The Merchant Kitchen

August5

Winnipeg’s Portage Ave and its side streets were once the home to many of the cities’ great restaurants. Rudy’s, Moxie’s and most recently The Merchant Kitchen have blazed the way for the trend to reignite. Upon my return from an evening at The Merchant Kitchen, I told D that he would love everything about the “kitchen”: the central bar, the communal tables, the open kitchen, the clever cocktails and the food!

Being long-time fans of Pizzeria Gusto, I knew that this particular ensemble led by Chef Eric Lee would produce clever fare and yes, they did. Chef Lee is one of the many talented Chefs who have graduated from the exceptional culinary program at Red River College. He credits this great start and the blessings of mentorship and travel, for his culinary proweress. Of course, he did not put it in this manner, I did.

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The well chosen red of their cozy/sleek decor stimulates the taste buds as soon as you walk in the door.

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The menu is a eclectic collection of world cuisine with an emphasis on Latin and Asian dishes.

In my humble opinion, the best Latin food is found in the Yucatan peninsula where simple ingredients are combined to produce flavours that sparkle! The essence is in adding the exact amount of lime juice and cilantro. For example, both the Guacamole and Pico de Gallo contain these staple ingredients and in both cases they shine not for their own glory but to enhance the silky avacado and the tomato and white onion.

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The Carnitas Taco were also elevated by the precise addition of cilantro and lime, this time to offset the premise-made queso fresco and slow roasted pork. The pickled red onion was a thoughtful topping and took me back to one of my very first meals in the Yucatan.

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You may never desire butter and salt on your corn on the cob again, once you taste it with mayo, cojita cheese, a squeeze of lime and cilantro. We order these from the street vendors in Quintano Roo and they make a meal in themselves.

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Other world cuisines understand the magic of lime and cilantro as well, for example this Thai salad -Papaya Som Tum. My absolute favourite dish of the evening was Spicy Thai Fried Rice but I was in such haste to eat it, that my photo was not in focus. Along with jasmine rice, Thai basil, prawns, chilies and egg, it included…cilantro. Do not conclude that Chef Lee uses these componants often because he has a limited number of ingredients in his pantry. I believe he knows Winnipeggers well enough to predict that these flavours, reminiscent of warm climates, will be our reward during our long winters.

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Chef Lee’s roasted duck rolls introduced mint, peanuts and sesame to our palates and they too were exceptional.

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Although we were initially drawn to Pizzeria Gusto and Chef Lee’s fare for their astute renderings of pizza, most recently we would visit for their “veggie-centric” dishes like their Brussel sprouts. The Merchant Kitchen’s version is equally stellar along with the Dry Fried Green Beans above and the Charred Shishito Peppers not shown.

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The Korean Fried Chicken was a guilty pleasure which reminded me not of Korean cookery but of the fresh whole chickens that my Polish Grandma would fry up on hot summer days on the farm.

I spoke at length to Chef Lee about his skill in creating so many excellent tastes. He redirected the praise to the local ingredients and growers that he has been successful in securing as suppliers. So too, he credited Bobby and Suzy for the space and the overall experience. The entire Merchant Kitchen package is of shared food, shared tables, shared glances of the open bar and kitchen and even the shared bathroom!

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Just before I headed home to report to D of my new restaurant find, along came Pound Cake Churros which were heavenly in themselves. Our family ordered dessert on Christmas day from a Churro cart by the turquoise Carribbean sea, but these blew those right out of the water! The texture of the pound cake was perfectly porous to soak up the surprise of the bowl of warm chocolate milk. The taste allowed memories of dunking hot buttered toast into our mugs of hot chocolate with my many siblings around our kitchen table at home. There was love around that table and in my mind you will feel that way here too. All that was missing was being tucked into bed with a bedtime story.

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Kath’s quote: “I don’t need to tell you I love you, I made you pancakes”. –Kathleen Flinn

Live simply, laugh often, love deeply.


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