Cultureguru's Weblog

Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


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Holidays

The Timmins evacuees arrived and departed in waves: first to get there were Jean and I, the evening of December 22; then my older sister, Joanne, followed shortly by my younger sister Michelle and her family, on December 24. Boxing Day was the first departure, by Jo; then Jean and I drove back on December 27; then Michelle’s family flew back the following day. Some small departure delays due to weather and a bit of a close call getting through the very crowded luggage drop-off at Pearson were the extent of the travel issues.

The influx of people made gave my Dad some stress in keeping us all fed and finding everyone a place to sleep, but it all worked out. It helps that Dad’s a very good cook, and yes, we all pitched in with grocery shopping, baking, food prepping, and cleaning up. Michelle and Jackson kindly volunteered to sleep on couches the two busiest nights, so no one had to check into a hotel.

Big Guy!

Even Santa was helping with the food

The 23rd we had a great visit with our Timmins friends (all two!) and Christmas Eve offered a succession of family Réveillons.

Only the Kid's can get this exited about Christmas

Lefebvre great-nieces excited for Santa

Santa!

Père Noël appreciates the adulation

The little gift exchange theme this year was “ornaments”. Jean’s made the biggest splash: He Etsy’d his own ornaments starting with old photos of his siblings, converted into luggage tags then ribbon’ed by hand. My contribution of ornaments made by Peruvian artisans landed well with Jean’s sister, who had just returned from a trip there. Jean ended up with these rather cool bird ones.

The facets' of Christmas!

New ornaments for our tree

Christmas morning at McNair’s we did the stealing game again. This was after much email discussion, during which we’d decided that each person would get an age-appropriate gift. Of course, the kids don’t really do their own shopping for this.

My brother, for whom there is time like the last minute, was copied on all emails but didn’t really dig into them until about Christmas Eve, when he was off to do his shopping. He checked with Michelle: “I have to buy gifts for my own kids?” he asked. “Really?”

Yes, really.

This didn’t really work out with Sarah-Simone, though, who—even after “her” present was available—simply couldn’t resist going to the pile of presents to try again after some adult  kindly “stole” the present she had. Even though, as she pointed out, most of the presents “sucked” for a 10-year-old.

Her package :)

Another gift not entirely suitable to its recipient…

Things eventually got sorted through final trades.

The Stealing Game :)

Or in my case, earlier, by stealing this fine wine collection from my brother

Jean ended up with the item I had contributed, a coffee infuser. It’s not fast, but it does make a nice smooth brew!

We also got out for some snow shoeing on this gorgeous winter day.

Winter Wonderland!

Jean and my brother-in-law went again on the less-pleasant Boxing Day, coming back with a harvest of chaga tea (which looks like dirt mounds, but you clean it and brew it and it’s apparently full of anti-oxidants. Pretty mild-tasting.)

Slaying the dragon and making off with the Chaga!

Slaying the dragon

The days between Christmas and New Year’s, Jean worked while I sat around and ate bonbons.

Not really. (Well, maybe a few bonbons.)

New Year’s Eve, we returned to The Berlin, one year after first going, for their four-course dinner. City buses are free that night, so we decided to travel that way. We did the whole route-planning thing on the transit website, and found the perfect trip. As long as all buses were exactly on time.

However, the first one was three minutes late, meaning we missed our transfer by about two minutes. And faced a 28-minute wait, 30 minutes before our reservation.

Fortunately, seeing our expression, the bus driver asked where we wanted to go, then helped us get there. Her route had another stop with a downtown connection. We had very little wait for that bus, and we were arrived at the restaurant just five minutes late, so all good.

New Year's Eve Menu

We sat in view of the kitchen for the first time, which was pretty interesting. (And not only because chef Jonathan Gushu is kind of a babe.)

The Kitchen Crew

It was busy night there, of course, but everything we had was just delicious, and the wine pairings were creative and uniformly excellent. Service was a bit scattered at times—running off with menus before actually finding out what we wanted each course, for example (“I can’t believe I did that”, he said)—but generally they have their timing down now. (We just have to accept it’s not as luxuriously paced as Verses used to be.)

Eying my Roe!

Amazing starter

As appetizers, I had the lobster ravioli and Jean the terrine.

Terrine - Pulled Pork and Foie Gras mmmmmmmmm!

To cleanse the palate, they gave us a pineapple sorbet in sparking wine.

Pinnaple Granite in some bubbly :)

Then it was duck all around, with a really interesting Italian wine, that not everyone got (we’re special 🙂 ).

Duck Breast and Ragout, with Honey Mushrooms and Heart Nuts served with a great pairing wine from the Canary Islands

And Jean concluded with the pear dessert, I the hazelnut nougatine (with a vermouth). We also received a touch more dessert for the road.

Hazelnut Nougatine!

We took a taxi home. 🙂


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Things more Christmas-y

As my seasonal gift to you all, I will set aside the “political update” blog post I’ve been puttering away at and instead write about things more Christmas-y.

Though in the same province, my home town is far from where I live now. (Even Canadians get surprised at how far apart two cities in the same province can be.) Though we try to get there for Christmas, that’s normally the extent of the winter travelling to the north.

This year, however, we were lured there a mere two weeks before Christmas by Jean’s Mom celebrating her 90th birthday. She’s doing rather well!

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Gosh, I think I took this photo. Yay, me.

Also occurring around the same date were my Dad and my brother’s birthdays, so while at it, we celebrated those as well.

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The combined ages of the two birthday boys

A snowstorm in the southern part of the province delayed our arrival back home (by plane) til the next morning, but it was a nice visit.

Being away for an extra December weekend meant condensing the amount of Christmas cooking I did, both in terms of time and quantity. (It also meant even more online gift shopping than usual.) This past Saturday I made my single tourtière, using a recipe that is now traditional to me, though not to the rest of my family. I was unable to find the ground bison that I usually combine with the ground chicken, so I tried lamb instead.

The distinctly lamb-y smell of it made me worried while preparing the dish, but in the end, it really didn’t overwhelm everything. And the crust turned out quite remarkably flaky and delicious.

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Tastes better than it looks!

Sunday was when Jean and I celebrated “our” Christmas. I decided to roast a duck, not having done that in a while. I’m amazed by how many people are totally intimidated by the idea, when it’s really the same principle as cooking a chicken: stuff  the bird if you want, then put it in a roasting pan in the oven at 350 or so until it reaches 165 F. Only real difference is where a rack in the roasting pan might be optional with chicken, you really want to use one with duck, because so many fat drips out of it. You don’t want your bird floating in it.

For the duck, I consulted a Jamie Oliver recipe that involved stuffing it with ginger, rhubarb, and sage, then serving it with a broth / red wine (didn’t have masala) sauce and crisped sage on top. As sides, I made roasted Brussels sprouts with apple while Jean handled the mashed potatoes. It made for a delicious combination of food in the end.

Duck, Brussel Sproutss, and Mashed Potatoes!

Serving it with 2010 Chateau-neuf-du-pape didn’t hurt, either

For dessert I cobbled together a nice-looking tray (if I do say so myself) of items mostly not made by me:

Desert Tray

As tasty as it looks!

The sucre à crème in the forefront was my doing (sugar, sugar, and cream: with a little butter, because why not). But the rum balls were a (homemade) gift. And the ginger cookies were President’s Choice. All rounded out with some foil-wrapped chocolates.

Happy holidays, everyone.


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Chefs in Bloom

Not for the first time, our waiter asked, “How is the food, ma’am?” while looking at my husband, which was confusing to both of us. He also inquired as to whether it was OK to remove plates we were clearly done with, given that they were entirely bereft of food. Offered us more bread only after we were pretty much done our entrees. Kept trying to refill our sparkling water glasses with regular water. Initially forgot to bring us the dessert course.

And somehow, we didn’t mind at all.

The waiter was good-natured, and was definitely trying to do a good job.

And the food—which was very good—was $20 for three courses. That’s $20 Canadian for the whole meal. Despite including items such as beef tenderloin, lamb, foie gras, and fancy French cheeses.

Foie Gras ... my achilles heel!

The controversial but delicious foie gras

When foie gras alone is typically over $20 at a “regular” restaurant, that kind of a deal can buy you a lot of good will.

Yes, last Wednesday, for the first time in some time, we returned to Bloom restaurant at Conestoga College, where students’ training for a possible career in the hospitality industry includes running this restaurant open to the public—under the watchful eye of people who know what they’re doing. This week’s theme was foods of Southern France.

They went all out in trying to give us a French restaurant-like experience, starting us with an amuse bouche of mushroom and cheese. As appetizers, while Jean enjoyed his foie gras, I had a very nice wild mushroom crepe.

Crepes to Start

Wild mushroom crepe

We then received a palate cleanser of pear and brandy sorbet. Couldn’t taste the brandy much, but it was nice and refreshing. And pretty.

Pear and Brandy Ice!

For mains, Jean won the coin toss to get the lamb three ways, which was really great. I very unusually opted to go with beef tenderloin, as it was accompanied by an interesting mix of Brussels sprouts and turnips. (Other possibilities on offer were salmon and a bean cassoulet.)

Rack of Lamb .... hm hm hm!

Lamb in the foreground, beef in the background

The managing chef made the rounds of tables as we were waiting on our dessert (which they scrambled to deliver once they realized it was missed). They had no decaf espresso, so they made us a latte of decaf roobois tea, which was pretty good.

Jean had wanted the apple dessert, but they were out, so he managed with the cheese plate. I had a deconstructed blueberry tart that was light and delicious.

Benedictine Blue!

Benedictine Blue among the offerings

Dining at Bloom is an experience worth having. The service hiccups are just part of the charm.


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Aure wines

Last weekend we had to go to Niagara-on-the-Lake for a work event of Jean’s. We were put up in a historic hotel, taken on a wine tour, then had dinner and evening of live jazz.

Poor us. 🙂

So, I know, but the fact is we didn’t really feel like going, for whatever reason—maybe because we weren’t long back from our New York / Montreal trip.

But, such circumstances do have a way of putting one in a better mood. The Queen’s Landing hotel was quite attractive. Tawse winery, maker of fine though somewhat pricey wine, is interesting to tour, what with their hand-pick / organic / gravity-fed philosophy. And, we had a beautiful Fall day for that—20° C!

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Interior of the Queen’s Landing hotel—photo from their website

Dinner was fine—good conversation, decent food. Room acoustics made the jazz band a little loud for conversation, so we eventually got up the nerve to take to the dance floor. Being the only ones there able to dance that type of music, we had plenty of room to slow fox, quick step, tango, and jive.

Other than the included breakfast, we were done with corporate events the next day. The weather had taken a turn to the rainy, though, so that kiboshed any thoughts of hiking or ambling Niagara-on-the-Lake’s downtown.

But, it was fine for more wine tasting. We first stopped at Pillitteri Estates, earner of some good Google reviews, and one we hadn’t been to previously. It does make for pleasant visit. They have a food store section featuring nice jams, vinegars, ice wine chocolates, and such. And their wines are quite respectable, of the food-friendly and modestly priced type. We especially liked the Gewurztraminer Riesling blend, the Pinot Gris, and the Cabernet Merlot.

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Aure wine tasting room, from Uncorked Ontario

But Aure wines in Beamsville, picked out because I liked their description in the Wine Country Ontario app, was the best discovery. We were the only visitors at that time, so had plenty of time to discuss the four whites and four reds we tried—which is about everything non-reserve they have. I quite liked their blends, but they do an especially good job with grapes less commonly used—Viognier and especially Pinot Blanc and Marechal Foch, their best-seller. And most are priced under $20.

We also had lunch there, which they offer tapas-style. Very good squash soup, pork chorizo stew, grilled vegetables, and cheese plate. With lunch we each tried a glass of their reserve wine, which you can do for $9. The “wild fermented” Chardonnay was crazy good, very rich.

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Aure winery restaurant—picture from their website

So we returned from our arduous journey laden with wine and lighter in spirit.


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The City That Never Sleeps and Québec’s Metropolis

New York is one of the world’s great cities. Montreal is often considered Canada’s best. On our recent trip, we visited both. This was our itinerary:

  • Saturday: Fly Hamilton to Montreal late afternoon; stay in airport hotel.
  • Sunday: Fly Montreal to New York. Visit Museum of Modern Art.
  • Monday: Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Cruise. 9/11 Memorial Museum. B&H.
  • Tuesday: Metropolitan Museum of Art. Central Park. School of Rock on Broadway.
  • Wednesday: Intrepid Sea, Air, & Space Museum. Rockefeller Center. Radio City Music Hall tour. Grand Central Station.
  • Thursday: New York Library. Fly to Montreal late afternoon.
  • Friday: Musée des beaux arts. Old Montreal and Old Port area.
  • Saturday: Mile End Local Montreal food walking tour. Mount Royal.
  • Sunday: McCord Museum. Fly back to Hamilton late afternoon.
Radio City Music Hall

Just now noticing the Canadian flag flying between the Japanese and US ones in uptown New York. No idea why.

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The view from our Montreal hotel (not the airport one)

Museums

Our last trip to New York was in 2008, and we’d bypassed a lot of the major museums to avoid line-ups, then ended up regretting that. So this time we plunged in.Lord, New York has amazing museums.

MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) was up first, where we followed the good advice to start on the fifth floor, where all the major works are—famous Picasso’s, Van Gogh’s, Dali’s, Goya, Chagall, Monet. They had an online app to use an audio-guide. The other floors couldn’t measure up, but I did enjoy the pop art section.

The Ellis Island Museum had an interesting focus on the US immigrant experience, as it is housed in the building where they were processed back in the day, when immigration rates were staggering.

A statue of Annie Moore, the first immigrant processed at Ellis Island

We had pre-bought timed tickets to the very popular 9/11 Memorial Museum, but still faced a significant lineup to get in. It’s located where one of the World Trade Center buildings once stood. And the layout, all below ground, is somewhat confusing—still not sure if we saw everything.

It’s definitely an emotional experience, visiting there, being vividly reminded of a “historical” event I remember so well.

911 Memorial museum .... sobering!

What remains of the World Trade Center

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is huge and just fabulous. Of course, we didn’t try to see it all. We did get a Highlights Tour to get some sense of the Egyptian, European, American collections, with a close focus on some superb works in each. We went back to visit the American collection and the sculpture garden in more depth.

Pondering the lost of a continent!

We both happen to be reading An Inconvenient Indian, which discusses art depicting Natives, such as this

The Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum is a maritime and military history museum. There we got to tour a nuclear submarine; get on board a large military ship (the Intrepid) and see many war planes; and have a look at the Space Shuttle Enterprise—bigger than we expected! You do get a lot of US military history and a sense of what it would be like to work on these various vessels. Very interesting.

USS Growler Submarine

Inside the USS Growler nuclear submarine

Every Young Boys Dream Plane!

Yes, it’s a war plane, but this is an admittedly gorgeous design

New York has some of the great museums of the world. Whereas Montreal can’t even boast the best in Canada. But, the Musée des beaux arts (Fine art museum) was featuring an exhibit about New York artist Robert Mapplethorpe, and that was well worth seeing. They had an extensive collection on display, and if you didn’t know at the start, you’d realize by the end what an amazing photographer he was.

The McCord Museum attracted me for its exhibit of Montreal rock photography, but it was really small. The best part was their permanent collection on the history of Montreal, told by street and neighbourhood.

Historic buildings

Jean told me I had to see the New York City Library this time, and he’s right; it’s pretty stunning. (And free to tour.)

The Amazing New York City Library!

Be quiet and admire the art

He wasn’t so sure about my idea of touring Radio City Music Hall, but that was great also—and not only because we lucked into free tickets from two ladies who’d decided they just didn’t have time to take the tour they’d already paid for. But it’s gorgeous in there, and amazing to think it was originally built as a movie theatre. Now, of course, it’s used for shows. most famously those featuring the Rockettes. The tour takes you backstage, below stage, and to special guest rooms. You also get a meet a Rockette.

Our Montreal food tour also happened to include a stop at a former movie theatre that is now being used for shows. This one, the Rialto Theatre, has had a much rougher ride than Radio City Music Hall. It has suffered some unfortunate architectural and design changes, and actually lay vacant for a number of year after being declared a heritage site. But the new owner is determined to restore it to its former glory.

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The Rialto Theatre’s future is now looking brighter

Nature in the city

Part of what makes both New York and Montreal great are the vast parklands available right in the core. After being art-exhausted by The Met, it was great to amble back to our hotel through Central Park on a lovely sunny day. (We were lucky weather-wise this trip; mostly all lovely sunny days.)

In Montreal, when we had some time to kill between walking tour and dinner reservation, we took to walking to, up, around, and down Mount Royal.(That was a high calorie burn day, I think.)

Montreal_HDR-161015(0021of0021)

See what I mean about the sunny days?

Both, of course, are also islands, and we enjoyed walking the Vieux Port in Montreal also—an area we haven’t visited as often. New York’s harbour, of course, offers some special views.

Lady Liberty Entertainment

We unsurprisingly failed to win tickets in the Hamilton lottery. Instead, we went to see runner-up for best musical, School of Rock. I chose that over The Color Purple for the fun, which it certainly had in abundance. But I did find a few moments surprisingly touching, particularly the “If Only You Would Listen” song by the kids.

And man, were those kids amazing musicians!

We did wish we had tried for Daily Show tickets—didn’t think of it in time. We did end up walking past their studio, though, on the way to the Intrepid.

Shopping

We did not do much shopping, but Jean was determined to get to B&H store, which has a lot of photography items along with some tech stuff. The challenge was that they were closed for several days for Jewish holidays that week. But we fit it in a visit (barely) between our 9/11 visit and downtown dinner reservation.

And you know who’s the only one who bought anything at Jean’s mecca? Me. The Huawei phone I’d been eyeing looked lovely in person, and was discounted by $50 US. Combined with my Nexus 4 showing signs of age (irritating on this trip, as we were somewhat Google-reliant), I went for it. Then found out it came with not only a case and SD card but premium ($80 US) earphones and case, and various photography attachments.

But tip: Don’t try setting up your new phone on hotel wifi. Recipe for frustration.

In Montreal, I got my hands on case for my new eReader, and also bought a tiny wallet to go with the tiny purse I’d purchased for the trip.

cof

Photo taken on new phone

Eating out

Both cities are great foodie destinations, but we didn’t book at any of the very top restaurants: no Toqué, no Per Se. And where we used the Michelin Guide on our last trip to New York, this time we relied on a mix of Frommer’s, Trip Advisor, and Google to find places to eat. Some highlights:

  • Our first lunch in New York was at Joe’s Shanghai, which doesn’t sound too promising, but it was very good Chinese, especially the soup dumplings, which had won some of kind of award.
  • Our lunch in the Financial District, at Southwest, an upscale Mexican place, was also quite good.
  • Forlini’s, an old-school Italian.restaurant, were quite amused I’d made reservations on a Monday, and even more so when I called to say we’d be late. “Hey, Cathy’s here!” he announced when arrived. On ordering the ravioli, I was told that was no good and they’d bring me the manicotti instead. The manicotti was indeed delicious!
  • Blue Fin, our pre-theatre restaurant, had some excellent sushi and a great cheese plate for dessert. Unfortunately the mains were a let-down; fish somewhat overcooked, mediocre pasta.
  • Despite being a chain (though one not available in Canada), Le Pain Quotidien, with a focus on nutrition and environmentalism, became our go-to for breakfast.
  • Best meal overall might have been at the bustling Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station. We each had an amazing Manhattan clam chowder (best ever, perhaps), then shared a seafood plate of 10 oysters, mussels, and shrimp.
Great Restaurant at Grand Central Station!

New York has some very fresh seafood on offer

In Montreal, we were guided more by Where to Eat in Canada. We went to a quite good Indian restaurant in Old Montreal called Mirchi on our first night. The table d’hôte was a good deal there.

Our more splurge dinner was at Bouillon Bilk. A bit noisy, but very creative and nicely prepared food, and excellent service. Good ability to match wines, also.

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Liked that the mains were as creative as the appetizers: Scallops with buttery cauliflower; guinea fowl in foie gras jus with figs, bacon, and shitake

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Ricotta meringue in the forefront; chocolate mousse and cake with fig in the back

Our food tour of the Mile End neighbourhood in the Plateau area was very good, giving history of the place and its inhabitants along with the food samples. The group participating was a good mix of Canadians and Americans (including another couple from Kitchener). Over three hours, we got:

  • Falafel at an environmentally friendly vegan restaurant
  • Gourmet chocolate
  • Montreal bagel from St. Viateur (but of course!)
  • Gnocchi with tomato sauce (this is not a good tour for the gluten intolerant)
  • Charcuterie (cheese and meat) from an organic boucherie (the stuff did taste notably better than the usual)
  • Two chocolate pastries from a boulangerie

So you see why we walked up Mount Royal after.

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Unlike hot dogs, it’s just fine seeing how bagels are made

And we still went out for dinner in that neighbourhood late, at Le Comptoir, which features small plates. All very good! We had a charcuterie plate, beet salad, smoked salmon with aioli, and agnoletti with cured beef and tomato.

Logistics

Well, our flights (all on Air Canada) were short: Takeoff, get your drink and pretzels, then get ready to land. Flying out of Hamilton made for an easier drive, parking, and checkin than Pearson would have—worth the flaky wifi and limited restaurant options. But really, things were fine at Trudeau and LaGuardia airports as well. We were amazed how quickly we got through security, customs, and baggage pickup.

Neither city has particular good non-taxi airport transportation, though. We tried taking the Montreal airport bus back, but they wouldn’t accept a $20 bill—we would have had to come up with $20 in change. Really? So back to taxi we went. And the initial New York taxi ride was complicated by roads being blocked for a Columbus day parade.

Once in either city, though, we were well-served by public transit. New York’s was definitely confusing—despite Google help, it took a while to realize that more than one line could use the same track, such that getting on the first train that pulled up wasn’t always the best bet. But we got better at it. Both cities give you cards with fare loaded, that you then tap (Montreal) or slide (New York); weird that Toronto doesn’t have that yet.

We were happy with our centrally located hotels in both cities—and frankly surprised how large the New York one was. The only problem at Park Central were the elevators, which simply weren’t sufficient in number, so more than often than not incredibly crowded and slow (stopping on every floor for people who had no room to get on).

City culture

If I had to sum up New York, I think it would be “efficient”. Yes, the lineups were long, but man, they were processed fast. Even with all the extra security checks. No time for niceties; just get everyone through.

At restaurants, there’s no (or very little) wondering what the delay is, but also not much lingering over your meal. Get them in, get them out.

The streets are crowded. You have to keep moving. One night in Times Square, always the busiest part of town anyway, part of the street was blocked off for an Alicia Keyes concert. We were simply caught up in a crush of people trying to get by that part of the street. We all had to walk at the same pace. When another group filed past us in the opposite direction, Jean and I were separated and I moved ahead faster—til I finally found a small open area I could wait for him to catch up.

She is Forever 21!

A relatively uncrowded Times Square; not Alicia Keyes night

 Montreal seemed super-mellow by comparison. Spacious. Lower buildings (law that none can be taller than Mount Royal). Linger over your meal if you’d like.

And it’s good they weren’t hell-bent on efficiency, because there was construction everywhere! Main streets, middle of all Old Montreal, all over. (In preparation for a big city anniversary next year, apparently.)

And, Montreal is famously bilingual. Everyone must greet you in French by law, so we’d respond in kind, but then they might switch to English after overhearing our English conversation, but then back if we’re using a French menu…

Though it must be said we heard a lot of French in New York as well. And that Met tour we did? Tout en français, as we didn’t want to wait an extra 45 minutes for the English one.


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Tomatoes

No idea why, but this year the garden produced the biggest tomatoes ever. They’re gorgeous and taste as good as they look.

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One day’s haul

I’ve had good tomato years before, but never at this size.

Yesterday’s lunch was built around this ingredient. It was based on a recipe from the Nutrition Action Newsletter, but switched up the greens and pumped up the protein.

tomato-salad

Photo by Kate Sherwood

  • 1.5 tsp balsamic vinegar
  • 1.5 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • Pinch kosher salt
  • Kernels from 1/2 ear of corn
  • 1 large tomato, chopped
  • 1/2 avocado, chopped
  • 2 Tbs fresh basil, chopped
  • 1 cup mixed baby greens
  • 1 – 2 Tbs roasted unsalted sesame seeds
  • 1 – 2 Tbs crumbed goat cheese
  1. In a salad bowl, whisk together the vinegar, olive oil, salt.
  2. Gently toss in the corn, tomatoes, avocado, basil, and greens.
  3. Top with sesame seeds and goat cheese.

Serves: 1

The basil was also from the garden, the corn—though not grown by me—was also Ontario fresh. Definitely worth using high-quality balsamic and olive oil for this.

Oh my God, so good.

 

 


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Let’s go to the Ex (whoa, baby)

When I expressed the desire to squeeze in a final summer holiday, Jean suggested Toronto as a place we could get to quickly enough to have time to enjoy with only minimal time off work (I took half a day).

“Hey, the Ex is on then,” I exclaimed. “Can we go?”

“Uh, I guess,” Jean replied, a bit mystified by my interest.

“The Ex” is the Canadian National Exhibition, an annual late-summer fair held in Toronto lo these past 138 years. Neither of us had ever been.

When I was a youngster back in Northern Ontario (from where one could not get to Toronto very quickly), the Ex seemed like coolest thing, based on ads like these:

The classic 1982 Let’s Go to the Ex commercial, with the cow

As an adult, admittedly, it seemed more like a site of cheesy entertainment and appalling-sound junk food (see: The Straight-Up Craziest Stuff To Eat At This Year’s CNE In Toronto). But, partly inspired by The Globe’s A guide to Toronto’s 2016 CNE, from someone who has been every year of her life, I thought we should check it out for ourselves. At least once in our lives.

Getting there was the first challenge. We aren’t experts on Toronto Transit, but the CNE grounds were too far for our usual “we’ll just walk there” approach to getting around in that city. The CNE website clearly listed the best transit options, but that didn’t stop us from messing up: Confusing the Dundas West subway stop(which had a direct bus to the CNE) with Dundas one (which did not). Taking a while to figure out that the “street” car stop at Union Station is not actually on the street, but below ground. And then some confusion about whether we were taking the street car in the right direction.

So we were well ready for lunch by the time we got there, and headed straight to the Food Building. We munched on completely un-weird fish and chips (Jean) and fish tacos (me), but when we walked around afterwards looking for things like the Bug Bistro and the philly sandwiches with whipped cream, we couldn’t find them. It pretty much seemed like any other food court.

Mind, we were rushing through a bit as we (well, I) wanted to get a seat at the popular ice skating and aerial acrobatics show. It featured Olympic bronze medallist Joannie Rochette. She indeed did a lovely solo, but I was actually more impressed with some of acrobatics, and from seeing two male ice skaters skate together. And it seemed a bit rude that they didn’t introduce any performers other than Joannie.

Much of the CNE grounds is a really big midway / fair sort of thing, with rides and games. We didn’t partake of that part at all, beyond walking through it. We had planned to Ferris wheel together, but Jean got a bit overwhelmed with the crowds in those parts.

Instead, we visited a few exhibitions spaces—the farm, arts and hobbies, kitchen stuff (my favourite)—and concluded the day with the (also very popular) Superdogs show. That was so cute and fun, all these different types of dogs doing tricks or playing the clown. Was probably the day’s highlight.

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One of the Superdogs–from Toronto.com

After the Ex

The new Where to Eat in Canada had arrived just before this trip, so we took the opportunity to visit a couple of the listed places. We met some friends for dinner at Origin. I had been a bit pushy on this suggestion, despite never having been, so was relieved to find that:

  • The place was quiet enough for conversation
  • The food was very good
  • The prices weren’t outlandish

It’s one of those places with more of a tapas focus, and the servers were very good about helping us through our selections and bringing out items in a sensible order. We had the devilled eggs, a couple items from the raw (sushi) bar, a mozarella-based appetizer, a kale salad, and crispy calamari. (Who needs meat?)

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This kale salad was freakin’ delicious

The next day went to the ROM ahead of our reservation at Cafe Boulud. We had forgotten, however, that we were just there in February, and basically remembered the regular collection enough that we didn’t feel the need to look at it again. They had a Chihully exhibit, but having also been to his gallery in Seattle recently, we didn’t feel inclined to pay extra for that. Fortunately, we were saved by being time for a tour of their Egyptian collection, which was really interesting!

Cafe Boulud is a chi-chi poo-poo restaurant in a chi-chi poo-poo hotel. We were there for brunch, which is one of the cheaper ways of partaking in it ($45 for two courses with coffee). The wines by the glass were almost as expensive as bottles are in some others places, so we stuck with the $9 mimosa.

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Berries tartine and soupe de mais (corn soup) with our mimosa

The food was quite good, though, excluding Jean’s duck confit being more salted than he cared for. I wasn’t sure what to expect from my Gorditas de papa con chorizo, but I quite enjoyed it.

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This is Gorditas de papa con chorizo

The rest of the day we wandered the streets of Toronto, the predicted rain never quite materializing. It was quite warm, so we stopped regularly for beverages of the non-alcoholic variety. We saw street fests and visited some favourite stores and burnt off restaurant calories.

On to Fall.