Coverage on the Heavy Table doesn’t typically range beyond the Upper Midwest. But Winnipeg isn’t much farther from the Twin Cities than Chicago, and praise must be given to any establishment speaking clearly over the dated scrum that is dining in Manitoba.
Perhaps no major metropolis in North America is quite as unintentionally retro as Winnipeg. Pay phones still see regular use and VHS rental stores are alive and well. Many drinks in high-end bars rely heavily on maraschino cherries. And while the dining scene is saturated with all manner of ethnic food, the options are bleak when it comes to modern Canadian cuisine.
But a handful of newcomers have begun to change the scene over the past few years. One such is Mandel Hitzer (below), chef-owner of Deer + Almond, located on the north side of downtown in a neighborhood called the Exchange District. This historic neighborhood contains an attractive intersection of culture, business, and architecture (it conjures up the North Loop of Minneapolis as it was several years ago).
Deer + Almond has been dubbed a tapas restaurant and a modern take on family-style or homestyle food. Neither quite fits the place. The menu is predominantly “global small plates,” according to Hitzer, with expected combinations (avocado and bacon, for example) plus a twist of intrigue (add nori). Influences include Asian and Italian, but the young chef doesn’t hesitate to push it for the sake of ingenuity.
One hit was the Beef “Nacho” Tartare ($15 Canadian – pictured at top), which was simply too delicious and well-composed to make a gimmicky impression. The beef itself was perfectly prepared, avoiding any textural or seasoning pitfalls. Dried slices of tomato and pieces of hot pepper provided the nacho influence, as did the fried corn tortilla.
Parsnip Ravioli, one of the evening’s specials, was another textural treat. It contained the root vegetable, but was also sauced in it. The pasta melted into the filling while remaining distinct.
The most intense flavors we encountered were found in the Smoked Goldeye & Gnocchi ($16 Canadian), a clam soup — poured tableside into deep earthenware — brimming with dill, confit fennel, lemon curd, and copious amounts of whitefish caviar. The caviar and clam came together to create a depth of umami unlike anything in our recent memory. In combination with the subtle smoke and bright lemon, the composition was remarkable.
Cocktails here stood head and shoulders above many of the humdrum drinks of we had on our trip, evidence of the bar’s quality ingredients and attention to detail. A few of the beverages are cask-aged, including a standout Manhattan ($12 Canadian). Several mixers are made from scratch with nary a maraschino in sight.
Hitzer continues not only to elevate local cuisine, but to redefine what dining can be. This January and February mark the third anniversary of Raw Almond, a ticketed dining experience inside tents on the frozen junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. Raw Almond combines Hitzer’s most avant-garde selections with those of guest chefs. The dinners are sold out, but each weekend offers a “skate-up brunch” (read: drop-in meal) that is first-come, first-served. It seems only appropriate that the chef who brought the pop-up concept to Winnipeg would annually host an ongoing pop-up of sorts.
Deer + Almond offers elements of casual and fine dining, combining the best of both worlds into something professional yet cozy, like the feeling that casual Friday brings to a board meeting. Twin Cities’ diners may find the playfulness of the food familiar, not unlike that at Heyday or the first incarnation of Travail. Service by the knowledgeable and unassuming staff is straightforward. The ambiance is open but intimate, dimly lit, with uncoordinated art and the occasional plant.
Deer + Almond
Shareable creative plates in Winnipeg’s Exchange District
85 Princess St
Lunch: Mon-Sat 11 a.m-2 p.m.
Dinner: 5-11 p.m.
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: Yes / Yes for dinner
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $7-$26
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate