December, 2013 / Author:

Chef Mandel Hitzer of the hugely popular Deer + Almond does not rule his kitchen. Instead, he lets creativity run free, and Winnipeggers lap up the results. Photo by Kenton Smith

Deer + Almond chef Mandel Hitzer brings his “clean, honest food” atop the Assiniboine ice this winter

So laid back is chef Mandel Hitzer, you wouldn’t think his restaurant has seen line-ups out the door. Or, that his staff has had to turn customers away. Yet Deer + Almond, occupying the former location of Princess Grill at 85 Princess Street, and named by WHERE Winnipeg magazine as one of Canada’s Top 10 New Restaurants in 2012, has been such a hit since opening in April of that year, that it meant a personal milestone for Hitzer: he was able to call his parents and say they needn’t worry about him anymore.

“It’s been crazy busy from the get-go, and at first we didn’t even have a sign,” said the 31-year-old chef and co-owner, who credits social media for how the business hit the ground running. “We’re booked every weekend. It’s a fight to get a table.” Which means the restaurant may even see lineups in the dead of a Winnipeg winter, adding incentive to book any holiday dinner dates sooner rather than later.

Not that such action seems to stress Hitzer one grain. The restaurant itself hasn’t been Hitzer’s only hit. Last February, RAW: almond, a temporary eatery co-founded by Hitzer with Raw Gallery director Joe Kalturnyk, was set up on the ice of the Assiniboine River, with patrons coughing up $85 a pop for five courses prepared by a succession of local young chefs. Tickets for the inaugural edition almost sold out before opening, and the event even got ink in Maclean’s magazine. It’s no surprise then that Hitzer reports going “full-steam ahead” with a 2014 incarnation.

Food-wise, just what kind of restaurant was opened is more open-ended. One constant is the small plates; the place has even described itself as a tapas bar on its Facebook page. Over at Urbanspoon, the labels American, International and French are overlappingly applied.

Ask Hitzer, and he’ll provide the simpler framework of “comfort food.” The menu has touted such varied fare as smoked lamb ragout, pork belly with plum sauce and pea risotto. “Simple rustic,” Hitzer alternatively suggested. And playful. Take Benny and the Jets, a brown butter hollandaise variation on classic eggs Benedict, with brioche bread; it’s the perfect breakfast-anytime dish.

Yet the real key to the eclecticism, Hitzer continues, is Canada’s multicultural mosaic. “I can borrow from any culture, and the amalgamation is beautiful. Why put any boundaries on food?” Indeed, he declares himself committed to creating new experiences for Winnipeggers, with the menu changing every three months (though he notes Benny and the Jets seems to now be a staple).

If Hitzer has any explanation for his success, it’s “a good mix of good, clean, honest food. At reasonable  prices.” And, with its big bay windows overlooking the street, the entire place seems to have been infected with Hitzer’s relaxed vibe, feeling removed from the action while simultaneously overlooking it.

Indeed, as the prevailing industry wisdom goes, location is (almost) everything.

Regarding Hitzer’s chosen spot, even chef Scott Bagshaw of the hugely popular Deseo once enthused that he would have “loved” to have done something with the place.

Yet Hitzer recognizes any viable restaurant at the downtown corner would “have to be a destination.” Luckily, “There’s lots of things happening in the Exchange,” he continued, his enthusiasm for the city unmistakable. “It’s the heart of Winnipeg, which has become a great place. It’s the best.”

The commitment to taking things easy may be another component of success. It’s clear that there’s no ego with Hitzer; if his nickname isn’t already “The Dude”, it should be. “This isn’t a ‘Yes, chef’ fucking kitchen,” he said. “We’re just going to have a good time while we’re here.”

 


– Kenton Smith is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer. He highly recommends Benny & the Jets.

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