It's the first day to purchase coveted seats for this year's RAW:almond pop-up restaurant and Mandel Hitzer is doing brisk sales.
The project that started as a what-are-we-getting-ourselves-into experiment earlier this year enters its second go-round as the hottest table in a city that suddenly needs to be on every culinary travellers' itinerary.
Hitzer, who runs the eclectic 28-seat deer + almond in Winnipeg's Exchange District, teamed with RAW:Gallery and the Warming Huts festival to erect a restaurant on ice. For three weeks last winter, bundled-up diners paid $85 to skate or trod in boots up to a communal table where Hitzer and other members of Winnipeg's brigade of talented young chefs would serve dishes in temperatures that often dropped below minus-20 Celsius degrees (minus-4 Fahrenheit).
By all accounts, there were challenges as extreme as the cold. Alex Svenne, one of the participating chefs and owner of Bistro 7 1/4, recalls the trouble when hot food quickly turned cold after it hit plates exposed to the climate. "We had to bring in extra plate warmers," Svenne says, describing the pop-up as being as fun as it was crazy. "Then in the final few days, the ice began to melt, because the temperature was warming up and we had been doing all of this cooking, creating all of this heat on top of the ice."
No one fell through. But many fell over their feet as they rushed to praise RAW:almond's collaborators for, among other things, going for it.
"It sounded like a crazy idea and it probably was, but they got over the logistical problems, they sold out every night, and people can't wait to see what they're going to do this time around ," says Paul Jordan, the chief operating officer of The Forks Renewal Corporation, an architectural and urban planning organization that has supervised the development of Winnipeg's favourite gathering place.
This year, the price is upped to $100 per person, the restaurant has expanded to 30 seats and added a 10-seat tasting lounge, and only members of RAW:Gallery can take part in pre-sales. Seeing that the pop-up restaurant features the most buzzed-about table in the city, the pre-sales are turning out to be a shrewd membership drive. So far, four of 21 nights have been sold out in less than 48 hours. The public sales don't begin until December 20.
"I think this is happening because we finally decided to embrace winter in this city," says Svenne, who will lead the RAW:almond kitchen on January 26-27. "We realized, you know what, it's not going away. We're stuck with it, so why not make the best of it?"
In winter, The Forks, named so because it is the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, turns into the world's longest ice-skating trail, twisting and turning for about 8.5 kilometres (5.2 miles) on a path that is routinely cleared by a Zamboni and features hockey and curling rinks alongside it.
On previous opening nights of the ice trail, the Zamboni has played dance and rap music while revellers bust a move, following the machine in a northern version of a Carnival party line that would seem like it could only happen in a South Park episode. Since 2006, the skating trail has also been home to the Warming Huts for three weeks each year.
The huts are created by architects. Which architects? Try Frank Gehry and Antoine Predock, a world-renowned New Mexico designer who has conceived the extraordinary Canadian Museum of Human Rights that opens in September 2014.
Architecture Is the Main Course in Winnipeg
The Warming Huts has an international competition to decide some of its annual exhibits. When the show starts on January 24, 81 huts will dot the ice trail. They will include favourites from years past and six new entries for 2014 -- including one full of mirrors and another installation that is an upside down pair of pants being held up by a dirigible in the shape of a voyageur hauling a canoe over his head; visitors enter the hut through the unzipped hole in the pants. (Winnipeg's Festival du Voyageur celebrates its 45th year in February 2014.)
Music, fashion, art, and haute cuisine join in the architecturally focused Warming Huts fete, with RAW:almond attracting the culinary crowd.
"The food scene here has evolved so much," says Hitzer, an affable, free-spirited guy who has a history of doing secret restaurants and pop-ups. "And the attitude of restaurants has changed. It used to be super competitive in the city, but now, with some of these guys, we are friends who've all worked together, we've all cooked together. We're happy to help each other out."
Hitzer says the ice-bound restaurant "is like doing a stage with all your friends." Winnipeg chefs take turns overseeing the menu and this year Jason Barton-Browne, a sous chef at Calgary's Teatro, will join Hitzer's team for an evening. Also, because of demand, a tasting bar with capacity for 10 will be offered to guests who can't get into (or think it's too pricey) to pay $100 for the five-course dinner under the heated tent. Scott Bagshaw of Deseo Bistro, which ranked 37th on the 2013 Vacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada Guide, will be among those manning the tasting lounge that will serve three courses for $45.
"We're just flying by the seat of our pants," he says, "and we're having fun doing it."