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Braving the elements at the river restaurant

Pop-up place a culinary experience like no other

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A table on the river if you please, garcon.

No, not by the river, not overlooking the river, on the river.

Where else in the world would you find diners sitting happily on the frozen Red and Assiniboine rivers, wearing parkas and long johns and Arctic-calibre boots and dining in five-star splendour on glorious gourmet grub served up by some of the city's top chefs?

OK, granted, so only here would you find the Red and Assiniboine, but the point is, people paid good money Thursday night to walk across the frozen river in -22 C weather and wind chills in the -30s to sit on the ice in a tent to eat.

"We're making some history now -- we want to be part of it," Cara Kennedy declared as she treated her parents, Bill and Janet, to dinner.

"We're excited. I was thinking of bringing my ice auger to catch some pickerel and have some sushi," laughed Bill.

It's called Raw: Almond and Thursday night was the river restaurant's opening night.

The 'pop-up' restaurant is the brainchild of Mandel Hitzer, owner and chef at deer + almond, and Raw Gallery director Joe Kalturnyk. Tourism Winnipeg suggests the pop-up restaurant may be the first of its kind in the world.

It got tense for a while Thursday. There was supposed to be a 5:30 p.m. sitting, but the eatery wasn't quite ready to go, and it got cancelled -- maybe just as well, since the snowstorm had turned downtown into one massive gridlocked parking lot.

Robyn Eaglesham and Katie Doerksen were delighted to hear their 7:30 p.m. sitting would christen the restaurant.

"We feel very special," said Doerksen.

Getting down to the basics -- Raw: Almond is a tent in the middle of the ice, about 300 metres behind The Forks Market and just a tad beyond the old trestle bridge. No signs, but look towards St. Boniface and you'll see generators, an enormous propane tank, two biffies and a big, white thing with lights inside, all sitting out in the middle of the ice.

Up to 20 guests sit all cosy close together and get to know each other on either side of one long table, sitting on tree stumps adorned by blankets, with giant heaters blasting away. Thick sheeting is the only thing between the epicures' boots and the ice.

No one was removing any coats Thursday night.

At the far end is the kitchen, where the chefs work on a slightly raised platform.

"We're here for the great chefs and the great food," said Ash Dzikowsky.

"It's exciting," said friend Jenny Presentanz.

Exciting indeed.

"Let's party on the ice!" proclaimed Hitzer.

Not your typical greeting from an owner/maitre d'/chef, but quite appropriate as far as throwing out the first pitch goes.

Hitzer was seriously pumped they all pulled it off.

"This is the finest, most exciting culinary experience of my life," he bubbled, in between taking scallops and foie gras torchon appetizers to the first 16 guests.

The menu included four courses, followed by dessert. The first course included cured albatross, radish, lime and woodstock. No, Hitzer didn't have time to explain what woodstock is.

Alcoholic beverages were also available.

Marathon runner David Cormie was logging his miles along the river ice when the aromas lured him over.

"This is awesome," said Cormie. "I admire the bravery of the organizers to put their money at risk."

Raw: Almond is open for three weeks for dinner at 5:30, 7:30, and 9:30 p.m., with breakfast and lunch on weekends.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 25, 2013 A4

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