Thursday, March 26, 2015

Loona Rossa: 3.9/5

Score: 3.5, $5.25

Mushroom Burger
Score: 4.3, $5.45

Bacon Hamburger
Score: 4.1, $5.45

Bacon Mushroom Double Cheeseburger
Score: 3.8, $7.70

Loona Rossa is nestled on the banks of the Red looking just like a romantic prelude to Frank Sinatra's Blushing Moon - a loose translation of Loona Rossa. There’s no flashy façade and it’s easy to miss the little restaurant nestled up against Guay Park behind all the shrubs and trees. The interior mirrors the exterior – cozy with memorabilia and brimming with a jungle of plants.

The restaurant at 460 St.Mary's Road has been in the family for 30 years. The day we visited for lunch dad Dimitrios was cooking and daughters Nia and Tina were serving. The small restaurant filled up quickly with regulars that included retired people and police officers – both indicators of good and reasonably priced food.

Loona Rossa is best known for their gigantic pizza and liver and onions – but we were there for the burgers. The menu offers eleven different permutations and combinations ranging from a $4.75 Hamburger to the massive $7.70 Bacon Mushroom Double Cheeseburger. At lunch you can have the burgers by themselves; for supper they're served as a platter.

Two tables of four were pushed together, and with an adjacent booth, the twelve of us could sit as a group. Waters, cutlery and menus were waiting for us and Nia was quick to take our orders. We only had a few minutes to visually explore the kitschy adornments before our meals started coming out of the kitchen. Russ squeezed into the corner booth and exclaimed “People must have been tiny when this place was built … tiny people with HUGE mouths!” Les observed “The flower in the window is très belle! The tree in mid-restaurant is impressive.”

I was in awe when Nia set down my Bacon Mushroom Double Cheeseburger . Much like the cliffs of Greece, the stack face seemed to have eroded back showing me all the layers of fresh fried mushrooms, grilled onions, curly bacon and two very well crusted beef patties. The American cheese was still skinning over and the assembly was topped with a sesame seed egg bun speared with a frilly cocktail stick. Thick slabs of red tomato, plenty of shredded iceberg lettuce and standard toppings of Thousand Island, mayo, mustard and relish peeked out from between the strata. It was messy!

Other burgers delivered on large plates were equally impressive. One of the first things you noticed was the little break wall of sweet pickles arranged in front of the sandwich. A number of our group were so moved they took a “pickle shot”. The Greek salad side was equally massive and dwarfed the already large burger. Golden fries filled the plate. Stan wrote “Loved the burger; very nice patty and bun. The fried onions were perfect. The side of coleslaw was also excellent and generous.”

Much as we've come to expect from Greek restaurants like Olympia Diner and Tuxedo Village, the burger was very mildly seasoned without much distinctive flavouring or spice. It’s comfort food and won't offend any palates. Loona Rossa prepared a diner style patty that was well cooked, seared and crusted on a hot grill versus a thicker home-style baked patty.

If there was any criticism about the sandwich, it was that the bun was a little large. I had the double and the burger:bun ratio was right, but single patty variations were a bit bun heavy. Karen noted “Loona's burger seemed to be all about the toppings which were plentiful and very tasty. The burger patty was a bit small for the bun but it had a nice crust on it. Plenty of bacon cooked to perfection. I tasted pepper as a seasoning which was nice.

Stephanie dug into the fries and wrote “Homemade fries were superb!” Karen scribbled “the Greek salad as a side was generous with tons of feta and green olives.” She ate half of it, took the rest home and we shared it for supper. Russ echoed “awesome Greek salad.” Russ also took salad home.

Nia and I had a moment to talk burger restaurants and she commented that every place has its own aura. Certainly for the many locally owned restaurants we've visited that’s true - I think the most chains can hope to imbue is a unique “décor.” Loona Rossa definitely had a distinct quality – I liked it!

Loona Rossa on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

King’s Head - March Special Burgers: 4.4/5

Raspberry Jalapeño BBQ
Score: 4.8, Platter: $9.95

Stuffed Bleu Cheese Bacon
Score: 4.4, Platter: $10.95

Island Burger
Score: 4.3, Platter: $10.95

Poutine Burger
Score: 4.2, Platter: $11.95

Burger Club are big fans of the King’s Head Pub at 120 King St, and when I heard about their March Special Burgers, I dropped what I was doing and booked us in. This was our fourth ‘official’ visit and it landed on the fourth anniversary of Burger Club. 25 people made it out and staff had us set up at one long table on the bar side – they know how we like it!

The King’s Head does service well and true to form, Kim did a fantastic job taking care of food and drink orders for our large group. Dave and Reg helped out and Chef Steve made a couple of burger deliveries himself to make sure we were all enjoying his and Jay’s creations. I don’t know how they do it, but the platters were coming out 5-10 minutes after people ordered.

Run, don’t walk to the King’s Head this March

The new pretzel bagel bun was the hot topic and Jay Khanuja told us how they tested three different buns. They’re big, messy burgers and he knew the traditional Kaiser wasn't going to be up to the job. The first pretzel bagel they tried was too dense, but the pretzel bun they settled on was a soft bite and elastic enough to hold the whole assembly together to the last mouthful.

King's Head hand forms the 7oz. beef patties using 15% fat chuck steak. The burgers are thick, firm and filling. The meat is tasty on its own and the mild seasoning leaves room for the flavourful toppings to make their own statement. No one left hungry and the platters are good value ranging from $10-$12. They put our burger handling to the test though, and even the training video didn't help unless you had gigantic hands and could do a pinky squeeze.
Russ wrote “Oh happy day! I highly recommend Winnipeg peeps head down to the King's Head before the end of the month. The 'Raspberry Jalapeño BBQ  Burger' has perfect sweet heat and pairs great with a Guinness. It makes your mouth warm before warming your belly.” Jacques said “I love the pretzel bun, they should keep it on the menu. I was impressed with the spicing; the patty was well formed and meaty.” Interestingly enough, this was supposed to be the ‘Chipotle and Jack Daniels BBQ Burger’ but the Chipotle peppers were off their prime so the kitchen made a quick change to use Jalapeños with raspberry sauce which ended up being the favourite.

Blue cheese burgers are tricky to flavour balance because if there’s too much or too little, or the nose doesn't work, diners can be sad. The King’s Head nailed it perfectly to make the ‘Stuffed Blue Cheese Bacon Burger’ the #2 March Special favourite. Scott wrote “I've been away too long, but it was like coming home. Good friends, good food.” Back in December 2012, Jay made us a blue cheese stuffed Khanuja with Cajun sauce and onion rings on top. It was a special creation and had we ranked it, it would be in our Top 5.

The ‘Island Burger’ was the popular choice at Burger Club. Chris wrote “The creaminess of the avocado was nicely paired with the slight spiciness of the mango sauce. The pretzel bun was the best I’ve ever tasted.” Liz commented “Sauce was a bit too spicy and overshadowed the flavours of mango and avocado.” Nicole echoed “It was close to being too spicy for me. It obscured some of the rest of the flavours – avocado was too subtle to stand up to the chili.” Karen bubbled “I enjoyed what I could manage to eat as the patty was huge! All the flavours were stellar – spicy, sweet and messy. The patty was simply seasoned, fine ground and the sauces worked to compliment.”

The fourth special beef burger was the ‘Poutine’ – also a popular selection and visually impressive. Geoff always gives me good words and had this to say “Since I've never seen anything like it before, I had to try the Poutine Burger. There was quite the heft to the creation, especially with the new pretzel bun. It was pretty tasty; the poutine meshed well with the beef. By the end, once it cooled the potato/cheese creation emulated another patty in consistency. Thankfully they don’t tell you how many calories it has!” Nat wrote “A slippery, tasty mess. Did not hold together, but boy was it tasty!” Stephanie scribbled on her gravy stained review slip “I died and went to poutine burger heaven. Fun combination.” I should mention the gravy was another favourite – dark with plenty of garlic and roasted onion. I saw a couple of people drinking out of the gravy boat.

If you don’t make it down before the end of March, don't worry because the regular menu ‘Big Khanuja’ is as tasty today as it was four years ago and is a favourite at the King’s Head. Isabel had it and exclaimed “They don’t call it Big Khanuja for nothing! Spicy! My ideal combo for a burger – bacon, jalapeños, mushrooms, onions and cheese – but OMG … so big! I feel like I need to have a nap.”

Jessica tried the ‘Lamb Vindaloo Burger’ but wasn't wowed: “Difficult to taste the lamb that was overpowered by the sauce. Not too spicy.” April wrote “The Bison Burger was good but a little middle heavy.” Brian critiqued “The burger was served open face showing the melted cheese and bacon on one side and the tomato and lettuce on the other side. The  patty was thick and dense and maybe a little dry (expected with bison).

A couple of diners had the regular menu burger and Esther shouted “AWESOME BURGER! THE OVEREATER IN ME WANTS TO EAT A 2ND ONE. THE BUN WAS THE BEST I HAVE EVER HAD!

Tonight we were trying everything on the menu and newbie Lisa had the Veggie Burger. “Delighted to be invited to the Burger Club in spite of breaking the ‘First Rule of Burger Club’. I enjoyed the Veggie Burger, though not the best I've ever had. Pretzel bun was great, but filling and salty. Fries and malt vinegar always a treat at the King’s Head.”

King's Head Pub & Eatery on Urbanspoon

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Deer + Almond: 4.4/5

Royale with Cheese
Score: 4.4
Platter: $10

Art meets food in the little diner on the corner of Princess and McDermot and Mandel Hitzer is the creative tour de force in the kitchen.

Photos 1-6: Mandel Hitzer
There’s only one beef burger on the menu and it doesn't have any options. The sandwich first appeared for #LeBurgerWeek 2013 as a parody of the Big Mac, complete with special sauce and three-part sesame seed bun, but eventually the troublesome middle bun disappeared and the two patties merged into one thick layer of beef. It’s the ‘Royale with Cheese’, an artistic interpretation of Pulp Fiction's Quarter Pounder with Cheese, but it's still ‘Le Big Mac’ at heart.

Mandel is a self proclaimed “burger connoisseur who has travelled the world tasting burgers to come up with the perfect recipe." He uses a selection of beef cuts and just the right amount of fat to produce the succulent and flavourful patty. “The patty should stand on its own.” Our last few Burger Club outings have had prefab patties and it was like coming home to have lovingly crafted ground round once again.

Mandel knows the importance of a good bun and Deer + Almond are almost unique in that they bake their own. Mandel looked like a proud parent when he gazed at the bun and said “Behold its pillowy soft, shiny, seedy goodness. Once you make your own you can't go back.”

"Are you ready for a burger? We're just waiting for A&W" Mandel joked. He took my camera into the kitchen and returned it with a photo essay of burger love. We preordered, and our sixteen meals came out quite quickly. Brian started cutting his burger in half and Mandel exclaimed “You're compromising the structural integrity! Holding a messy burger together is part of the experience.” There's a training video for that.

Karen critiqued “The Royale was a delicious mess of love. The bun is the first thing you bite into - it should be the very best quality - and it was! Could taste all the ingredients and the special sauce rocked my world.” A number of our group raved about the sauce – Stephanie scribbled “OMG so good! The secret special sauce made the burger.”

Most diners really enjoyed the bun, but a couple thought the fresh bread a little doughy for the patty. The processed ‘American Cheese’ was exactly what it was supposed to be on the Royale – and I enjoyed it - but one or two could have done without the direct analogy.

Chris wrote “the burger was juicy, and very nice to taste a homemade bun. I found it drippy, but the sauce was very flavourful and helped to really punch it up.” Isabel commented “Little bit of spice was nice. Liked the cheese/sauce/burger combination. Kinda tasted like a Big Mac but way mo better. Bun was tasty - liked the seeds.”

Mandel asked what could make the burger even better and the only comment was the beef resembled a ball more than a patty. It's quite thick which allows chef to leave it pink in the middle – tender and juicy, and very flavourful.

You won't find fries at Deer + Almond, but you will find gourmet soups and salads – different delicious creations every visit. The teardrop shaped soup bowl - or salad - and the sandwich were served on a large, round plate that had the effect of making the burger look small.

All in all we had a great time at Deer + Almond and Burger Club put the ‘Royale with Cheese’ in our Top 10; a 5-star burger! At only $10 including the side, it was quite a good deal for a steakhouse patty and ranked #3 in value. Deer + Almond made our Top 5 for service so very good numbers all around! Peter was a quick and attentive server, and Graham cleared the restaurant and stood on furniture to take our group photo.

Nelson inspected the facilities and noted "the bathrooms are unlabeled. Good luck determining the correct one on the first guess.” He added “They should really have a portrait of John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson on the wall.”

'The Burger': Les Brandt
Mandel found a kindred spirit in Les who wrote a poem about the burger and followed it up a few days later with a watercolour tribute.

Photo: NB

Deer + Almond on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Brown's Socialhouse: 4/5

Pub Burger
Score: 4.1, Platter: $16.75

Hollywood Burger
Score: 3.3, Platter: $13.95

Hickory Burger
Score: 4.4, Platter: $14.95

Brie, Bacon and Mushroom
Score: 3.5, Platter: $15.95

Brown’s Socialhouse is welcoming and comfortable like a 60s Transcona rec room – only brighter – with design elements for everyone. Glazed brown brick and a high ceiling set the tone with two windowed walls framed by pink sheer drapes letting in the outside world. The fourth wall emulates grey fieldstone with a contrasting collection of artworks that follow Brown’s “masculine meets feminine” motif. There are pirate kings and birdcage chandeliers. The wooden tables, stuffed leather chairs and booths are very comfortable and easy to lounge in.

This isn’t the Transcona I knew from years ago when I worked at Beaver Lumber with two girls named Peaches and we used to steal pink flamingo lawn ornaments for a lark. This is New Transcona and Brown’s Socialhouse has established itself at 1750 Plessis Rd near the end of Transcona Blvd where perennial flooding has been replaced by 'lakes' and suburbs. Browns aims to be your neighborhood hangout and the franchise is built on a smaller 'Cheers' style layout with a central bar surrounded by restaurant seating. The bar is sunken so the tapster can look you in the eye, and there are coat/purse hooks and  plugs under the counter so revelers can keep their smart phones charged while texting with their neighbors. It’s a sociable atmosphere and that’s what Brown’s is going for.

You enter Brown’s through the patio. The wide entry door seems normal enough, except that it’s free standing and, in theory at least, you could hop over the three foot wall surrounding the patio if you had a door phobia. Brown’s just opened in November so they haven't had a chance to try out the patio yet, but it looks like a great space. There are couches at one end surrounding a fireplace, comfortable furniture, curtains and heaters for inclement weather and flowers that bloom all year long.

Just like our hostess, our server Kelsey had smiles for us all evening. She was very personable, quick and attentive. She asked what brought our group together and Geoff said it best with “We share a love of burgers." Kelsey had the savvy to let the manager know we blog, so Beau made a point of coming over and characterizing the burger and Brown’s franchise for our group. Brown’s has three beef burgers on the regular menu and on the day we visited also offered a ‘Brie, Bacon and Mushroom Burger’ lunch special - that’s available all day. The regular ‘Pub Burger’ and the special have 8 oz patties; the ‘Hollywood’ and ‘Hickory’ burgers are 5 oz. Burgers make up 30% of their food sales.

Once our orders were in and the patties on the grill, Chef Mike came by for a visit. They’ve got the right guy heading the kitchen – he’s expressive about the food and lovingly described ingredients.  The patties are hand formed from fresh beef chuck at 15% fat. There’s no seasoning or fillers in the patty. The flavours are in the sauces and toppings. Mike is a big fan of the brioche bun (as are we) and they source the bun and hickory smoked bacon from GFS.

The pacing was good for an evening meal, and we had time to enjoy a round of drinks before the food came out. The draught selection isn't extensive, but they do offer some Granville and Creemore as well as favourites Stella and Guinness. Nat looked very happy with her Raspberry Mojito. April said her “Caesar, while small, was tasty.” Milk jugs full of water were left on the table.

Our thirteen burgers and sides all came out at once and Kelsey was very good at making sure everyone got what they ordered. Beau, who has also worked as a chef, Mike and Kelsey closely supervised the plating to make sure there were no mix-ups. Despite all their care, April’s bacon was missing, but Kelsey returned quickly with a plate full.

The first thing you noticed about the burger was that it was served street food style in a pirate king emblazoned paper pocket like you'd get at a burger truck. This seemed incongruous with a $16 burger in an upscale restaurant, but just another fun quirk of the Brown’s experience. Peering out of their little paper hoodies, the burger faces each had something to say. Mine said mushrooms, Nat’s shouted bacon and Liz’s was selling groceries.

The beefy flavour of the 8 oz patty dominated my stack. It was tender and held together - not dry, but not juicy either. April commented “the meat could use some more pizzazz.” I got a taste of the mushrooms, and the Brie added something, but the real treat was when a big dollop of cheese slid off the patty and I popped in my mouth. The iceberg lettuce and winter tomato on the bottom made for a slippery sandwich, but I had cut mine in half and that made it trickier to handle. The shiny brioche bun was right-sized and did a good job of holding the assembly together for those that left theirs intact. Nicole wrote “Bacon was delicious. Sauce and bun were also tasty."

Most people had the Hickory burger with bacon, BBQ sauce and cheddar cheese. As always, tastes vary, but I think there may have been some variability in the assembly too. Nat commented “Loved the natural burger; nice hickory flavour”  while Jacques wrote “I was expecting more hickory flavour, but instead was served the whole second shelf of the fridge of ‘special sauce’.  Meat was very good for a purist.” Chris wrote “I found the BBQ sauce to almost overpower the bacon, I think less BBQ sauce and more bacon would have been good” while Dani commented ”The BBQ sauce is very zingy … nice.” Karen observed “It had a nice maple flavour, great toppings that were nicely balanced against the crispy crust of the burger. I had to use a catcher’s mitt technique to hold on to it as it wanted to torpedo out.”

A few people had the Pub burger with havarti, special sauce and bacon. Geoff noted “The pub burger I ordered was 8 oz of juicy satisfaction. The shiny bun was solid and held together to the end. The cheese almost seemed infused into the burger; it meshed well with the bacon that was generously slathered on top.” Brian commented “The burger was cooked to perfection with the patty a little crumbly, moist, and lightly seasoned. The special sauce provided a nice zip. Overall, an enjoyable burger.”

Two of our troupe had the Hollywood cheese burger. Esther wrote “Patty was a bit overdone, but burger was still tasty. I appreciated the bag on the burger to keep the mess contained.” Liz noted “Patty was tasty but the bun was a bit dry. There was too much lettuce so I took some off. I was impressed by the service.”

The sweet potato fries were the fan choice. Esther swooned “Yam fries were soooo good!” Dani wrote the “aioli sauce reminded me of the spice they put on Doritos.“ Some of us had the HCDC fries and they underwhelmed. Perhaps the fries waited in the kitchen while all thirteen of our meals were prepared, but they weren't crispy. I think Brian liked the gravy more than the fries “The fries seemed a little skimpy, considering the amount of ‘Alaska Highway’ gravy.” The ‘Thai Chicken and Rice Soup’ was delectable – it had plenty of flavour, nice and thick and there was lots of it. Nicole reviewed the Caesar salad: “a strange bite to the dressing - not bad but not a Caesar dressing. Fresh parmesan + bacon on salad = great!” A number of us finished with the Key Lime Pie with an oatmeal crust. It was a flavourful winner.

Browns Socialhouse on Urbanspoon