A Winter Dining Experience in Winnipeg – On the Frozen Red River
Imagine being bundled up in full winter gear, walking down a frozen river in the darkness. You are starving. You haven’t had much to eat all day. The wind is blowing, your face is freezing and your eyes are watering from the sting of the cold — it’s about minus 25 with the windchill (if you don’t know what that means then you don’t obviously live in Canada). You come upon an illuminated tent that seems to sit in the middle out of nowhere. You were just thinking to yourself, “What the hell am I doing out here? I must be out of my cotton picking mind!” You don’t dare take off your mitts to unzip the doorway for fear your fingers will freeze on the metal zipper. You are greeted by about a dozen people huddled together in a foyer that will again unzip to a makeshift restaurant on the Red River just off from where it meets the Assiniboine. Is this a mirage? Is this a nightmare? No. This is an amazing dining experience!
I felt at one with the crowd which is something that doesn’t often happen since I tend to stay away from large groups of people — No anxiety issues — just preference. The only other times I remember feeling this way were in years past at The Lake, where you could leave your bicycle out in the borrowed yard leaning against a trailer and where everyone came to relax and enjoy the beautiful weather. That was the place where people didn’t steal your bike, didn’t go inside your home, waved and smiled at you when you walked by and slowed down to let you cross the gravel road. I’m not sure how many places there are anymore where these things are true but it has been my experience that this still exists at The Lake, wherever that is— during any given summer. And now it feels like it also exists in the middle of a frozen river in Winnipeg. Though to be fair I didn’t ride my bike and I didn’t leave it leaning against the tent, so this could be just my perception but I’m going with it.
I’m not sure exactly what it is about camping that prompts people to be kind to each other, maybe it’s the lack of stress, maybe it’s the perceived struggle of roughing it, maybe it’s the beautiful weather — though rainy days never seemed to bring out the beasts in anyone — or maybe it’s just the fresh air. This kindness and camaraderie was also seemingly present as I sat on a tuft of black faux fur placed on a wooden stump at RAW: Almond at the Forks in what felt like the dead of night… our seating was at 9:30 pm and they were running behind when we arrived. I would come to understand and appreciate the late seating since we didn’t want our party to end either.
We were fortunate enough to get tickets to this annual event that is in it’s third year and based on current popularity it will continue for many more. The event is sold out long before anyone not in the know hears about it. Is it the idea of eating in a tent on the frozen river that brings people out? Is it the pride that Winnipeggers feel when they don’t let a small thing like the long cold winter deter them from enjoying a dinner outside? Or … Is it the damn good food?
I personally think it’s all of these things. The eating experience is certainly intensified by the trek onto the frozen river, crouching through a zippered doorway into a makeshift restaurant where staff and visitors alike wear their winter best — you can’t live here and not have a good pair of boots, warm mitts, hat and parka. They then seat themselves either on faux fur covered wooden stumps or the edge of the ice that is carved in the shape of a wine bottle and await a set meal they’ve purchased based on their selection of Chef rather than menu.
We sat around the long table with pendant lights, our group of six with another ten people at one of four tables. The kitchen staff wore funky metallic bodysuits to ward off the cold that emanated from the ice floor that was covered in rubber mats to keep everyone’s feet from sliding out from under them. Each guest was given a shot of vodka… a little extra boost added to the vents that blow in warm air, the music turned up a bit — “Cheers!” and the party was on.
I’d love to tell you in delicious detail all about the food we ate but really — that wouldn’t do it justice. Though I did take a few pictures, admittedly not the best quality, you can certainly use your imagination to fill in the blanks. I will say though, that we had a starter of sustainable protein provided by Diversity Foods which included crickets and meal worms and everyone in our group… yes — even the slightly faint of heart — enjoyed the first of the parade of plates that took us about two hours to eat, each more delicious than the next though none as daring as the first. I will admit that though I L.O.V.E. food there was a voice in my head that screamed, “SHUT THE FRONT DOOR” when first I saw and heard our waiter mention meal worms and crickets but I closed my eyes and thoroughly enjoyed every last bite! And I suggest that if you ever find yourself being served this kind of meal on a cold dark night you do the same because it is well worth the ride especially when the Chef is experienced… I harken back to a saying I repeat to others, “You can eat anything and everything — if it is cooked well” and this was cooked amazingly well.
Our boundaries had been expanded and we were all eager to devour more. Next on the list was slightly cooked Bison Tartar, Sweet Potato Chips with Lentils and Horseradish. The horseradish could have used a more vigorous kick in my humble opinion but I like horseradish to incinerate my nasal passages and burn my eyes and I’d guess I’m the odd woman out as opposed to the norm. It was super yummy nonetheless. The Heirloom Beet Salad drenched with a broth and surrounded pillowy carrot gnocchi was small but hearty and delicious. Then the dreamy Polenta with Chicken Sausage and Smoked Duck with Cilantro and bits of bursting corn – Ah… Mazing. And there was the Elk with Browned Butter and Parsnip Purée… another home run I can’t even begin to describe. Who knew parsnips could be so damn luscious but seriously… a puddle of perfectly browned butter — no diets here because everything is better with browned butter and this was no exception. Lastly, the home made Yogurt, Chocolate Cake with Freeze Dried and Fresh Berries was the perfect… let’s say that again… PERFECT end to a begrudgingly ended evening.
Though my feet were entirely frozen because I neglected to wear my warm boots and the cold emanating from the ice seeps into you if you don’t guard against it appropriately… I’ll know better for next time. This is an experience not to be missed and it transforms the harsh Winnipeg winter… with a few shots, vodka and Jaegermeister, several bottles of wine and several plates of great food into the best winter camping experience I’ve ever had the pleasure of enjoying. If you haven’t already purchased your tickets or gone to the Red for dinner you are too late for this year. RAW: Almond is wrapping up and we have to wait for the weather to move through spring, summer and fall so that we can once again drink and dine on the frozen river. I’d suggest you beg or borrow or shamelessly steal one of those coveted tickets for next year’s event if you can… you will not regret it. I for one will be seeking out tickets when the first snowflakes fly.