Friday, December 5, 2008


I suppose all cities obsess over their latest architectural additions, but I'd have to say that Toronto goes above and beyond other places I've lived. In Seattle, there was certainly a lot of excitement over Frank Gehry's Experience Music Project in 2000 and Rem Koolhaas' Central Public Library in 2004, not to mention the boost in civic pride when the New York Times architecture critic gave each a big thumbs up -- but the city soon moved on. Not so Toronto. Raging debates continue about the Royal Ontario Museum's multi-million dollar makeover last year (from "it's an inspired juxtaposition of old and new" to "what the hell were they thinking?"), with my take on it being "it's a great building, but lousy gallery space." And now the much-anticipated re-opening of a revamped, Frank Gehry-designed Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO).

I have to admit, Gehry's stock as a starchitect fell drastically after we visited his winery in Spain, which seems less about designing a building and more about affixing a wild metal sculpture onto a simple structure. And though I absolutely adore the Disney Performing Arts Center he created for Los Angeles (not to mention the acoustics), I can't help but think of the poor people living in the apartments across the street who have to deal with the glare and soaring temperatures resulting from the reflections off the building's chrome exterior.

But his AGO is something entirely different altogether!

The best view of the building must be from above at a bit of a distance. At street level, it's hard to take in its full effect. But its sweeping lattice grabs your attention and beckons you inside, where the real drama of this building lies. The douglas fir, the natural light and the views from the hallways and spiral staircase, all conspire to create a comfortable and welcoming space that's ideal for experiencing art.

With all due respect to the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson, I'm not sure the collection warrants the $18 admission fee. Luckily we somehow managed to find the guest passes our real estate agent gave us back in July 2007 when the AGO closed for the renovations, but there's always the option of getting in for free on Wed evenings. On second thought, with the 10% member discount in the gift shop (which has some of the most interesting ceramics and jewelry I've seen in this city), maybe we'll just join instead!
317 Dundas W

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Napa in the Making?

Well, maybe that's going a little too far. But the wine region around Neuquén, Argentina more than satisfied our wanderlust (not to mention our palates) for two days while our husbands were working all day. With the help of the hotel staff, we were on our way in a car with a guide within two hours of asking how we could get out to the three wineries that give public tours. Victoria not only spoke English well, she worked for three years at one of the wineries, teaches wine tasting courses and is studying to be a sommelier!

On our daily jaunts to the wine region, we zipped passed Southwestern U.S.-looking terrain, groves of apple trees and rambleshack parillas. We criss-crossed the Neuquén river between Neuquén and Rio Negro provinces. We tasted Parker-esque malbecs, merlots, cabs and pinots at three wineries with high production values and restaurants with floor-to-ceiling windows of vineyards.

Our first stop on day 1 was NQN winery ( where after a quick tour and wine tasting, we had a leisurely lunch. JM, a vegetarian traveler in one of the more carnivorous countries in the world, was particularly impressed with her salad ("a very flavorful and light salad, with green beans and corn."). My grilled pork with sweet potatoes and apple chutney was comfort food at its best. The post-meal cortado (a shot of espresso with steamed milk) helped to prevent napping on the way to our next stop, Bodega Fin del Mundo (literally, the end of the world). (

On day 2, we took a different route across the Neuquén River, where we stopped to snap photos of the bridge, the deep blue water and three dogs napping nearby.

The final stop on our tour, Bodega Familias Schroeder ( had the least interesting wines but gorgeous landscaping (sweet-smelling lavender, palm trees, park benches) and an amazing restaurant that would have made Ferran Adrià proud, with his goal
"to provoke, surprise and delight the diner." (

The chef at Saurus (named for the dinosaurs discovered under the building a few years back) pulled out all the stops for his only diners that day. To start, an amuse bouche of fruit ravioli with blueberry foam:

An appetizer of beet carpaccio with arugula, parmesan, berries and hazelnuts:
Entrees to satisfy meat-lovers and vegetarians alike (though a bit heavy on the carbs... yes, that's bacon-wrapped grilled chicken with mashed sweet potatoes and roasted potatoes on the side!).

And for dessert... white chocolate soup with floating chunks of pound cake and a dusting of dark chocolate!

The only thing missing was other people. Granted we visited on weekdays, but I have a feeling weekends are just as empty. Tourism is just beginning to creep into the region, and with the nearest major town a 45 minute drive away with not much in between, it unfortunately may be a long time in coming.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Not Your Usual College Town Cuisine

I've figured out a routine that works quite well when I'm on quickie business trips to less than top-tier destinations - as in my visit to Madison, Wisconsin this week!

*Book a room in a centrally located hotel.

*Check out the alternative weekly paper a few days before arriving - search for the best restaurants, coffee houses, wine stores, galleries and museums (if they don't have such a paper, reconsider the trip).

*Jot the top contenders in your little black moleskine book, google map them in relation to your hotel and be totally psyched to discover most are within walking distance.

*Arrive as early as possible on the day before the work begins.

*Buy the latest issue of the city's monthly magazine on your way out of the airport (if they don't have such a magazine, lower your expectations but remain cautiously optimistic).

*Review the information you've gathered and look for arrows pointing in the same direction. As in: the "chef of the year" on the cover of Madison Magazine was recently given an award by the James Beard Foundation and highlighted by the New York Times Magazine as Madison's "must visit restaurant." Hmm...where to have dinner?

*Give the impression that you're a reviewer from out-of-town without actually saying so. While ordering an espresso macchiato after lunch at the cafe connected to what Gourmet Magazine rates as being one of the best "farm-to-table" restaurants in the country, I casually mentioned that I was doing a taste test of espresso around town. Soon enough, the barista (a cute college kid) came over to regale me with stories of how they use fresh roasted fair trade beans and local milk from grass-fed cows, and how I can try the same coffee with milk from a different dairy farm a few doors up the street. Oh, and a delicious drink with foam art in the shape of an apple, stem and leaf!

*Enter stores with a clear mission, as in: "I've read about your artisanal cheeses and I'm here to buy a 1/4 pound of four varieties that will travel well back with me to Toronto. What do you have for me to taste?" and "I'm looking for wines I can't get back in Toronto - you know, they have government-run liquor stores there and the selection isn't great."

Places I'd go back to in a heart beat:

Cafe Soleil - the casual lunch spot of the famed L'Etoile Restaurant that's been serving up "seasonal menus...inspired by the artisans and small sustainable farms of the Midwest and... rendered with a French technique" since 1976. My $20 lunch was more than memorable: a cup of roasted cauliflower soup with bits of chorizo sprinkled on top with a drizzle of garlic olive oil and the market salad: local greens, pear, fennel, red onion, blue paradise cheese, pecans and creamy lemon-garlic vinaigrette, with slices of grilled chicken on the side. Oh, and the above-mentioned macchiato!

25 N Pinckney St, (608) 251-0500,

Fromagination - a beautifully presented shop that has a "passion for spectacular artisan, specialty and organic cheeses." With the help of the knowledgeable man behind the counter, I sampled and smuggled back 4 cheeses that I don't think usually make it out of state. The descriptions (corrected for spelling) are theirs, but having just had a cheese plate for dinner with a couple of glasses of 2005 Tait Basket-Pressed Shiraz, I wouldn't argue with them:

Dante by WI Sheep Dairy Cooperative - a firm cheese made with sheep's milk from flocks in WI and nearby states; flavour is pleasantly sheepy, buttery and nutty.

Bandaged cheddar by Bleu Mont Diary - a hard British farmhouse-style cheddar, cloth-bound and cave-aged with big flavour and good balance.

Farmstead gouda by Holland's Family Farm - a hard traditional farmstead gouda made by a Dutch cheesemaker with WI cow's milk, with a sweet carmelized flavour (my favourite of the lot, with its crumbly, crystalline texture)

Pleasant ridge reserve by Uplands Cheese -a hard, handmade Alpine-style raw milk cheese, only made when the cows are grazing on pasture, with nutty and subtle floral notes.

12 S Carroll, (608) 255-2430,

Fair Trade Coffeehouse is the perfect place to re-caffeinate, check email and transport yourself back to college. I wasn't able to report back to nodrog on the make and model of their grinder and espresso machine (I have got to remember to get that stuff down), but my latte was damn good!

418 State Street, (608) 268-0477,

Harvest Restaurant, two doors down from L'Etoile, received all the accolades noted above for its "menu enhanced by seasonal locally-grown, and organic ingredients." (See, I'm telling you... this is a foodie town!). The meal easily made up for the so-so service (long waits to order and between courses; a substitution request apparently denied), and were we really in a rush to get back to watch Obama and McCain rail into each other anyway?

Amuse bouche: Little white tureens of gazpacho (with a peppery kick)
Appetizers: Slow Roasted Beets,Toasted Hazelnuts, Ader Kase Reserve Blue Cheese, Hazelnut Vinaigrette ($8) & Salad of Field Greens, Herbs, Winter Vegetables, Sherry Walnut Vinaigrette ($6).

Entrees: A special of braised short ribs served on polenta ($27) & Porcini Salt Rubbed Angus Tenderloin, Spinach, Roasted Fingerling Potatoes (missing but not substituted in my case), Porcini Mustard (36).

The total came to $50/person, each with appetizer, entree and non-alcoholic beverage (they had a reasonably priced and interesting wine list, including nearly a dozen half-bottles, but we had to be up early...).

21 N Pinckney St, (608) 255-6075,

The Gift Shop at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (yeah, that's right - I don't actually recommend the museum itself, which should more appropriately be called "two small rooms of mediocre art"). The shop has a remarkable collection of jewelry, handbags, scarves, and crafts, many by Wisconsin artists. Kristin Lewis' Yofi scarves, "triple layer chiffon" are must-haves.

227 State Street, (608) 257-0158,

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Toronto or Amsterdam?

We ventured out at 10 pm last night to experience Nuit Blanche, the "all night art thingy" in its third year. After pouring over the online program, printing out our top choices and marking our route on the map, we flashed our TTC day pass and headed down to City Hall for an incredible light and sound show. But it was the aroma that caught my attention, here and everywhere else we wandered...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

High Fidelity

When you have a winning formula down, why mess with it?

That's how I feel about Le Pain Quotidien, the bakery I first fell in love with on our trips to Brussels. I've since been to outlets in London, NYC and now Toronto, and they all look, feel and taste the a good way. You can always count on chatty diners seated at long communal tables made of weathered wood, artisanal breads, hearty soups and salads, frothy cafe au lait served in bowls without handles, and free wifi.

All summer long as I walked by the Toronto Reference Library, I'd glance with anticipation at the corner building across the street at Yorkville Avenue, with its large sign announcing Le Pain Quotidien's pending arrival. When I poked my head in last week to find it had finally opened, it all felt so familiar, bringing back pleasant memories of afternoons wandering along the Rue des Sablons. Before I knew it, I was sipping an iced coffee ($3) and tucking into a generously sized salad of sweet heirloom tomatoes, tangy goat's milk feta and fresh mint ($15).

I wouldn't change a thing!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Add it to the List

I have to admit, Ottawa wasn't on my list of "must visit" cities in Canada. But when an invitation to a meeting there came with all expenses paid, I decided to arrive a day early for sightseeing. I discovered a user-friendly destination with just the right mix of art, culture, food and shopping to pique my interest in returning with nodrog in the spring.

Arriving was a breeze (just under 3 hours, door to door), thanks to clear skies and flights from downtown on Porter Air. With the Canadian taxpayers footing the bill, I didn't have a choice of hotels, but the Sheraton Ottawa turned out to be more than adequate and within walking distance of everywhere I wanted to go:

First stop: ByWard Market, one of Canada's oldest and largest public markets. Easily explored on foot, the market area is about four blocks square and contains a hodge-podge of flower, fruit and vegetable stands, bookstores, boutiques, galleries, restaurants and vendors selling jewelry and souvenirs.

Uh oh - hunger pangs strike. Tempted by a sit-down seafood restaurant, I decide on a quickie lunch instead to give me more time to poke around. The Oh-Ya Cafe Plus & Mediterranean Grill in the market building fits the bill with a greek salad, spanakopita, iced tea and great people-watching from my outdoor seat.

Please, God, find me caffeine that's not Starbucks! Ask and you shall receive. The Carisse Studio Cafe at 495 Sussex Street - billed as "Ottawa's only Photography Gallery/Studio & Eurostyle Cafe" serves the real deal. I sip my extra-strength macchiato surrounded by photos of famous Canadian politicians taken by the owner's husband Jean-Marc Carisse. Don't even ask...the only one I recognize is Pierre Trudeau.

All juiced up, now I'm ready for a whirlwind tour of the National Gallery of Canada, http:/// Luckily, I caught one of the last days of The 1930s: The Making of "The New Man." 200 works of art from Europe, Russia and North America help trace the political and artistic consequences of the decade between the stock market crash of October 1929 and the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. I found myself drawn to paintings of Dalí, Picasso, Kandinsky, Ernst and Pollack, perhaps understanding them for the first time thanks to an extremely well curated exhibition and detailed audioguide. But I most enjoyed paintings by Canadian artists I had never encountered before - from Aba Bayefsky, with his haunting paintings of the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp upon its liberation by British troops, to Takao Tanabe's dreamy landscapes of British Columbia. You could easily spend a whole day here! Finally, an art museum in this country worth the price of admission! (Don't get me started on Emily Carr and the Vancouver Art Museum...)

With a quick internet search and a desire for something a little out of the ordinary, I found myself having dinner on the back patio at Sweetgrass, Ottawa's first aboriginal cuisine - where summer doesn't end on Labour Day and where a solo diner couldn't ask for better service (or a more adorable waiter). I can't comment on the authenticity of the cuisine, but the food was interesting, delicious and reasonably priced. The Wabash Rillette ($11), came with three oval mounds of rabbit pate sitting alongside a tangy and colourful relish of pickled rhubarb and cherries. The Mariposa Farm Duck Leg ($28), moist and flavoured with citrus and herbs, resembled a confit and sat atop a crunchy stir-fry mixture of wild rice and shredded peppers, onions, bok choy, basil and mushrooms. 108 Murray Street,

Time to contribute to the local economy. I hook up with a friend who's in town for the same meeting and we're on a mission: shoes. The Rideau Centre, your basic urban shopping mall, turns out to be well heeled, An hour later, we emerge with two pairs each but craving funky boutiques that aren't chain stores. Frou Frou at 11A William Street, totally satisfies.

We arrive at Murray Street Kitchen Wine & Charcuterie exactly an hour before our reservation, hoping they'll seat us and they can. It's no coincidence that we're next door to Sweetgrass - I scoped the menu out the night before!
We started out with cocktails ($8.50 each): The Q-Cumber (cucumber, watermelon, lime, Hendricks gin, and triple sec) and the Pear-Lip (golden pear, peach vodka, & fresh grapefruit juice with mint). So far, so good! Next up: "2 meats and 3 cheeses for $25", served on a wood cutting board with bread chips, olives, pickles, and three jellies: berry, pepper and pear. The venison-hazelnut terrine, white bean & garlic pate, and soft, hard and blue cheeses came in generous portions and were incredibly tasty. I can't for the life of me recall the names of the cheeses - even with the prompt of the online menu! (Recommendation: send diners out the door with a custom print-out of what they ate).

Moving right along, we shared two small plate salads that complemented each other nicely: The tuna salad ($14) - lightly smoked BC Albacore tuna, flash grilled cherry tomatoes, Ferme Floralpe goats cheese, tempura of Spicolli’s green beans, field cucumber “noodles” fresh marjoram vinaigrette and olives and the beet salad ($9) - roast baby red beets, pickled baby golden beets, fresh herbs, spiced pecans, Brent Halsall’s honey & Monforte sheep’s yogurt. Please open an outpost in Toronto! The meal would have been a steal had we not ordered a bottle of Condundrum from Sonoma Valley at $67 - an astonishing mark-up of 120% over the LCBO asking price! (I had no idea)

Friday, August 15, 2008

Trip of a Lifetime

We had an amazing time in Kenya. Some highlights included:

*Getting up close to zebras and wildebeest as we walked through the Loita Hills with a Masai warrior leading the way

*Seeing a little head pop out of the tall grass in the Masai Mara and driving up to find a whole family of lions (male, two females and five little cubs)

*Crossing the crocodile-filled Galana River in barefeet, with a guy carrying a gun at the front of the line and one carrying a spear at the back (and praying they'd have no need to use them)

*Watching hundreds of wildebeest and zebra crossing the Galana River until one of them fell prey to a hungry crocodile and the whole action abruptly stopped

*Swimming in the Indian Ocean off the coast of the island of Lamu

*Meeting so many people who were excited about the possibility of a "Kenyan President" in the US and happy to receive one of the Obama stickers we brought with us!

View pictures from the trip at

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Second Time's A Charm

Our second trip to Montréal - this time with friends visiting from Brazil - revealed many new charms (see the top 10 list from our first visit at

Not surprisingly, food was once again a highlight of the trip:

La Brioche Lyonnaise, 1593 Saint-Denis, - this calm oasis in the bustling Quartier Latin, a few steps below street level, serves delicious soups, salads, paninis, quiches and crepes in generous portions. Creamy tomato soup and a grilled chicken salad, ringed with cucumbers, tomatoes and olives and topped with a lemon vinaigrette, more than satisfied my craving for a bite to eat for lunch. A double latte proved essential to an afternoon of sightseeing in Vieux-Montréal. (about $15 per person).

We had dinner our first night at La Colombe, one of the many delightful "BYOB" bistros that make eating in this city affordable and fun. Located along restaurant row on Rue Duluth Est (554 to be exact), this cozy spot offered a $42 table d'hote with a choice of seven entrees that all sounded incredible. After a creamy vegetable "soupe du jour" and a terrine of deer with cranberries, we quickly discovered that the sauces are what distinguish this kitchen. A slightly tart raspberry vinegar sauce was a perfect match for my tender filet of lamb. A delicious wild mushroom sauce accompanied the veal chop. The fig and port glaze that enricled the duck breast was pleasantly sticky and sweet. Only the pork filet's cloying pineapple and honey sauce failed to win our affection. We toasted Colin in absentia for the bottle of wine we packed in our suitcase and now filled our glasses: the 2003 Quilceda Creek Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, rated a perfect score by Robert Parker and rated #2 wine of the year in 2006 by the Wine Spectator The wine was exceptional, with its deep plum nose, tastes of blackberry and chocolate, and long finish. The Osoyoos-Larose bordeaux blend, the result of a joint venture between Vincor Canada and Bordeaux’s Groupe Taillan, was too tannic but opened up as the evening went on and proved quite drinkable. We were divided on which dessert to try, with half ordering the panna cotta with vanilla and passion fruit, and half asserting that chocolate, in the form of a marquise au chocolat, is the only legitimate way to end a meal.

Lunch on our second day was an impromptu picnic courtesy of the vendors at the Atwater Market ( The spread included: Three pates - pheasant with raisins, duck with calvados, and ostrich with pistachios. Four cheeses - one mild blue, one medium blue, and two soft runny varieties. Salami with mustard seeds. Two loaves of bread and a box of whole wheat A medley of olives, roasted red peppers, sundried tomatoes, grilled artichokes and marinated mushrooms. A fruit potpourri - strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries and cherries. A screw-top bottle of cheap white wine, hard cider, and Perrier. And tiny squares of caramel with fleur de sel from Chocolates Genevieve Grandbois - enough for one for each of us! After a feast like that, it's a good thing our dinner reservations weren't until 9:30 that night...

We arrived at Joe Beef (2491 Rue Notre-Dame Ouest, about 45 minutes early, intending to have a drink first at the McKiernan wine bar next door (2485). With the wine bar closed for a private party, we found the Liverpool House (2501) a suitable substitute. Three black cherry bellinis, champage and a Bloody Mary later, after a snafu that left us waiting thirty minutes after our reservation time for a table, we found ourselves sitting around a booth at Joe Beef, straining our eyes to see the handwritten menu on the chalkboard before us. My lobster bisque had chunks of seafood swimming in a delicious broth that packed a delayed and delightful pepper punch. Four of the five of us ordered the braised lamb shank to share, prepared just as I like it, tender meat falling gently from the bone. A side order of frites - brown and crunchy on the outside, fluffy on the inside, and sprinkled with salt, rosemary and garlic - were addictive.

On our third day, we found ourselves at Jean-Talon Market ( just in time for lunch. We got revved up on espresso macchiatos at Brûlerie aux quatre vents and then went carb-crazy with two nutella crêpes at Crêperie du Marche (one with strawberry, the other banana) and crunchy frites from Frites Alor, served in a paper cone with three dipping sauces: Américaine (mayo, paprika, garlic, shallots, onions, and harissa); Pistou rosé (mayo, basilic, dried tomatoes, pine nuts, and garlic) and my personal favourite, Limette (mayo, lime, and black pepper). A few sample slices of juicy nectarines and peaches on our way out, and it was nap time!

We perhaps saved our best meal for last at Au Pied de Cochon (526 rue Duluth Est, Nodrog hit the nail on the head when he compared the servers here to the glassblowers at Chihuly's studio. There's the physical comparison (these guys are cute and buff!) but more importantly the reverence and respect for the chef and the food. Our questions were answered in loving detail, especially our request for a run-down of the 8 foie gras choices. We settled on the foie gras poutine (a PDC classic, at left) and the Ploque a Champlain, an incredibly rich combination that includes the star ingredient atop a blini with egg, bacon and maple syrup. In a remarkable show of restraint that paid off by leaving us satisfied but not stuffed, we split everything among the 4 of us: two blue cheese, apple and endive salads ($8.50 each), the two foie gras dishes ($23 and $25), the duck in a can ($36), the confit lamb shank ($26), and Pudding Chômeur ($7), a gooey sweet bread pudding with maple syrup. Cardiology consult, please!

As for sightseeing, we discovered a few more ways to entertain ourselves during the day:
*Rent bikes and take a ride to the top of Mont Royal for a panoramic view of the city

*Take a leisurely stroll around the Botanical Gardens

*Window shop along Saint-Denis

Our budget hotel, Auberge Le jardin d'Antoine, was ideally situated in the heart of the Quartier Latin, at 2024 rue Saint-Denis ( The $118 a night rate ($108 with a CAA/AAA membership card) included a carb-heavy breakfast including fresh St. Viateur bagels and pretty decent coffee. Next time, I'd splurge for a larger room, though. It was pretty cramped for two, especially in the bathroom!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

More Than You'd Expect, Part II

In my second installment on Milwaukee after another visit there this weekend, I must say the city continues to impress.

I discovered a few new spots in the Third Ward. After getting caffeinated at Alterra and contributing to the local economy next door at the Barclay Gallery (sadly, they're having a 50% going out of business sale at the moment), I wandered a bit north to check out the Milwaukee Public Market at 400 N. Water Street. The Market has a little something for everyone, with shops for artisanal bread, fresh roasted coffee, flowers, cheese, sausages, fruits & vegetables, fish, spices, and specialty foods from Mexico and the Mediterranean. I did a little damage at Sheridan's Finest Wines & Generous Spirits (2 bottles of Oregon pinot noir, if you must know...)

Around the corner at 316 N. Milwaukee Street, the Coquette Cafe proved a delightful spot for dinner. The French onion soup with melted gruyere cheese satisfied my craving for comfort food ($5.75). Field greens with Dijon vinaigrette ($5.50) was a light and simple palate cleanser before tucking into the pan-seared wild halibut with arugula, black olives, toasted walnut salad and grapefruit vinaigrette ($19.95). I must admit I was a bit skeptical about ordering fish in one of the country's carnivore capitals, but it was served blissfully medium-rare.

On our last night, we walked from our downtown hotel to the waterfront to admire the scenic views and the Santiago Calatrava-designed Milwaukee Art Museum. Unable to figure out how to crash the private party going on inside, we took to the streets in search of a place for dinner and stumbled upon Alem Ethiopian Village at 307 E. Wisconsin Avenue. Open just 4 months, the city's 2nd Ethiopian restaurant serves up the usual fare of tibs (meat cubes sauteed in various sauces) and wots (stews) in generous portion sizes. I ordered the tibs sampler for one ($17.75) and had to check the bill to make sure they hadn't brought me the version for 2 my mistake!

As I browsed the news stand in the airport waiting for my flight home, I noticed a cover story on the city's 25 best restaurants in this month's issue of Milwaukee Magazine. I bought a copy and tucked it into my'll come in handy for my next trip!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Rock 'n Roll

In an impressive display of brand loyalty, RT ate at Shizen Sushi three times during our 4-day stay in Victoria, BC. Apparently, the Highlander Roll has addictive qualities. Not to be seen on the menu and ordered only by regulars in hushed tones, the roll is truly one-of-a-kind (just try googling it): Lining the center: tempura shrimp, avocado and ginger. On the outside: a wrapping of thinly sliced rare beef, topped with hoisin, tabasco sauce, honey and chopped spring onion. In Toronto I eat sushi once a week at least and have never had anything like it. Spicy and sweet...I'm thinking beer sales go through the roof on this one! Also not to be missed: the asparagus tempura roll.

Shizen Sushi
1706 Government St, Victoria, BC

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Leslieville Hotspot

Nothing special outside - feeding frenzy inside

Be prepared to shout when you have dinner at Tomi-Kro on a Saturday night. When the place is packed, the servers are swirling and the percussion is pumping, it can be awfully loud! But once the food starts to arrive and you settle in for some serious eating, you quickly realize why this place is on fire: the kitchen knows what it's doing!

As four adventurous eaters with no food allergies or issues, we ordered a range of dishes to share:
*Peppercorn teriyaki striploin with tempura onion frittes (the peppery meat was seared and served in thin strips alongside a mount of frittes that should also be a side order option on their own...)
*Miami ribs with a soy, honey and ginger-chili glaze (the hit of the evening, the meat was "fall off the bone" tender and the sticky glaze nailed the right balance of hot and sweet).
*Roasted beets with chevre, balsamic vinegar and pistachio (an homage to Jean-Georges's much-loved goat cheese royale, roasted beet marmalade and toasted crushed pistachios?)
*Butter chicken with raita and chili chick peas (the chicken was overdone a tad and could have used a bit more sauce...)
*Sweet chili shrimp, with roasted pineapple and rice noodles (a
*Edamame, with butter and sea salt (served already peeled, this was the one dish we could have been fine without)
*Tempura lobster maki balls (another hit, these perfectly round balls of juicy lobster and rice are best dipped in soy sauce and eaten right away while they're hot and crunchy!).
*Asian greenery with vegetarian oyster sauce (sounds bland but they were an ideal match for the bold, flavour-forward dishes we ordered).

Note to foie gras lovers: there were several options on the menu we didn't end up ordering but which looked pretty amazing:
*Foie gras creme brulee with lingone berry jam and red onion pickle
*Seared scallops with wilted spinach and mushroom foie gras jus

It would easy to simply characterize Tomi-Kro as a pan-Asian or fusion tapas joint, but those wouldn't do the menu and its execution justice. Rest your voice and come ready for a great meal inspired by the cuisines of Japan, China, India, Thailand, Greece, France and Italy.

$260 for four, including a bottle of wine, two scotches and two decaf espressos
1214 Queen East @ Leslie St.
Tel. 416-463-6677

Friday, February 22, 2008

Crystal as Restaurant? Thumbs Up!

As Gallery Space? Not So Much...

Walking up Bloor to the Royal Ontario Museum this evening, the Michael Lee-Chin crystal was an impressive sight. Without a doubt the best time to see it: gleaming in the moon-lit sky.

Friday evenings are a hoot at the ROM. Open til 9:30 pm with half-price tickets, the place is abuzz with families of toddlers greeting dinosaurs with glee, bands of self-obsessed tweens, and young couples smooching in the dark corners of the crystal. Not a bad spot for illicit behaviour - but possibly one of the worst gallery spaces I've ever seen. The harsh angles make crazy shaped corners that serve no functional purpose. Vertical display cases clash with the triangular walls, distracting from what is an impressive collection. Even more disappointing - considering the serious financial investment backing it up - are the many dings and cracks and amateur painting evident on second glance. If I were a family member of any of the donors who's names appear on the gallery walls, I'd demand a refund or a serious re-design!

Enough said.

c5, on the other hand - the restaurant on the top floor of the crystal - couldn't have found a more perfect home. With the lights twinkling from nearby buildings casting a romantic glow on the dining room, we took our seats and settled in for the 2-hour extravaganza.

Our main purpose in heading to the ROM was to sample and vote on the 3 contenders for c5's signature cocktail, the ROMtini - so we began with a flight of "weeny-tinis." Each had a distinctive ingredient added to the Grey Goose vodka: vanilla, hypnotique (a berry liquer), and prosecco. The first was ruled out right away because of it's medicinal after-taste. I voted for #2 (it's Cosmo-like flavour and blue hue won me over) and nodrog went with #3. The result of the vote will be announced on February 29th!

An amuse-bouche of perfectly grilled squid accompanied by "yucca charcoal" arrived as we sipped our cocktails. I'm not sure how the yucca was prepared but its smoky flavour made the dish a memorable one.

We had no trouble deciding what to order - there were a number of inviting choices, but several stood out as "no brainers":

*For me: The $65 prix-fixe bar menu (a new offering at the ROM): braised beef ribs with foie gras and wild mushroom tartlet, seared duck in a port reduction with barley and a dessert I'll describe below. A "glass and a half" of shiraz complemented both dishes well (an interesting wine menu option I've never seen before).

*For nodrog: Quail and foie gras, beef and sweetbreads (and half of my dessert!), accompanied by a "glass and a half" of gewurtz and shiraz.

Everything came beautifully presented and skillfully prepared, although the portion sizes were anemic for the prices ($25-40/dish). We both agreed the highlight of the meal was the sweetbreads with their nutty flavour and cracklin' texture. Especially for me, who never orders them and mistakenly thought I wouldn't like them.

The dessert - a light way to end the meal - was creatively laid out on a huge white plate: dollops of fluffy goat cheese cheesecake, each speared with a ginger snap (were they really shaped like dinos or were we just drunk?), with a small bowl of grape granite.

Our only complaint about c5: the harsh lighting of the open kitchen means that half the dining room is way too bright (we asked to be re-seated to the other half because of it). A frosted glass enclosure would still allow diners to view the kitchen activities.

ROM members note: don't forget to ask for your 10% member discount like we almost did!

$230 for two, including about $80 for alchohol (what can I say? it was a stressful week)
Our ROM member discount saved us 20 bucks
c5 at the ROM

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Bulldog Barista is Anything But

Contrary to what you might think, wikipedia indicates that "the temperament of the Bulldog is generally docile, friendly and gregarious."

Not judging by the behaviour of the Bulldog Coffee barista on the morning of our visit!

*Our friendly banter while ordering was greeted with a scowl.

*When we asked what the place looked like before a major make-over, he mumbled, "You'll have to watch the [TV] show to find out."

*When my friend switched the chairs around to get one with a cushion, the barista barked at him even after explaining he had a bad back. "This place is my home," he growled.

*As we got up to leave, we thanked him for the excellent espresso and when my friend tried to shake his hand, he pulled back and said "After years in the food service business, I never shake a customer's hand."

*As we headed out, his angry stare revealed his displeasure with the new seating arrangement, so we quickly moved the chairs back to their original location before zipping out the door.

The saddest part about it all? My double macchiato was the best I've had yet in Toronto! Smooth, smoky, chocolatey and delicious on its own - no sweetener needed. Will I go back? Probably - but next time, I'll order it to go!

Bulldog Coffee
89 Granby Street

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Chocolate Messenger

Yes, that's right - "same day delivery in GTA (if ordered before noon)."

And we're talking chocolate that rivals the quality at SOMA, which for many involves a schlep to the Distillery District. The truffle flavours are delicious (not too sweet) and the colours whimsical. My personal favourites are pistachio and strawberry:

Chocoholics rejoice!

1645 Bayview Avenue (south of Eglinton at Fleming)
Tel:(416) 488 1414

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Mad Search for Berbere

It seemed easy enough to find berbere, the essential spice for our Ethiopian dinner. I'd checked out the Ethiopian Spice Market in Kensington Market in preparation for just such an occasion, delighted to find not only berbere but many of the other ingredients we'd need (turmeric, cardamom, freshly made injera). But alas, on the day I actually needed it, they were sold out. The reason, I was told? An unexpected boost in sales since the last shipment arrived. Apparently they hadn't calculated that with the popularity of Ethiopian food, non-Africans like nodrog would try to make it at home.

What to do?

I quickly moved into "problem solving" mode and started dialing Ethiopian restaurants. "Do you have any berbere?" I asked. Would you sell some to me?" Success on the first try - the woman who answered the phone at Dukem told me she'd set some aside and I could pick it up that evening.

When I walked into the restaurant, I discovered a candle-lit oasis from the hustle and bustle of the Danforth. The woman was nowhere to be found, but her husband seemed familiar with my request and told me he'd sell me some. It felt like a clandestine drug deal, as he handed over a plastic baggy with the bright red powder and I handed over my $10. Within seconds, I was out the door, the goods stashed in my handbag, and boarding the TTC at Donlands.

It all seemed to have gone off without hitch - until nodrog tested a dish with the stuff. "It's been cut with too much salt," he exclaimed, as he sampled a sauce that looked and smelled just right but was way too salty to eat. Back to square one - what to do now?

Well, it turns out that the Ethiopian Spice Market isn't the only place to buy berbere in Kensington Market. Just around the corner, I found dozens of packets of the stuff at the House of Spice...

Crisis averted!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

"Can't Get a Meal Like this in a Restaurant"...

...Dad would say looking at the home-cooked meal set across our dining room table. He was probably right, considering it was pretty much a suburban wasteland for eating out where we grew up!

Fast forward to my life now in Toronto, as food-obsessed a city as I've ever eaten in (a list that includes NYC, San Francisco, Sydney, Barcelona, Paris, Lyon, Bologna...) and his remark seems rather naive. Well, that is until Rob and nodrog go at it in the kitchen...

The purported premise of the evening was "a celebration of our wives" which I'm not sure I deserved but I happily played along as if I did! Weeks in the planning and days in the making, it was truly a labour of love that paid off beautifully in an homage to Jean-George and Thomas Keller. When you tally up the number of bottles of wine we went through, you'll see there's no way I could have recounted each dish here were it not for the printed menu we were given to take home as a souvenir! Following in the tradition started by Craig Claiborne, we signed each other's menus with reflections on the dinner. Marg summed it up best when she wrote, "I'm thinking that the chefs need to give up their day jobs."

Smoked wild salmon with creme frache and caviar (a tiny wedge of lemon burst onto the scene as a surprise ingredient - the first hint of the whimsical delights to come) & Louis Rodere Brut 2000.

Foie gras on brioche with roasted strawberry and balsamic fig glaze(blow-torching the glaze on top into a brulee was a genius maneuver!) & Chateau d'Yquem, 1983 (yeah, you read that right...all I can say is that urologists have way more grateful and gift-giving patients than critical care docs do)
Pan-seared wild Alaskan black cod in Asian-style consomme (the smooth & succulent fish swimming in crystal clear broth made in a most unconvential manner: & Zind-Humbrecht, Pinot Gris, 2005 (a pleasant budget surprise from the LCBO)
Braised lamb shank served with baby spinach and cannellini bean puree with roasted garlic and black truffle (savouring every bite, my mind can lamb possibly be this tender? how can I rent a villa in Italy during truffle season and write it off as a business expense?) & Chateau Margaux, 1983 (ditto my comment above about urologists...tonight's wine pairing is just over the top!)

Goat cheese panna cotta with roasted beet marmalade and pistachios (served in a glass in horizontal layers, one spoonful down and up reveals a heavenly mix of flavours and textures - how does nodrog do it without a recipe, relying only on a "taste memory"?).

Coffee and assorted SOMA chocolates (because it's not dessert without chocolate).

And yes, even the new puppy is pampered tonight. For Miles, a course of Purina Pro-Plan Kibble paired with the finest tap water in the GTA, vintage 2008!