FREE, YES; GLORIOUS, NOT QUITE. RESTAURANT MANITOBA

“We wanted a taste of the forest in our plates, a taste of nature in our glasses, wood, rock, wind. But over all, we wanted to share in the simplicity of eating well, drinking well and having a good laugh together.”

So reads the Manitoba website, and if they mean that as a mission statement, they have been successful—for the most part. At Manitoba, you do get a taste of nature: The menu lists “indigenous” (their word) ingredients that are probably not in your pantry or on order in other places (e.g. boar, seal, “green alder whipped cream”, elderflower vinegar, ground ivy, balsam fir). And you consume these in a setting in which you can, indeed, drink well and have a good laugh together: Manitoba serves great wines and beers, along with a list of creative cocktails, and the restaurant’s charming atmosphere leaves you longing to linger, and order another glass.

As for “eating well”, that’s another story. The food at Manitoba is its weakest link: some plates soar, but more do not. To be clear, this restaurant I like very much, and want to recommend warmly. But I can only do so half-heartedly, and with reservations.

Essentially, I’d say this: If you enjoy most of what you eat, whenever you eat out, or your experiences generally agree with the average Yelp or TripAdvisor review, say, go to Manitoba, without hesitation. You will, most likely, enjoy it.

If that’s not the case, however, and you are looking for a surer bet, the city offers plenty of safer investments in this price range (a meal for two at Manitoba—two appetizers, two mains, two desserts—can run over $100, before drinks, tax or tip).

That is not to say Manitoba does not deserve your time or money—you can eat well here, if you give the restaurant a chance—but rather that the odds are not in your favour. Of the eleven or so plates of food I tasted at Manitoba, two were phenomenal, a couple were very good, a few more were mediocre, and one was very, very bad. Below I run through some of these, beginning with the worst.

FOOD

A  plate of roasted broccoli, served with fresh goat cheese, lovage, gooseberries and sunflower seeds, was the only vegetarian main on the menu. No element of the plate tasted good, alone or in concert (apart from the roasted seeds). The broccoli: burnt in places, bitter. The goat cheese: very light and airy, but more texture than taste. Most displeasing were the berries: terribly tart, bordering on astringent. Disappointing—particularly at the price of $25.

Okay there, the worst is over. Moving on to mediocre. Two fish dishes flopped: unremarkable mackerel from my first meal; and, most recently, salmon with corn, mushrooms, blueberries and Gorria pepper. (“Gorria” is the name for Espelette pepper grown outside of the Basque region, in this case here in Quebec.) The latter dish felt uninspired, incongruous, as if thrown together on a whim, or out of necessity.

Getting to good: leek, stuffed with whelks and a mayonnaise made from smoked egg yolk; a black dust of leek ash garnished the plate. Good flavour here: soft, vinegary leek; thick and tender chunks of whelk; savoury, fatty mayo. Practically speaking, eating this dish can be a bit cumbersome (whole, cooked leek is very stringy and difficult to cut), but I enjoyed it and would recommend—though I suggest sharing with several other people. It’s very heavy.

A dish of asparagus I also liked; it came with egg yolk, buckwheat, mint, spruce, and verjuice. The asparagus was well prepared, had a nice bite; the toasted buckwheat added great texture and roasted flavour. The plate wanted only a touch more seasoning (salt), and it would really shine. (Manitoba is currently serving this dish with green beans, as asparagus is out of season.)

Served as a main, duck breast shared a plate with an onion cream and wild herbs. The presentation was beautiful, almost austere: A long piece of duck in slices and, to the right of that, a circular pool of the cream, some soft onion petals, a cover of green herbs. The onion cream was so delicious that it could be the base of its own dish, and not just a condiment. As for the duck: good (and very well cooked, nicely pink), but not great. All in all, this plate felt like the start of a dish: good, with plenty of potential.

There were two highlights, as noted. One was a dish of heirloom tomatoes with clams and herbs (tomatoes: perfect; clams: succulent, delicious). These they dressed with a vinaigrette made from the cream the clams were cooked in—beautifully balanced, great acidity and lightness—and some camelina oil (nutty, earthy flavour). The variety of herbs added vegetal tones, contrast. This was a marvellous plate, the kind you don’t want to end, or share.

The other high point: deer steak with potatoes, mushrooms and malt cream (basically a softer, whiter, milkier butter). This menu item appears to be a staple, and rightly so: The perfectly prepared deer (they really do know how to cook meat here) was exceptionally tender, a vivid, gorgeous hunk of flesh. The sauce—a dark, rich jus—pulled the plate together, and made a great argument for the merits of classical reductions: big, concentrated flavour. This was meat and potatoes, made exceptional. (I first ate it in 2016, and it rated among one of my favourite dishes for that year.)

So: some hits, some misses, and a couple knocked clear out of the park, over the pavement, into the trees.

DRINK

The wines are what you would expect from a place that serves these type of cuisine: an emphasis on natural, small-scale. All private imports. Over several visits I tried four or five different glasses; I was happy with each of them. As noted above, the cocktail list is custom and creative, and there’s beer, as well.

SETTING

Manitoba feels a little tucked away in an industrial, uninteresting section of Mile-Ex. This makes entering the restaurant all the more pleasant: Walking inside feels like stepping into a photograph from a food magazine: a beautiful, bustling restaurant; perfect lighting, neither too bright nor too dark; tables lined with diners happily enjoying their dinners, their dining companions, life. You want to be a part of the scene, and stay a while.

In the summer, the garage door in the back wall opens onto a terrace; this extends the space, adding gorgeous natural light in the day and equally gorgeous artificial light at night (from picture-perfect rows of bare, hanging bulbs). The terrace itself is nice, if a little sparsely furnished, and you might feel like you’re missing out on the scene inside. There is also plenty of bar seating, but some of it runs right in front of the open kitchen; unless you want to face the action there, I  suggest specifying a seat in the front half of the restaurant.

CONCLUSION

The coat of arms for Manitoba, the province, reads “Gloriosus et Liber” (glorious and free). Manitoba the restaurant is definitely “free” in the sense that they are doing their own thing, a little out of the way from everyone else, figuratively and literally. And its virtues—the stunning setting, the convivial atmosphere, the knowledgeable service, some exceptional food—get it well within reach of glorious. But not quite.