Last Thursday night, Winnipeg was in the grip of a vicious cold snap that faded streets into a silent filmstrip of grit teeth and shuffling, Sorel-booted feet. As the waxy winter daylight faded, the temperature plunged to -31?C—and out in the middle of the frozen Assiniboine River, 16 people in parkas were tucking into a delicate dish of raw scallop, albacore tuna and rich foie gras. This was the first course ever served at Raw: Almond, a pop-up restaurant risen on the ice at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. Something between a tent and a temporary shack, it squatted in the shadow of an old steel rail bridge, its whiteness reflecting the ice all around.
The dinner guests arrived huddled in pairs, among them an artist, a teacher and a medical student. Instead of chairs, they sat on tree stumps covered with a faux-fur throw. The walls of the restaurant are canvas. The floor is ice. It feels a little like a campsite, with sleek lamps in place of a fire. “We’re not rolling out the gold leaf,” jokes Joe Kalturnyk, director and co-founder of the Raw architecture gallery, who put on the event. The menu is left to glitter on its own.
Up to 1,200 guests will dine here until mid-February, shelling out $85 apiece to brave the elements while savouring a five-course menu crafted by a rotating cast of dynamic young chefs. On weekends the pop-up, which is gently heated by propane, will also serve hearty brunches for the skaters who flock to the 8.5-km river trail.
That first menu was dreamed up by Raw: Almond’s co-founder, Mandel Hitzer, chef-owner of the downtown restaurant Deer + Almond, and Adam Donnelly, from the tapas hotspot Segovia. It played with the pop-up’s place suspended between land and water. There was that raw scallop dish, bathed in a broth infused with Manitoba cedar wood. It was followed by a little mountain of elk tartare, then grilled sea bream, so fresh it tasted of spray, and a main of ricotta gnocchi, gussied up with pork-neck pastrami. Warming shots of Jagermeister and wine from a carefully curated list flowed, and tongues began to loosen. “Cheers to eating at minus schmuck,” one diner laughed, and lifted her glass to muffled, gloved applause.
The clash of parkas and fine cuisine is sort of wild, a little weird, and completely Winnipeg. There are only so many cities in the world where such a restaurant is even possible; as far as Hitzer and Kalturnyk can tell, none has hosted anything quite like this before. “Our thinking was just, ‘This is Winnipeg,’ ” Kalturnyk said, his cheeks rosy from days spent outside to erect the pop-up. “ ‘Let’s pick the coldest time of the year, and the hardest place to do it.’ ”
The spot is perfect. The Forks is a prime tourist draw, with its glass-walled marketplace and sprawling skate park. It is also writ large in Manitoba’s imagination, having served as a trade hub since the days when only Cree and Dene and Ojibwa traversed these waters; Raw: Almond’s conical walls evoke those teepees of old. “The Forks is the heart of Winnipeg,” said Cara Kennedy, 24, who brought her parents to opening night. “I love coming to the river path. It reminds me of when I was a kid. [The founders] must have thought that too: what else can we do in Winnipeg but take advantage of the cold?”
Though some wondered if an $85 tasting menu might be too steep for bargain-loving Winnipeg, tickets almost sold out before it opened. This didn’t surprise Hitzer—“I had a feeling Winnipeg was ready,” he said, and he’s already planning to bring the pop-up back next year. It does point to the emergence of a new energy in Winnipeg. In a city never exactly famed for its cuisine, the pop-up is a coming-out party for a new breed of local chef: passionate, adventurous and aching to put Winnipeg on Canada’s culinary map.
Seven of them will take turns at the helm of Raw: Almond, with Hitzer cooking alongside each. “I don’t feel we’re in competition,” he said. “We’ve all become really good friends. It’s slow food, everyone makes everything from scratch. It’s a beautiful thing, it’s happening in the middle of the Prairies, and I think we surprise people.”