Thursday, February 26, 2015

Deer + Almond: 4.4/5

Royale with Cheese
Score: 4.4
Platter: $10




Art meets food in the little diner on the corner of Princess and McDermot and Mandel Hitzer is the creative tour de force in the kitchen.

Photos 1-6: Mandel Hitzer
There’s only one beef burger on the menu and it doesn't have any options. The sandwich first appeared for #LeBurgerWeek 2013 as a parody of the Big Mac, complete with special sauce and three-part sesame seed bun, but eventually the troublesome middle bun disappeared and the two patties merged into one thick layer of beef. It’s the ‘Royale with Cheese’, an artistic interpretation of Pulp Fiction's Quarter Pounder with Cheese, but it's still ‘Le Big Mac’ at heart.

Mandel is a self proclaimed “burger connoisseur who has travelled the world tasting burgers to come up with the perfect recipe." He uses a selection of beef cuts and just the right amount of fat to produce the succulent and flavourful patty. “The patty should stand on its own.” Our last few Burger Club outings have had prefab patties and it was like coming home to have lovingly crafted ground round once again.

Mandel knows the importance of a good bun and Deer + Almond are almost unique in that they bake their own. Mandel looked like a proud parent when he gazed at the bun and said “Behold its pillowy soft, shiny, seedy goodness. Once you make your own you can't go back.”

"Are you ready for a burger? We're just waiting for A&W" Mandel joked. He took my camera into the kitchen and returned it with a photo essay of burger love. We preordered, and our sixteen meals came out quite quickly. Brian started cutting his burger in half and Mandel exclaimed “You're compromising the structural integrity! Holding a messy burger together is part of the experience.” There's a training video for that.

Karen critiqued “The Royale was a delicious mess of love. The bun is the first thing you bite into - it should be the very best quality - and it was! Could taste all the ingredients and the special sauce rocked my world.” A number of our group raved about the sauce – Stephanie scribbled “OMG so good! The secret special sauce made the burger.”

Most diners really enjoyed the bun, but a couple thought the fresh bread a little doughy for the patty. The processed ‘American Cheese’ was exactly what it was supposed to be on the Royale – and I enjoyed it - but one or two could have done without the direct analogy.

Chris wrote “the burger was juicy, and very nice to taste a homemade bun. I found it drippy, but the sauce was very flavourful and helped to really punch it up.” Isabel commented “Little bit of spice was nice. Liked the cheese/sauce/burger combination. Kinda tasted like a Big Mac but way mo better. Bun was tasty - liked the seeds.”

Mandel asked what could make the burger even better and the only comment was the beef resembled a ball more than a patty. It's quite thick which allows chef to leave it pink in the middle – tender and juicy, and very flavourful.

You won't find fries at Deer + Almond, but you will find gourmet soups and salads – different delicious creations every visit. The teardrop shaped soup bowl - or salad - and the sandwich were served on a large, round plate that had the effect of making the burger look small.

All in all we had a great time at Deer + Almond and Burger Club put the ‘Royale with Cheese’ in our Top 10; a 5-star burger! At only $10 including the side, it was quite a good deal for a steakhouse patty and ranked #3 in value. Deer + Almond made our Top 5 for service so very good numbers all around! Peter was a quick and attentive server, and Graham cleared the restaurant and stood on furniture to take our group photo.

Nelson inspected the facilities and noted "the bathrooms are unlabeled. Good luck determining the correct one on the first guess.” He added “They should really have a portrait of John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson on the wall.”

'The Burger': Les Brandt
Mandel found a kindred spirit in Les who wrote a poem about the burger and followed it up a few days later with a watercolour tribute.

Photo: NB

Deer + Almond on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Brown's Socialhouse: 4/5

Pub Burger
Score: 4.1, Platter: $16.75

Hollywood Burger
Score: 3.3, Platter: $13.95

Hickory Burger
Score: 4.4, Platter: $14.95

Brie, Bacon and Mushroom
Score: 3.5, Platter: $15.95


Brown’s Socialhouse is welcoming and comfortable like a 60s Transcona rec room – only brighter – with design elements for everyone. Glazed brown brick and a high ceiling set the tone with two windowed walls framed by pink sheer drapes letting in the outside world. The fourth wall emulates grey fieldstone with a contrasting collection of artworks that follow Brown’s “masculine meets feminine” motif. There are pirate kings and birdcage chandeliers. The wooden tables, stuffed leather chairs and booths are very comfortable and easy to lounge in.

This isn’t the Transcona I knew from years ago when I worked at Beaver Lumber with two girls named Peaches and we used to steal pink flamingo lawn ornaments for a lark. This is New Transcona and Brown’s Socialhouse has established itself at 1750 Plessis Rd near the end of Transcona Blvd where perennial flooding has been replaced by 'lakes' and suburbs. Browns aims to be your neighborhood hangout and the franchise is built on a smaller 'Cheers' style layout with a central bar surrounded by restaurant seating. The bar is sunken so the tapster can look you in the eye, and there are coat/purse hooks and  plugs under the counter so revelers can keep their smart phones charged while texting with their neighbors. It’s a sociable atmosphere and that’s what Brown’s is going for.

You enter Brown’s through the patio. The wide entry door seems normal enough, except that it’s free standing and, in theory at least, you could hop over the three foot wall surrounding the patio if you had a door phobia. Brown’s just opened in November so they haven't had a chance to try out the patio yet, but it looks like a great space. There are couches at one end surrounding a fireplace, comfortable furniture, curtains and heaters for inclement weather and flowers that bloom all year long.

Just like our hostess, our server Kelsey had smiles for us all evening. She was very personable, quick and attentive. She asked what brought our group together and Geoff said it best with “We share a love of burgers." Kelsey had the savvy to let the manager know we blog, so Beau made a point of coming over and characterizing the burger and Brown’s franchise for our group. Brown’s has three beef burgers on the regular menu and on the day we visited also offered a ‘Brie, Bacon and Mushroom Burger’ lunch special - that’s available all day. The regular ‘Pub Burger’ and the special have 8 oz patties; the ‘Hollywood’ and ‘Hickory’ burgers are 5 oz. Burgers make up 30% of their food sales.

Once our orders were in and the patties on the grill, Chef Mike came by for a visit. They’ve got the right guy heading the kitchen – he’s expressive about the food and lovingly described ingredients.  The patties are hand formed from fresh beef chuck at 15% fat. There’s no seasoning or fillers in the patty. The flavours are in the sauces and toppings. Mike is a big fan of the brioche bun (as are we) and they source the bun and hickory smoked bacon from GFS.

The pacing was good for an evening meal, and we had time to enjoy a round of drinks before the food came out. The draught selection isn't extensive, but they do offer some Granville and Creemore as well as favourites Stella and Guinness. Nat looked very happy with her Raspberry Mojito. April said her “Caesar, while small, was tasty.” Milk jugs full of water were left on the table.

Our thirteen burgers and sides all came out at once and Kelsey was very good at making sure everyone got what they ordered. Beau, who has also worked as a chef, Mike and Kelsey closely supervised the plating to make sure there were no mix-ups. Despite all their care, April’s bacon was missing, but Kelsey returned quickly with a plate full.

The first thing you noticed about the burger was that it was served street food style in a pirate king emblazoned paper pocket like you'd get at a burger truck. This seemed incongruous with a $16 burger in an upscale restaurant, but just another fun quirk of the Brown’s experience. Peering out of their little paper hoodies, the burger faces each had something to say. Mine said mushrooms, Nat’s shouted bacon and Liz’s was selling groceries.

The beefy flavour of the 8 oz patty dominated my stack. It was tender and held together - not dry, but not juicy either. April commented “the meat could use some more pizzazz.” I got a taste of the mushrooms, and the Brie added something, but the real treat was when a big dollop of cheese slid off the patty and I popped in my mouth. The iceberg lettuce and winter tomato on the bottom made for a slippery sandwich, but I had cut mine in half and that made it trickier to handle. The shiny brioche bun was right-sized and did a good job of holding the assembly together for those that left theirs intact. Nicole wrote “Bacon was delicious. Sauce and bun were also tasty."

Most people had the Hickory burger with bacon, BBQ sauce and cheddar cheese. As always, tastes vary, but I think there may have been some variability in the assembly too. Nat commented “Loved the natural burger; nice hickory flavour”  while Jacques wrote “I was expecting more hickory flavour, but instead was served the whole second shelf of the fridge of ‘special sauce’.  Meat was very good for a purist.” Chris wrote “I found the BBQ sauce to almost overpower the bacon, I think less BBQ sauce and more bacon would have been good” while Dani commented ”The BBQ sauce is very zingy … nice.” Karen observed “It had a nice maple flavour, great toppings that were nicely balanced against the crispy crust of the burger. I had to use a catcher’s mitt technique to hold on to it as it wanted to torpedo out.”

A few people had the Pub burger with havarti, special sauce and bacon. Geoff noted “The pub burger I ordered was 8 oz of juicy satisfaction. The shiny bun was solid and held together to the end. The cheese almost seemed infused into the burger; it meshed well with the bacon that was generously slathered on top.” Brian commented “The burger was cooked to perfection with the patty a little crumbly, moist, and lightly seasoned. The special sauce provided a nice zip. Overall, an enjoyable burger.”

Two of our troupe had the Hollywood cheese burger. Esther wrote “Patty was a bit overdone, but burger was still tasty. I appreciated the bag on the burger to keep the mess contained.” Liz noted “Patty was tasty but the bun was a bit dry. There was too much lettuce so I took some off. I was impressed by the service.”

The sweet potato fries were the fan choice. Esther swooned “Yam fries were soooo good!” Dani wrote the “aioli sauce reminded me of the spice they put on Doritos.“ Some of us had the HCDC fries and they underwhelmed. Perhaps the fries waited in the kitchen while all thirteen of our meals were prepared, but they weren't crispy. I think Brian liked the gravy more than the fries “The fries seemed a little skimpy, considering the amount of ‘Alaska Highway’ gravy.” The ‘Thai Chicken and Rice Soup’ was delectable – it had plenty of flavour, nice and thick and there was lots of it. Nicole reviewed the Caesar salad: “a strange bite to the dressing - not bad but not a Caesar dressing. Fresh parmesan + bacon on salad = great!” A number of us finished with the Key Lime Pie with an oatmeal crust. It was a flavourful winner.

Browns Socialhouse on Urbanspoon

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

Inferno
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