As with street trucks, pop-up restaurants are becoming really big in Toronto. Chefs are moving into spaces that haven’t been leased and running restaurants until someone realizes it is a great space and kicks them out. It drives the hipster foodies all around the city looking for the next big thing but it also means chefs can experiment and if they do well they’ll have a following when they move on to something more permanent. Living in Canada’s largest city this is not unusual but when I was approached about coming to Winnipeg I wasn’t sure if I could expect the same with Winnipeg food.
But Winnipeg may have taken one giant leap ahead with pop-ups. Chef Mandel Hitzer from Deer + Almond restaurant partnered with architect Joe Kalturnyk to launch a pop-up on the frozen river trail where two rivers meet. They call it Raw: Almond and each night features five-course tasting menus by the best chefs in Winnipeg.
Winnipeg is not a destination that draws many international tourists and some people think I am crazy to be here. But two summers ago I visited the Folk Festival and it is possibly the best music festival I’ve been to so I have a soft spot for Winnipeg, or as most people refer to it – Winterpeg.
It’s February, and it’s Northern Canada and this is my version of adventure travel. I don’t need to scale some mountain; I’ll just eat dinner on a frozen river in temperatures most people have never experienced.
And it was cold. With the wind chill, the temperature dinner was -49C/-52F. I had prepared by wearing every single piece of clothing I had – seven layers of t-shirts and leggings underneath my jeans. I may have looked porky but I remained warm.
This may have been one of the most unusual dinners I have ever had and I was so happy to share it with Cailin O’Neil. Twenty people arrive to sit on wood stumps at a communal table, warming themselves with shots and red wine as Chef Hitzer explains each course. Tonight the guest chefs were Chef Ben Kramer, who I have been told is the Jamie Oliver of Winnipeg and Aron Epp from Elements.
Unlike other restaurants, they chefs don’t mind if you peek into the kitchen, a small area where they huddle around the plates assembling them with clockwork precision.
Beyond the kitschiness of having dinner is a tepee-like tent on a frozen river the food is amazing. Our five courses included: Duck and daikon cake, Manitoba congee (with the wise instructions to break the egg yolk immediately), pork belly, XO beef and black cod and a dessert although who had room for dessert?
This restaurant is only open for 21 days but there is a younger generation of chefs doing some really interesting things in Winnipeg. They all have their own permanent restaurants but continue to one-off or limited-time food events.
It reminds me of the restaurants in Ottawa where a group of chefs are working together to help promote each other. Chef Mandel Hitzer told me he already has many more ideas to extend the pop-up restaurant but events, you can see the Winnipeg food scene is changing at a rapid pace. The city may not have been a destination before but it could very well become the most interesting place for food experiences.