Hidden Treasure

by TRH on December 7, 2014

in News and Reviews

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For years now people have been encouraging me to check out Café Dario at the corner of Erin and Wellington. I hadn’t been able to make it there, but I decided to finally rectify that for my birthday meal this year with my parents. It’s a teeny little restaurant built into a house somewhat in the middle of nowhere restaurant wise. Quite often when a place exists in an area like that you know it’s either surviving by being the only thing or being something extraordinary. Café Dario falls firmly into the latter category.

Café Dario

Pan-American Cuisine
$39 Prix Fixe for Dinner
Lunch a la carte
Surcharges on Lobster/others

1390 Erin St.

The place is truly miniscule, probably 30ish seats and trying to go without a reservation is likely a fool’s errand. It’s tightly packed and the serving staff are usually dancing around each other in a manner that somewhat miraculously doesn’t result in someone wearing a bowl of soup. That said once you’re sitting down it’s warm and inviting unless you’re sitting in line with the entrance. Meals are served Prix Fixe where $39 buys you your choice of appetizer, a soup, a salad, your choice of entrée and a dessert to finish. It’s a pretty great deal. For the appetizer and entrée I believe there were at least 10 choices of each the night of my visit.

I believe I read somewhere that Chef Dario refers to the cuisine as being ‘pan-american’ and that seems as good a descriptor as any. The Chef’s Columbian origins are evident in many of the dishes even when the base ingredients are as Canadian as you can imagine. It’s unusual for me to be truly tempted by three quarters of a menu but I had a genuinely difficult time choosing what I wanted to eat. I read a profile of Chef Dario at one point, probably in Ciao where it described his somewhat odd path to owning his own place. He’s cooked commercially as well as for the Lt. Governor of Manitoba, has a Master’s Degree in something non-culinary and at one point worked for Smitty’s. Now he has his own space and is doing completely his own thing and the people of Winnipeg get to benefit.

For my starter I ended up going with a slow braised shortrib of Elk finished with a citrus infused barbecue sauce. Wow. I’m not even sure where to begin. First off it was without a doubt an entrée sized piece of meat. Juicy and delicately braised it just melted in my mouth. I’ve had some terrible prepared elk in my time but they brought out the flavour so perfectly. The sauce itself was sticky and delicious the citrus taste powerful but not overwhelming the elk. I actually ended up handing some of this off to my parents as I was worried about filling up on the first course.

My mother went for a lighter starter with chicken pate prepared two ways. One was a black peppercorn the other a white wine. Both were delicious from the small samples I tried. Fluffy and flavourful and served with crackers. My father had a mixture of beef/chicken skewers served with a variety of sauces that smelled amazing but that I didn’t sample.

The soup course came next and consisted of a Jamaican Black Bean and Garlic soup with crème fraiche. I really enjoyed this one as unlike most black bean soups I’ve had he didn’t over puree it into bean mush. There was just enough pureed bean to flavour the broth and add colour with the texture of the remaining beans allowed to do a lot of talking. The crème provided a nice counterpoint to the hint of spice in the soup.

The salad I was a bit less enthused about as it was baby greens with a banana/melon vinaigrette. Though the dressing was not as melon-y as I had thought it might be it still wouldn’t be my first choice. Someone who loves melon would likely feel differently.

For an entrée I went for a pepper crusted rack of lamb finished with a Kahlua chocolate meltdown. If I’m perfectly honest I thought I didn’t like lamb until I went to New Zealand/Australia in 2011, turns out I just need it to be prepared well. Café Dario does it damned well. The pepper crust was perfect, crisped enough to cling and flavour, not so charred as to embitter the taste of the rest of the dish. The chocolate reduction added a really interesting third level of flavour that made the dish something to remember. My only complaint would be that the potatoes (A scoop of mashed with rosemary) were somewhat drier than I would have liked. I’m not sure if that’s the chef’s preference or they’d simply been sitting a while. The lamb would definitely have gone better with roasted potatoes in my opinion.

For the entrée my mother had a spice dusted pork tenderloin with mango that was delicious. Still juicy and flavourful, especially for a tenderloin the spice level was quite powerful but combined really well with the mango. My father had veal stuffed with a cheese and avocado/apple cheese sauce that seemed quite tasty but as I continue to be leery of avocado I only sampled the meat itself. Both were served with the same over-dry potatoes.

Dessert is served as a surprise and (as we had feared) it contained chocolate so my father was forced to give his to us. I’m not normally a chocolate mousse fan at all but they brought us a small cup of bitter orange and chocolate mousse that I actually devoured. It still wouldn’t be anywhere near the top of my list of dessert choices, but if I have to have mousse Café Dario is a great place to have it.

All in all it was a fantastic meal. The flavours were bold, and there were at least 8 other things I was dying to try on both menus. Service was attentive but not the speediest as they definitely go for the relaxed prix fixe vibe but it was definitely slowed further by a large private party in the next room. Since we were headed to the WSO afterwards I was glad we’d asked how we should time our reservation. Allow the full two hours for your meal.

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