Last year, when I first heard that Mandel Hitzer from deer + almond was going to erect a tent on the river at the Forks and invite chefs from all over Winnipeg to come play with him, I thought it was a brilliant idea. Unfortunately, I dragged my feet and missed out on getting tickets, which sold out far faster than I thought they would. Apparently, I wasn’t the only person who thought it was brilliant.
This year I kept my ear to the ground, and managed to snap up a couple of tickets to RAW: Almond as soon as they went on sale. Edward Lam from Yujiro was the chef for the evening we chose. And so last night, with the windchill hovering around -25°C, we made our way down to the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers for dinner.
The food was lovely. Fresh seafood, bitingly pungent wasabi, earthy vegetables, and succulent duck graced our plates that evening. But I don’t think it’s fair to review RAW: Almond as a restaurant, really. The chef changes every few days, as does the menu, giving you a completely new experience. The venue itself rises from the ice in the dead of winter, and within a few months all that can be seen where the tent stood is a swirl of muddy water.
Before dinner, Hitzel spoke about the spirituality of the Forks, and what it means to share a meal there. After we ate, I thought about the meal, and the pop-up restaurant itself, and I could see another layer of meaning: RAW: Almond is a nearly perfect metaphor for Winnipeg itself.
People from elsewhere who have never been to Winnipeg (or even some residents who don’t bother exploring the charms of their city) view Winnipeg as cold, probably miserable, and even dangerous. Meanwhile, eating in a tent in the winter in Winnipeg was poo-poo’d as cold, miserable and maybe even dangerous.
First impressions of Winnipeg can be variable, but I’ve heard it described as unrefined, and certainly not someplace you’d consider sophisticated. The tent for RAW: Almond has a rustic charm, and the temperature dictates that no one bothers with dressy clothes – casual (and warm!) attire rules there.
After you’ve lived in Winnipeg for a while, though, you begin to realize that the casual attitude also translates into friendliness. Everyone here can commiserate about the cold. The long communal table at RAW: Almond makes it easy to strike up a conversation with strangers. Perhaps, by the end of the meal, you won’t be strangers anymore.
Finally, Winnipeg can be sophisticated, even though that isn’t apparent at first glance. World-class arts and music, excellent restaurants, amazing green spaces and unique festivals show that there is more to the city than its reputation suggests. And in the white tent sitting on the fork of the rivers, the food that is served there is not what you’d expect after settling yourself on a fur-covered stump next to the plywood kitchen. This is no camp food, and the plates that the serving staff bring from the kitchen would not be out of place in a swanky restaurant.
Our plans for next winter already include another trip to RAW: Almond… A new night, a new tent, a new chef, a new menu, a new experience, and a new way to enjoy the city.