Surprises Await You

In Winnipeg’s Exchange District


By Kathryne Grisim,
The Media Chef

Winnipeg’s Exchange District can easily rival the Entertainment District of Toronto with clubs, theatre, ballet, the symphony and exceptional dining options.

Former Blue Bomber Offensive Lineman Obby Khan’s shawarma restaurant, dubbed Shawarma Khan, assembles the freshest ingredients, including those that went into the making of “The Big Bird,” one of three specialties, so named for Obby’s teammate Defensive Tackle Doug Brown. A double order of chicken made the wrap perfect for sharing, especially with sides of tabbouleh, falafel and garlic potatoes.

Shawarma is the result of slices of spiced meat arranged on a large vertical spit that rotates continuously near a hot grill and is regularly “shaved” with a large knife. The first time I ever spied a shawarma spit or tasted its succulent offerings was while visiting Bethlehem in the Palestinian territory of Israel.

Tabbouleh is essentially a parsley salad and the best ones, in my opinion, include hand shredded mint, chopped shallot, tomatoes, al dente bulgur wheat, plenty of freshly squeezed lemon juice, a top-quality olive oil and baharat spice mix (peppercorns, coriander seeds, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, cumin, cardamom and nutmeg). Obby’s version used an abundance of onions and a generous dose of the spices, so that cinnamon was a prominent taste.

My husband declared that the side of crispy fried falafel were the best chick-pea fritters he had ever tasted either in Winnipeg or the Middle East! I might have agreed, but was more focused on the garlic potatoes. A garlicky labneh (strained yogurt that is almost as thick as cream cheese) topped the morsels of deep-fried potato chunks. Oh my!

Also on McDermot Ave., but on the east side of Main St. is The Mitchell Block (where Tre Visi was once located), the perfect place for a pre-theatre dinner. If you have similar plans and do not want your supper to create the grogginess that can sometimes occur post feast, I would suggest you share a starter and an entrée as we did, as fare from The Mitchell Block is abundant, to say the least.

First up from the “Starter” section of the menu were Moule and Frites. Mussels pair well with a variety of herbs, spices and other distinctive tastes from anchovies and pancetta to beans and fennel. Over 40 items are listed in my “go-to” reference entitled: Culinary Artistry. Chef Sean McKay plucked curry and cream (also on this list) from his larder, to concoct a hearty rendition crowned with a nest of just-cut Russet fries. The mussels must have been expertly pulled off the heat just as they were beginning to open as they were perfectly cooked and avoided the rubbery texture that can sometimes occur when a chef is not constantly monitoring his covered sauté pan. The beefy fries were tasty when dipped in the spicy cream sauce. My sister, who was my dinner date that evening, prefers the shoestring variety and her special treat was yet to come.

Both of us love umami (savoury) tastes and that is what drew our eyes to the Bacon Wrapped Pork Tenderloin with Tomato-Bacon Jam. Ths sprouts with a garnish (the treat for my sister) of skinny potato ribbons. Chef McKay successfully satisfies all five primary tastes: umami (already mentioned), as well as bitter, sweet, salty and sour all in one dish. The perfectly symmetrical tenderloin discs were a gorgeous pink, so achieved not just by a watchful chef’s eye but also from being wrapped in the bacon and possibly being brined before cooking.

Desserts are a rare indulgence for me, but I was thrilled to have broken my own rule with the lemon curd and meringue cheesecake that was featured that evening. The lovely array of pomegranate gems glistening on the plate and the hazelnut crumble atop of the mini mason jar took the delicious tastes from exceptional to sublime.

The very next evening, I returned to the Exchange District to share a glass of wine and tuck into some sushi at Blufish on Bannatyne Avenue. The menu is extensive and we required the assistance of our helpful server to make the optimum choices. She suggested the Lobster Roll where Lobster tail, jumbo shrimp and avocado are rolled up, draped with smoked salmon and then drizzled with a warm hachimitsu sauce (I make mine with soy, honey and grainy mustard). She customized their Spider roll with the addition of soft-shelled crab and with both, we were well pleased.

The piece de resistance were the Blufish Scallops, which she also recommended. The menu indicated that they would be prepared in tempura and topped with a Japanese aioli. We hadn’t anticipated that the scallops would be so succulent, the tempura so delicate, the aioli so luscious or that it would arrive flaming to our table!

More surprises await you in Winnipeg’s Exchange District.