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Deer + Almond joy

New Exchange restaurant takes a really fresh approach

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"I’M living my dream!," says Chef Mandel Hitzer, 30, who recently opened Deer + Almond at Princess Street and McDermot Avenue in the Exchange.

"I worked hard going through the ranks in kitchens, and it has always my dream to be a part of the Exchange."

Deer + Almond (written "plus" but pronounced "and") seems like a strange name for a restaurant. But Mandel means "almond" in German. "And the deer is a majestic creature. I've always loved the white-tailed deer of Manitoba." No, he's not serving venison... though he says it's coming one day. Right now, it's out of season and Hitzer tries to serve everything that's as local and fresh as possible.

Though the restaurant is very new (about two months open) and has barely advertised, its message is spreading electronically and by word of mouth and Hitzer says it has been pulling in good crowds.

The ambiance is warm -- there is great music and the 20 employees are, for the most part, old friends. This is as far from Hell's Kitchen as you can get -- on purpose. Hitzer has experienced nasty, temperamental chefs at the helm. "I've had a hot pans thrown at me," he says. "I'm here every day, and I try to have as much fun as I can."

So let's get to the grub. The 13 items on the dinner menu feature ingredients that mostly only foodies will have tried before. Take chicken cilanto with toasted chilies and Chinese vinegar, or potato and egg? (yes, it has a question mark) with fresh horseradish and trout roe. Then there's pork belly with plum sauce, pickled pineapple and celery leaves.

"I get so excited thinking about and eating food," says Hitzer, who waves his arms a lot when he speaks. As for prices? "I'd say it's super-cheap," says Hitzer, brown eyes dancing. "Look at this -- quail! And our prices are from $5 to $16."

It's a "small plate" restaurant. Each dish is intended for sharing, which allows for lots of taste-tripping.

Hitzer has two giant passions: world travel and food. And the man's in pretty good shape for a chef who just loves to eat. "I just stay active," he smiles. Speaking of moving around, the young restaurant owner recently went to San Francisco on holiday, and had dinner at Mission Chinese Food. He liked the food so much he asked chef Danny Bowien if he could stay and work for a week -- to cook and learn. He is a free spirit with the nerve of a businessman.

Hitzer says he came from a good parental combination. His dad, Rolf Hitzer, is a real estate agent for Royal LePage and his mom, Penny Lang, is an artist in Vernon, B.C.

"I got the best of both worlds. I am disciplined because of my dad and I am also free-spirited like my mom." But his greatest cooking inspiration came from his grandmother, Erna Hitzer. "She's an amazing cook!" says Hitzer. "I fell in love with the kitchen at age 14." Later, he apprenticed to Makoto Ono at Glutton's.

"I also opened at Fresh Café on Corydon Avenue, which ended up in the Top 10 restaurants in Where magazine. And I worked with Norm Pastorin, the chef at the Grove, when we were both at Fazzo."

Hitzer says his new restaurant has attracted a lot of other chefs, such as Alex Svenne from Bistro 7 1/4 and Tristan Foucault from Peasant Cookery. And it's a natural for people in the arts and film business. "In fact, Malcolm McDowell came in when he was making a movie here," (Home Alone 5).

As for decor, it's modern -- about as different from the famous old Princess Grill that used to be on that corner as you can imagine. There is one large multicoloured deer up on the stark charcoal walls and thick wooden cutting board-style tables. The chairs are comfy and there are tall stools along the bar, wrapping around to line the picture window looking out on busy Princess Street. That window is guaranteed to keep the solo diners well-entertained while their palates are being titillated.

"I'm really excited to be a part of Winnipeg's dining scene," says Hitzer before zooming back into the dining room. He's often part of the entertainment, too.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 10, 2012 A6

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