DEER + ALMOND
Neighbourhood: Exchange District
Address: 85 Princess St
Before family style dining went mainstream, stunning sharing plates at deer + almond won over adventurous, curious and cautious palates alike. Its noticeably cool yet relaxed, offhandedly eccentric and minimalist atmosphere attracts a mixed crowd – there’s no such thing as over or underdressed here.
Chef Mandel Hitzer has a way of turning each seemingly straightforward dish into something unexpected, playful and mind-blowingly delicious. Take the chicken fried chicken for example. Only available on the lunch menu, this sandwich lands on the table appearing like a simple chicken sandwich but transforms into something magical upon first chomp. A pillowy bun embraces juicy crisp chicken, a liberal spread of house ranch, and a shredded lettuce slaw toppling over heaps of pickles (who knew zucchini pickles were so much better than the cucumber variety?). The yellowfin tuna bowl also looks more or less as expected – radish, wakame cucumber and tender pink fish prettily arranged atop rice. Then, snap, crackle, pop – crispy rice throws a curveball, making each bite a textural surprise.
This theme continues through an evening menu where nothing is quite as it seems. Advice: always start with an order of “Helluva” dip paired with salty housemade chips. True to it’s clever name, it’s reminiscent of the fave onion-flavoured supermarket dip, but elevated with smoked Manitoba goldeye and tangy pickled beans.
The restaurant’s renown is in pairing far-off ingredients and making it seem like they were meant to be together all along. Such is the case with beets, plums and Cambozola. Tossed with field greens, some pistachios for crunch, mint for cool factor and a light honey dressing, each bite is revelatory, flavours evolving from one forkful to the next.
Though frequently changing, the menu is often laced with our province’s regional ingredients. Manitoba pickerel exhibits global flair, swimming in creamy umami-rich grits steadied with bright and zingy chive oil. Pickled red onion adds a harmonizing hint of sweetness. Remember Keen’s hot mustard? Chef Mandel reimagines the deli staple into a vibrant vinaigrette for deer tataki. Napa cabbage and vivid green shishito peppers add colour to thin slices of melt-in-the-mouth venison, briefly seared and left raw in the middle.
For a happy ending, semifreddo is a sure bet. A log of housemade peanut butter ice cream sits alongside decadent chocolate cake and fudgy chocolate ganache. Thick caramel flecked with sea salt and peanuts smothers the dessert, mirroring the night itself: rich and indulgent, but never pretentious.