Sunday, March 6, 2011

Swish Splash

There's a block of Wellington Street E that I always make a point of walking along when heading home from St. Lawrence Market. It runs the length of Berczy Park, right by the Gooderham, one of my favourite buildings in the city (flatirons always makes me smile). There's a surprisingly high concentration of bars and restaurants in the red brick rowhouses that line the block (Lucien, Trevor, Pravda Vodka Bar) but Swish by Han, at #38, caught my attention and curiosity the moment I peeked in the window. The interior of reclaimed wood and contemporary art, with a communal table running down the middle, is warm and inviting. The menu, hanging on the door, presents an interesting modern take on Korean cuisine.

Always in a hurry to get home with my shopping cart filled to the brim, I never had time to just pop in for a bite. So for months I only imagined what the smells and flavours might be like, until we bought tickets to see a play in the Distillery District and wanted to have dinner nearby. Truth be told, we drove by Guu on Church Street first, hoping to snag a table at the perennially popular spot since we were eating so early. But with a crowd hovering around the entrance, we were skeptical about the reported 30 minute wait and continued on to plan B.

From the moment we entered through the thick curtains protecting diners from the cold, we knew we were in for a treat. The aroma was amazing - a mix of sweet and spicy scents swirling (or should I say swishing?) around us. We proceeded to enjoy what we both agreed was one of our best meals to date in Toronto:

Spicy pork buns - little pulled pork sandwiches on ciabatta-type bread

Tempura onion rings - fried in just enough tempura batter to make them delightfully crispy

Crunchy octopus - the actual name of the dish escapes me - deep fried and served with a spicy mayonnaise-y dipping sauce

Short rib ssäm set - literally meaning "wrapped," ssäm refers to a Korean dish that wraps meat in leaf vegetables. This set came with a stack of crisp lettuce leaves, grilled beef short ribs, hoisin sauce and a spicy fermented soybean paste

...all washed down with Sapporo beer on tap (it was tempting to order a soju cocktail, but I was worried I'd snooze through the show)

The service was excellent, the tables spaced well for intimate conversations, and the bill a pleasant surprise: under $80 for two.

There's not much buzz about this place on the internet, but there should be!
(647) 343-0268

Sunday, January 2, 2011

It's Getting Better All the Time

We popped into the Rosedale Diner for a bite before going to a New Year's Eve party and were once again blown away by the quality of the food, the warm ambience and the friendly, attentive service. The Diner was one of the first restaurants we went to when we first moved to Toronto in 2007 and it's only gotten better over the years. We almost always order the same combo: hummus and calamari as appetizers and the chicken dijonaisse and a special as mains - a recent special was homemade sausage with truffle frites. We're lucky living right around the corner, but it's well worth a trip!


Sunday, June 13, 2010

Single Issue Voter

If I was able to vote in the Toronto mayoral election (which alas I am not, as a non-citizen resident), one issue would top my list of concerns: the abysmal state of the street food situation in Toronto. I've opined about this before (, but my recent trip to Portland, Oregon, named as the top street food city in the WORLD by Frommer's Budget Travel Magazine has left me positively steaming.

Let's run the numbers, shall we?

* Population - 582,130
* Demographics - 78.6% white
* The Portland public school system has over 1,800 students who come from homes where over 60 different languages are spoken.

* Population - 2.5 million
* Demographics - 53% white
* Half of Toronto's population was born outside of Canada
* No single nationality or culture dominates Toronto's immigrant population, placing it among the most diverse cities in the world
* 47% of the population has a mother tongue other than English or French
* The city's 911 emergency services are equipped to respond in over 150 languages
* The Toronto District School Board is the most multilingual and multicultural school board in the world. More than 50% of 270,000 students speak a language other than English at home

Where would you expect to find better quantity and quality of street food?

Well, you're wrong.

Number of street food carts in Portland: 500 (e.g, Southern pulled pork buns, Mexican burritos, Korean bulgogi, Thai-style Hainan chicken...) - $25 propane permit and a couple of hundred bucks for a health inspection.

Number of street food carts in Toronto: 310 at designated spots with annual permits costing $5,000 or more. Street vendors are prohibited from selling any meat that isn't pre-cooked, and hot dogs are pretty much the only thing they can legally sell. Also banned are any toppings or sauces that require refrigeration, hence no mayo or cheese. (and no espresso carts with milk, either...)

According to a glowing article in the June 11, 2010 issue of the Vancouver Sun, "Here in Portland, we have a couple of agencies who offer micro-lending to carts who wouldn’t normally qualify for standard business loans...Allow the carts to sell a quality, safe product without the owners having to hurdle red tape with multiple agencies.”

And in Toronto? It's basically socialized street food. A pathetic food cart "pilot" competitively selected 15 street food vendors, the final stage of which involved review by a small panel of food experts who judged the proposed food items from the standpoint of diversity, quality and culinary excellence. Only 8 vendors decided to proceed. The verdict? A recent Toronto Star article cuts to the chase: "ethnic street food offerings bland."

Visit my "Portland or Toronto?" photo album at

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Destination: Train Station

When the latest issue of Architectural Record arrived in the mail, I paged through it fully prepared to find the usual array of stunning buildings and public spaces in locations I would be unlikely to ever visit. But after seeing the photos of the new Santiago Calatrava-designed Liège-Guillemins TGV Railway Station in Liège, Belgium and googling to find it was only an hour from Brussels where I was going the following week.. and bingo, I hit the jackpot!

And so on March 10 I boarded a train for my first trip planned entirely around seeing a building (I've made my share of pilgrimages for Frank Lloyd Wright, Gaudi and Hundertwasser to be sure, but they weren't the impetus for the trip). The building was as spectacular in person as in the magazine photos, and even more impressive when you see it in the context of the small brick buildings of the surrounding city. On the outside, it looks like a giant spaceship ready to take off, perhaps more what you'd expect for an airport. The inside evokes a soaring cathedral.

With a few hours to spare before my return train, I hopped in a cab to visit the Grand Curtius, which re-opened about a year ago after a 50 million euro redevelopment. The building is an imposing red brick and stone structure overlooking the Meuse River, built in the early 1600s as a private mansion for Jean Curtius, industrialist and munitions supplier to the Spanish army. I was delighted to find beautifully designed gallery spaces with interesting archeology, weaponry, decorative art and religious art collections, most with informative descriptions in English.

On the ride back to the station, we passed a beautiful sculpture of a diver soaring over the river.

Definitely a worthwhile day trip!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Not Quite Ready for Prime Time, Apparently

From today's Weekend Edition National Public Radio program in the U.S.

"Close your eyes and imagine a perfect vacation. Where you would choose to go if money, distance and time were no limitation? Paris and/or Provence? Rio or Hong Kong? The peaks of New Zealand? Or the pastas, porcinis and vinos of Tuscany? A recent poll says you'd go to Canada. An online survey of people in 20 countries shows that Canada is the place most people would choose to visit if Loonies — were no limitation. Host Scott Simon speaks with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Michael Enright about the new study."

At last! The recognition we deserve! Surely listeners from around the world will come and spend their tourist dollars in Canada this summer!

But wait a minute. What's Michael Enright's first comment upon hearing the news about Canada's standing in this poll? Laughing, he says "my first reaction, being a Canadian of course, is I have to apologize to all the other countries. You see, that's part of our national charater, so I'm really sorry to those folks. "

He goes on to describe "the perfect week in Canada." On Ontario? "Hmm, if you like fishing and hunting and shooting and killing small animals, I suppose Ontario is ok. Toronto is the most multicultural city in the world, the food is varied and interesting." About BC? "Now BC is very interesting because the people who live there know that they've got it made, and they have probably the most beautiful geography in the country, and they never stop talking about it, but they don't tell you about the rain and as you know, it rains all the time." No mention at all of the Canadian rockies. He mainly praised Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island, but even there "you set the clock half an hour ahead, 1956."

I should have known better. The story's headline on the NPR website reads, "Your Top Vacation Spot? Canada, Apparently."

Saturday, May 23, 2009

If You Have To Say It... What Does It Say?

As Toronto celebrates its 175th year, I'm detecting a bit of a shift in the rhetoric about its standing as a city from an odd combination of self-conscious insecurity and righteous indignation, to the realization that, by jove, we are terrific and we shouldn't apologize for it.

Exhibit D*, from an article about the local literary scene in the Official Guide to Doors Open Toronto (which is celebrating its 10th year and a wonderful way to experience the city - more on that later):

"In the greater scheme of things, Toronto is still a bit of an adolescent. But the confidence that our writers now have to set their work in Toronto and to find their inspiration in Toronto speaks to a city that's coming of age, wanting to be real, not trying to be a Paris or London or New York or wherever." Jane French, Project Manager, Doors Open Toronto

"In the past, we've had this compulsion to compare ourselves to other cities - to say that literature matters if it comes from New York or Chicago or Mumbai or London or Dublin, but if it comes from Toronto it's provincial and parochial and doesn't matter as much. That's been part of the problem. What's changed is that we've started measuring the city against its own merits." Amy Lavender Harris, Geography Professor, York University

*This exhibit business began in my April 9 post:

Friday, May 15, 2009

And the Winner is...

A few weeks ago, I threw out the challenge: "I'm anxiously waiting for the day when an article in a popular media outlet boldy praises Toronto without apologizing, looking backwards or making comparisons."

And the winner is... The New York Times. In a travel article on Toronto, posted today but dated for Sunday's issue:

My favourite line is about the Frank Gehry-designed renovation of the AGO: "It’s a stunning homecoming for an architect credited with helping other cities flourish, not that Toronto needs a hand."

There's a pretty nice slideshow too (can you guess the location of the photo above?)