujena Reynolds may say that they view this venture as a dinner party with friends every week. By the end of the night, you’ll agree. Amidst murmured conversation from other tables, diners settle in beneath sunny orange walls punched up with royal blue accents and paintings of flowers. A ceiling enshrouded in draped fabric and fairy lights adds to the quirky warmth.
Each month brings a new 7-course menu dreamed up by Randy Reynolds, who in seven years has never repeated a menu item. Surprise plates also translate into revelations for the palate, with dishes tweaked and re-imagined in enlightened combinations. Shrimp ceviche, brightly singing of lime, is set on a jalapeño-flecked warm corn pudding, a pairing that shows off a thoughtful mix of creativity and restraint.
Dishes show devotion to technique as well as an eye for flavour. Perfect potato gnocchi, outsides crisped by a pan fry, are pillowy parcels accompanied simply by green peas in a silky goat cheese cream sauce.
Classic French fine dining is the major influence, with frequent detours around the continent and twists on tradition. The pesto that lends grassy notes to a rich, earthy veal scalloppini swaps spinach for basil, and aromatic almonds for pine nuts. Atop the meat, a dusky bed of sautéed local chanterelle mushrooms is finished off with a blanket of marsala cream sauce.
After a palate-cleansing salad of watermelon and goats’ milk feta, the chef appears with dessert—a personal touch befitting a restaurant that feels like home.
Beaujena’s is open Fri-Sat from 5 pm onwards. Reservations required.
Ristorante Dona Onesta
Neighbourhood: The Exchange
Address: 177 Lombard Ave
Italian cooking is inherently at odds with the current hashtag heavy chef culture, with individual flourishes and ideas submissive to the overarching rules of the cuisine. Talent comes to bear by perfectly creating dishes that have been eaten for generations, consistently replicating what are deceptively simple foods.
There is a right way to make Italian food. And Dona Onesta knows how, with everything from perfectly al dente pasta to portion sizes that Nonna would heartily approve.
The restaurant hails from the canals of Venice, where owner Safwat (Adriano) Bakhit first set up shop. After making the move to Winnipeg, Dona Onesta was reincarnated within a marble-sheathed heritage building on the edge of the East Exchange. The setting, as much as the food, exudes old world charm.
The menu favours simple cuts of meat and classic pastas that get their lively punch from a variety of well made sauces. The scalloppina, tender cutlets of pork pounded thin, are succulent beneath a pool of bracingly zingy lemon sauce.
Regional specialties less often served outside of Italy’s borders also dot the menu. One such dish consists of glossy, jet black cubes of cuttlefish cooked in its own ink. The meat is tender and dense, with unctuous sauce imparting mild flavour that finishes with lingering minerality.
In fact, all seafood is deftly handled here, incorporated into antipasti, pastas, and entrées. A salad of squid and shaved celery is fresh and lemony, slick with fruity olive oil. Flaky, perfectly cooked salmon is topped with a classic red sauce, singing with the unexpected acidic sweetness of fresh tomatoes and briny notes from puréed green olives.
Downtown proximity makes the dining room ideal for filling lunches, and plans are in the works for daytime offerings like pizzas and paninis fresh from the wood fired oven.
Food fads reward novelty, but spots like Dona Onesta show the benefits of fidelity to tradition. A satisfying slab of light-as-air, coffee-soaked tiramisu is proof enough of that.
Ristorante Dona Onesta is open for lunch Mon-Fri 11:30 am-2 pm, for dinner Mon-Sat 5 pm-10 pm.
Neighbourhood: River Heights
Address: 164 Stafford St
Pub grub—from gourmet burgers to truffle fries—has enjoyed ongoing popularity since The Grove opened its doors. In 2011, this publication praised the casual spot as one of the year’s best new restaurants for its elevated menu; since then, it has continued to impress by giving eager diners ample opportunity to pair fine dining panache with a pint.
Inspired by British pubs, the restaurant smoothly incorporates specials from across the pond into items like curry-sauced fish and chips and gussied-up bangers and mash. Still, the archetypal English tavern is less of a literal influence and more of a blueprint for the kind of convivial neighbourhood atmosphere cultivated here. Adding shepherd’s pie to the menu does not a neighbourhood pub make; a cozy, warm, friendly vibe, genuine personal touches, and a careful blend of clever gastronomy and mass appeal place this spot at a cut above.
On any given night, the simple, light green-hued space, centred around a well stocked bar, fills with a diverse cross section of diners from sports fans to family outings. Burgers and sandwiches with creative toppings are popular picks, as are the filling, crispy-edged pizzas that serve as an homage to the longtime former occupant of the building (Tubby’s pizza).
Creative appetizers are highlights, a bargain at casual pub prices. Soft, fatty slices of pork belly beneath a crispy sear pair perfectly with a roasted pineapple gel that adds tropical sweetness. Tangy pickled shallots and jalapeños, a funky hint of miso, and a scattering of crisp-fried pork skin round out the dish. Seared scallops share a plate with grassy pea purée and refreshing and herby watermelon and mint salsa.
Mains deliver low key elegance that goes well with a crisp house lager. Spicy steak tacos get a colourful topping of avocado, grapefruit, and cilantro, with a drizzle of habanero sour cream packing some serious heat. A buttery slab of salmon under sweet passion fruit glaze is well appointed over tangy cabbage slaw and a rich Japanese tare broth smacking of soy salinity.
A plate of housemade mini donuts is a fun finish, puffy as clouds and still warm under a drizzle of maple whiskey glaze and a shower of crumbled bacon. It is the dedication in these details that show that this kitchen isn’t just looking to impress, but to make friends.
The Grove is open Sun-Wed 11 am-midnight, Thu-Sat 11 am-late.
Neighbourhood: Fort Garry
Address: 1270 Pembina Hwy
Kimchi Sushi is not the spot for sushi purists, with rolls baked, fried, doused in sauce and spiked with decidedly untraditional flavours. But what arrives at the table is a love song to multiculturalism, a unique fusion of Asian and Canadian ingredients that happily blur culinary borders.
The sleekly decorated Pembina Highway spot offers some of the city’s best Korean interpretations of the ever-popular Japanese dish. Sushi here is a wild, messy, saucy affair, showing just how far creative chefs can play with the building blocks of seasoned rice and seaweed.
Case in point: sushi pizza. A pillowy bed of rice, warm and crispy from a dunk in the deep-fry, is layered with curls of salmon and a lashing of sweet hoisin-like house sauce, a sunny mango sauce, and sweet Japanese mayo. TNT tempura is another saucy appetizer, crisp under spicy, sweet and soy-laced drizzles.
Rolls are similarly playful, forgoing the severity of edomae-style sushi for fun and unexpected combos, like the Kingston, a modified California roll slathered in sauce, oven baked, and dusted with Parmesan for funky edge. The beautiful Geisha roll, papered with slices of salmon, is slicked with a line of sweet, floral fruit purée, each piece topped with a single pearlescent orb of salmon roe.
The spot’s Korean ownership has also resulted in a selection of favourites from the cuisine, including a playful “I love kimchi” section geared towards ferment fanatics. The rendition of the cabbage condiment served here is charged with vinegary flavour cut with a sweet edge, with less spice than most versions. Excellent Korean-style barbeque shouldn’t be missed, with strands of pork and vegetables, charred and smoky with a marinated-in deeply savoury flavour, dyeing accompanying rice scarlet.
The backdrop to the extravagance on the plate is boldly minimal décor. Black walls and sliding sheer black curtains dividing the dining area and booths lit by bare Edison bulbs create an atmosphere as contemporary as the menu.
Kimchi Sushi is open Mon-Fri 11 am-10 pm, Sat & Sun 12 pm- 10 pm.