Passero is an oa­sis in Win­nipeg’s big­gest tourist trap

The Globe and Mail (Alberta Edition) - - ALBERTA - DAN CLAP­SON

Scott Bagshaw’s lat­est Ital­ian restau­rant boasts a calm at­mos­phere and cre­ative menu


204-219-7300 passerowin­ Price: $7-$25 Cui­sine: Ital­ian, more or less At­mos­phere: So­phis­ti­cated and calm Best bets: Beef tartare, gnoc­chetti, nero risotto, Brus­sels sprouts, mor­tadella sand­wich (lunch only) Veg­e­tar­ian friendly? Yes Ad­di­tional in­for­ma­tion: Lunch menu via counter ser­vice, beer and wine. ★★★

Ilove the mark of pas­sion­ate restau­ra­teurs, es­pe­cially when they own mul­ti­ple con­cepts. As sat­u­rated as most cities’ food scenes are, it’s not as com­mon as you may think, which makes the mark stand out even more.

Sit­ting at L’abat­toir or Co­quille in Van­cou­ver, you feel chef Lee Cooper’s im­pact, the same way one does in Cal­gary at Model Milk and Pi­geon­hole à la Justin Le­boe. In Saska­toon, The Hol­lows and Pri­mal of­fer the dis­tinct stamp of chef/owners Kyle Michael and Christie Peters.

This sort of in­di­vid­u­al­ity is what sets cer­tain con­cepts apart from the rest of the pack in their re­spec­tive cities. Win­nipeg’s Scott Bagshaw is ar­guably the city’s most in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic restau­ra­teur. If you’ve eaten at any of his restau­rants, past or present, you can see the sim­i­lar­i­ties. Not nec­es­sar­ily (though oc­ca­sion­ally) with menu items, but with vibe, style and cre­ative ap­proach.

Mr. Bagshaw’s lat­est Ital­ian­fo­cused restau­rant, Passero, is housed in­side Win­nipeg’s largest tourist draw: The Forks. The river­side mar­ket, com­pris­ing two main her­itage build­ings, is filled with all sorts of ar­ti­sans and food ven­dors. In re­cent years, its food hall, the Com­mon at the Forks, un­der­went a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar ren­o­va­tion to be­come the first, slick-look­ing food hall of its kind in Canada where pa­trons could or­der beer or wine, sip, stroll and eat food from a va­ri­ety of food stalls.

Passero is lo­cated in the Com­mon and though just ad­ja­cent to the main seat­ing area, which can be noisy and hec­tic at the best of times, it boasts a calm and so­phis­ti­cated at­mos­phere away from the crazi­ness.

As with his other eater­ies, Enoteca and Maque, the chef/owner has quite the knack for cre­at­ing spa­ces with min­i­mal but ef­fec­tive de­sign de­tails. With the help of Num­ber Ten Ar­chi­tec­tural Group, Passero boasts an im­pact­ful ac­cent wall of an­gled wooden slats and a ceil­ing that graces the same wooden fix­tures above a hand­ful of ta­bles, ban­quettes, open kitchen and a small bar. It’s a space that would fit in eas­ily in any ma­jor city – San Fran­cisco, Toronto, New York or other­wise. De­sign is an im­por­tant el­e­ment of any restau­rant that wants to stand out, and Mr. Bagshaw knows that.

Dur­ing the day, the restau­rant op­er­ates as its lunch al­ter-ego Corto (“short” in Ital­ian) where it de­cides to do away with ta­ble ser­vice and of­fers only counter or­der­ing. There is some­thing fairly odd about hav­ing to walk up to the bar of a nice-look­ing restau­rant to re­ceive a buzzer for your or­der fol­lowed by re­ceiv­ing your food on cafe­te­ria trays, but c’est la vie.

Mr. Bagshaw’s clever sand­wich cre­ations – such as the mor­tadella with a pungent mus­tard, goat cheese and smoked moz­zarella, with an ad­dic­tive Parme­san aioli to dunk into – are pressed to near-per­fec­tion and help make up for the pe­cu­liar or­der­ing sys­tem. Like­wise, the side dishes that can come along with a sand­wich and a glass of wine for only $19 (I do love a boozy lunch spe­cial), are just as im­pres­sive.

The roasted beets dressed with fresh basil, blood orange, pis­ta­chios, smoked blue cheese and a bright Ital­ian salsa verde are a de­li­cious home run, es­pe­cially for a root veg­etable that is ex­haus­tively uti­lized in sal­ads year-round these days. The fried pota­toes, doused in an umamirid­den black-gar­lic aioli with thin wisps of basil, are equally as palat­able and mem­o­rable.

Din­ner is when the big guns come to the menu and Mr. Bagshaw’s cre­ativ­ity comes to full ef­fect, for the most part. Skip over the ad­e­quate of­fer­ings such as ri­cotta (not made in-house, our server in­formed us) with aged bal­samic, pars­ley and thick chunks of bread, or the cae­sar topped with chives, cured egg yolk and a crum­bling of pro­sciutto, and look to the dishes that sound more clever. Be­cause they are.

A seem­ingly sim­ple beef tartare is el­e­vated nicely by a rich Parme­san cream, a pro­sciutto rel­ish and thin potato chips. It’s eas­ily one of the best prepa­ra­tions of tartare that I’ve had this cal­en­dar year.

The gnoc­chetti ar­rives with teeny cubes of tooth­some but­ter­nut squash in a brown but­ter and ched­dar sauce stud­ded with pine nuts. It’s akin to a grown-up ver­sion of mac ’n’ cheese and no one at my ta­ble is com­plain­ing about it.

A fried “risotto,” us­ing faro, squid ink, al­monds and pep­pers, is by far the most unique dish of our meal. With ten­der oc­to­pus rest­ing on top of the crispy, al dente grain mix­ture and a cool cream un­derneath, it hits all points and is an ex­em­plar of how a chef can layer tex­tures.

A plate of ten­der slices of pork fol­low, topped with rich jus, oddly out-of-sea­son green peas and other ac­crue­ment – as­para­gus graced the menu, which also seemed bizarre and wasn’t or­dered – as well as some in­ter­est­ing fried Brus­sels sprouts with ap­ple mus­tard, hemp hearts and walnuts.

Passero boasts a con­cise, but cre­ative wine list. Be­cause The Forks boasts the best wine shop in the city, in­ter­est­ing wine is but a hun­dred feet away for Mr. Bagshaw’s front-of-house team.

Usu­ally, I en­cour­age peo­ple to steer clear of din­ing in tourist­dense ar­eas, but Passero bucks the trend and, much like the owner him­self, proves that you can march to the beat of your own drum in a place where it’s en­cour­aged to feed the masses.


Passero’s fried ‘risotto’, above, is a unique dish topped with ten­der oc­to­pus, and was fol­lowed by the restau­rant’s ten­der roasted bone­less pork chop, be­low.

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