SATURDAY, JULY 7, 2007
David Sanderson with Winnipeg Free Press
July 07, 2007
Popular Portage Avenue restaurant an intoxicating cocktail of delightful food, celestial décor and little bit of MAGIC
Motorists, your parking woes are over.
Shirley Vlassie, owner of Star Grill, 2069 Portage Ave., is a firm believer in karma, providence and tow-away zones. “When you’re looking for a (parking) spot, you have to visualize it first, “Vlassie instructs. “Do this, and no matter how crazy the traffic or how busy the event, you will always find a place by the front door. I’ve been doing this since I was 19 and it works every time.”
(“But what if everybody in your party arrives at precisely the same moment?” asks a reporter who’s paid to pose the though question.)
“No!” implores Vlassie, almost coming out of her five-foot-maybe frame. “You CANNOT think like that or it won’t work. Don’t waver. Insist and demand and you will be rewarded.”
Unfortunately, the power of positive thinking won’t do you much good if you arrive at Star Grill without a reservation. The St. James gem is often booked a week or two in advance, particularly on Fridays and Saturdays. “But we always try to accommodate people who drive all this way,” Vlassie says. “If you walk in and we have, say, an hour window, we’ll try to work some magic.”
Vlassie has been performing culinary sleight of hand most of her life. Her father moved to Canada from Canton, now Guangzhou, China and opened a string of restaurants from Vancouver to Porcupine Plain, Saks., before settling in Winnipeg. Vlassie harbours not-so-fond childhood memories of peeling 100-pound bags of potatoes in her parents’ Hong Kong Restaurant on Main Street. The happiest day of her life, she maintains was the day that property was expropriated by the city. At the time, she swore to her father that she would never own a restaurant. That was 20 years and four kitchens (The Chocolate Shoppe, East Side Exchange, Niko’s and the Star Grill) ago.
Much of Vlassie’s current staff has followed her through each venture, Reid Edwards, Star Grill’s resident Tarot card reader, has been by her side for 29 years. Head waiter Ken Tyler (“my star,” Vlassie calls him) has taken orders for – and from – Vlassie for a quarter century. “And Susie, my bookkeeper, was one of my bartenders at East Side over 25 years ago; we’ve literally grown up together, “Vlassie says.
The 45-seat Star Grill – it’s situated almost directly across from the foot bridge leading into Assiniboine Park – is one part funk, two parts feng shui. Bamboo shoots representing luck show up on every table. Sets of chimes near the front the door thwart evil spirits. Silver valences, slung over decorative rods, provide a delicate canopy. Then there are the stars: hundreds of laser-cut, stainless steel luminaries line the midnight blue walls, while ones fashioned from carrots and not celestial enough for you, another thousand or so decorate the room’s main focal point, a once-proud fig tree.
“How that came to be was we had a break-in in 1997, a year after we opened,” Vlassie says. “Somebody busted right through the front door – it was, like, minus 69 outside – and the tree, a beautiful ficus benjamina, died. I couldn’t bear to throw it out so I told my staff that we’d sell stars for a toonie, let people write whatever they wanted on them and donate all money raised to the Rainbow Society.”
Vlassie’s menu – an eclectic mix of Mediterranean Asian and continental, including arguably this galaxy’s best calamari – is a hit with ballerinas and Blue Bombers alike. Terry David Mulligan, Jane Arden and Peter Mansbridge all make a point of dropping by the 11-year-old establishment whenever they’re in town. (Vlassie once asked the latter if her desserts would turn up on The National after the CBC honcho declared her Heavenly Mile High Lemon Pie “the best god-damned pie I’ve ever eaten.”)
Never mind that Vlassie has catered for the likes of KISS and Prince Charles (uh, that would be separately). Star Grill’s top testimonial hails from a Winnipeg woman who visited the locale once and promptly declared it the perfect venue for her upcoming nuptials. “She loved this little restaurant so much that she chopped her guest list down from 300 to 45,” Vlassie says. She told me, “I absolutely have to have it here.”
Star Grill is open seven days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
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