Original 54c6949a232934ae4a5530bd4174c938.jpeg?1463757961?ixlib=rails 0.3

Dining by the Northern Lights in Churchill

Canada’s Far North may bring to mind images of snow, treeless tundra, and caribou. But that’s an increasingly incomplete picture, as leading chefs are creating culinary hotspots in the region.

Case in point: RAW: almond, a pop-up restaurant atop the frozen ice at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers that’s the hottest reservation during the coldest season in Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba. It’s a collaboration between Joe Kalturnyk of the Raw Gallery of Architecture and Design and Mandel Hitzer of Deer + Almond, one of Winnipeg’s finest restaurants.

This year Kalturnyk and Hitzer took their show on the road, to the polar bear capital of the world, Churchill, and specifically the 18th-century Prince of Wales Fort. They felt it’d be the perfect location for an unforgettable and quintessentially Canadian meal under the northern lights.

So this March, foodies were boarding flights to Churchill. And I was among them, invited to join this gourmet experience as a guest of Frontiers North and Destination Canada (they had no say in this recap). While the restaurant was, by nature, temporary, it helped highlight the ongoing appeal of traveling here.

My route to Churchill passed through Winnipeg, where the “Journey to Churchill” exhibit at the Assiniboine Zoo introduced me to the area’s most famous visitors, its polar bears. (As they congregate in Churchill in the autumn, the orphaned bears at the zoo were the only ones I’d see.) A flight the next morning took me beyond the tree line, and as I descended into Churchill, where temperatures in March average 17° F, the snow-covered tundra and frozen Hudson Bay stretched to the horizon.

A representative from Frontiers North sized up my parka and quickly determined it was inadequate. Once I was outfitted with a Canada Goose loaner, we set out for a dog-sledding adventure. Along the way, we got an introduction to culture of the Métis—the descendants of French settlers and members of First Nations—and made stops at the Eskimo Museum, with its impressive collection of stone carvings, and a new community center.

After nightfall, our group boarded a Tundra Buggy and headed up the frozen Churchill River to the fort. Soon the town of Churchill was a faint glow behind us, and the only lights were those coming from the buggy. At the fort, we walked through one of the gates and came upon a plywood-and-vinyl structure, a temporary modernist restaurant amid the centuries-old fortifications.

We sat down at a communal table for 20, atop a floor of packed snow. Bearded chefs prepared original dishes inspired by the region’s culinary history: a broth poured over a poached egg and dehydrated vegetables was a nod to the rations of the fort’s occupants; grilled arctic fish with seaweed was inspired by our location on Hudson Bay; and a carpaccio from local caribou rounded out the menu.
Caribou carpaccio
Over a dessert of wild tundra berries and beet ice cream, we waited for the pièce de résistance: the northern lights dancing across the sky. Sadly, a blanket of clouds remained in place for most of the evening and when it cleared, the spectacle proved underwhelming. 

It left me with one more reason to return to Churchill. I’d already decided I wanted to see the beluga whales that gather here in the summer, and the polar bears that wait in Churchill for the Hudson Bay to freeze in the fall.

Frontiers North will repeat this pop-up culinary experience in March 2017, so maybe I’ll come back to try my luck again—and maybe I’ll see you there.