By Brenlee Coates
Chef Alexander Svenne of Bistro 7 ¼ had a sense of humour about the chilly temperature at the river pop-up restaurant, RAW:almond.
He served an ice cream dish to close off the meal to the bundled patrons gathered on a frozen river.
The serving included a homemade quinoa cookie, caramelized pear, and cardamom ice cream to which he added hot tea to warm up the dish, thankfully. By the end of the course, the ingredients had conspired into a tasty chai-flavoured drink.
For $100 plus tax, food lovers in Winnipeg were given the elusive opportunity to enjoy a five-course meal on the frozen intersection of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers.
The radical concept is the brainchild of Mandel Hitzer, chef/owner of the Exchange District’s deer + almond eatery, along with neighbouring business RAW:Gallery’s Joe Kalturnyk.
Dressed in down jackets, fur-lined boots and gloves, patrons of the restaurant sat huddled close to one another at a communal table inside a slightly heated tent. The local 0812 Building Solutions Inc. built the wooden table, charred black with torches, and a kitchen area that featured cut-out walls so diners could see the food being prepared.
This winter marked the second year of the pop-up restaurant, which was open for a three-week run in January and February. A tapas-style menu, new this year, was available for a $45 price tag, allowing for simultaneous seatings.
Another popular feature is the $22 breakfast on weekends by Talia Syrie, chef at the Come ‘N Eat Café in Neechi Commons. She even offered a $7 walk-up breakfast where you get coffee, hot chocolate and a breakfast bar. The various offerings allow diners with any budget to experience the unusual occasion at The Forks.
The tent structure is the realization of Kalturnyk’s, the co-founder of Winnipeg’s coldest restaurant. He designed the white tent to mimic a naturalistic chunk of ice popping up from the frozen river.
While there are heat limitations on the enclosure, as melting could call safety into question, the warm atmosphere of the dining experience completely distracts from the cold – not to mention the meals dreamed up by some of Winnipeg’s finest chefs.
The chefs play host on three nights as the featured chef, and describe their dishes and the inspiration behind them to guests. Hitzer is the only mainstay – he caters to the crowd and kitchen for the length of the run.
Chef Svenne presented his mother’s chicken liver recipe first, with homemade soda crackers and pickles. He said he’s been making the same style pâté since he was cooking with his mom at age four.
Next, he served a snail tom yum soup, with healthy slices of julienne ginger, carrots, cucumber and mushrooms. The soup broth was merely lukewarm, which was deliberate though the environment wouldn’t allow for much else.
His next offering was a mustard tasting spread, with seven types of homemade mustards, including a beer mustard and tangy, apricot mustard. Homemade rye bread and an impossibly tender slice of roast beef accompanied the dollops of mustard.
The main was a breaded ham hock with soft egg, atop a bed of pickled cabbage. A mushroom sauce grazed the plate along with a stalk of broccolini.
Seventeen chefs participated in stints at the restaurant, with some celebrity chefs joining the local lineup. Hitzer said the annual collaboration heavily influences the partipating chefs’ year-round menus.
This year, the biggest inspiration stems from Hitzer’s philanthropy. He spent the entire run of the pop-up restaurant sleeping in a tent on the river confluence right next to the restaurant. His efforts raised funds for three local charities: the Boys and Girls Clubs of Winnipeg, the Resource Centre for Manitobans who are Deaf-Blind, and FortWhyte Alive.