Raw:Almond, Creating a Place on the River

February 13, 2015  •  Leave a Comment
Often the places we treasure have been hewn and refined over centuries. Others are fleeting experiences, existing for mere moments. Winnipeg’s RAW:Almond restaurant inhabits both of those worlds. 
Winnipeg is a city defined by its rivers. Ferocious currents of the Red River cut vertically through  the city on their way north to Lake Winnipeg. From way out west, the Assiniboine River runs its course horizontally, finally pouring into the Red. This watery junction, known these days as The Forks, is a First Nations embryo - over 6,000 years old - that grew to become the City of Winnipeg. 
The Forks is typically appreciated from the shoreline. But this is Winnipeg and our extreme climate means that these two waterways will freeze solid for several months each year. It is a process that has being occurring every year since…forever. Only recently has this unique pedestrian access been revived, whether on foot or on skates. It began in the 1980’s with the rediscovery and development of The Forks as a public meeting place. Over the last few years, skating and walking trails, starting at The Forks, have exploited the frozen surfaces of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, the trails this year running six kilometers south on the Red. The trails are now dotted with “Warming Huts”, architectural follies selected through an annual international design competition.
And, over the last three winters, RAW:Almond, a highly successful, internationally respected pop-up restaurant, has occupied a prime location alongside the frozen trail, literally on top of the forks of these two mighty rivers. It is the brainchild of local chef/owner of deer + almond restaurant, MANDEL HITZER, and JOE KALTURNYK, director of RAW:Gallery of architecture and design. Their restaurant is the definition of pop-up. The structure - a skeleton of exposed scaffolding and skin of plastic fabric - magically appears on the ice surface in a matter of days. A coterie of chefs serve five-course culinary excursions to rabid fans over the course of three weeks. And then the whole affair disappears, the river trails shut down and the ice floor breaks into huge bergs smashing their way downstream.
This year, the restaurant design was the result of an international design competition. The winning entry by U.K. architects OS31 uses scaffolding and plastic sheeting to create a cruciform reminiscent of the crossing rivers (and perhaps recalling the St. Boniface Cathedral just across the Red River?). 
Inside, a roster of guest chefs from across Canada, apply their own design skills to create unique multi-course dinners. It is a convivial, fun atmosphere. Diners sit on fur-topped tree trunks at long tables. Our chef, Kristal Pastorin from Winnipeg’s Grove restaurant, makes the rounds of her table guests, describing each of her five spectacular courses. The always lively Hitzer holds court. 
And, just beneath our feet, a few feet of ice separates us from the mighty flow of water on its way to Lake Winnipeg. That is the transient magic of this place in our city. 


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