Cultureguru's Weblog

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

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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.


One of the Superdogs–from

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?)


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.


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.


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.

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Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty

Just because you find that life’s not fair it
Doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it
If you always take it on the chin and wear it
Nothing will change.

My interest in seeing the musical Matilda was mainly that the music was written by Tim Minchin, a comedian-musician whose songs often promote reason, science, and humanism. And also cheese.


The show has also received a number of awards, though, and a great review in the Globe and Mail, so I was pleased when my sister and brother-in-law agreed to go see it with me while Jean was off canoeing.

The play opens with a chorus of children whose doting, self-esteem-boosting parents lead them to be believe they are special little princes and princesses. “It seems that there are millions of these one-in-a-millions these days / Specialness seems de rigueur.” By contrast, Matilda really is remarkable—a genius. Her thick parents don’t know what to make of her love of books and stories; they can barely stand to have her around.

In her big number, Matilda’s mother explains that “People don’t like smarty-pants / What go round claiming / That they know stuff / We don’t know / Content, has never been less important… You’ve just got to be loud.” (This is truly a musical of our time.)

School should be an oasis for such a child, but Matilda’s school is run by the authoritarian Miss Trunchbull. Played by a large man (Dan Chameroy), she cuts a ridiculous-looking figure, but is a terrifying adversary nonetheless—a bully who brooks no dissent, who cares little about fainess (once she decides you’re guilty, you’re guilty), and who favours cruel punishments.


Miss Trunchbull and Miss Honey. Photo by Joan Marcus, from

Besides the town librarian (delightfully played by Keisha T. Fraser), the only one on Matilda’s side is her teacher, Miss Honey, who calls herself pathetic for not being more effective at standing up to Miss Trunchbull and Matilda’s parents. Matilda, endowed with a sense of justice as deep as her intelligence, realizes that this is a battle she must fight for herself. (With a little help from her schoolmates.)

But nobody else is gonna put it right for me
Nobody but me is gonna change my story
Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.

Three young girls alternate the role of Matilda in the Toronto production. We got Hannah Levinson, who was dang amazing, delivering each line with such clarity and perfect timing that you never doubted her sharp, mature mind. She also had a lovely singing voice.


Hannah Levinson as Matilda. Photo by Joan Marcus, from

With intermission, the play runs just over 2.5 hours. It moves along well, with none of the numbers seeming to drag—proving that Tim Minchin can write songs advocating intelligence, self-determination, justice, and education, without expletives in them. Much like the rest of his oeuvre, Matilda is often thought-provoking and moving—but still kind of fun!

Trailer for Matilda the Musical in Toronto


The Who Hits 50 (or so)

The Who’s “long good-bye” tour was extended even further when Roger Daltrey came down with viral meningitis last year, forcing all fall 2015 shows to be rescheduled for spring 2016. For my Toronto show, this meant attending a year and four months after I bought the tickets. So I think the Who were really hitting 52 or so…

Who in Concert March 2016

Some of the Who trivia that played before the show started

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Pictures! Food, cities, people

Looking over Jean’s recent photos inspired me to write an activity update…


We spent a weekend in Toronto at the end of January. We were blessed with unseasonably (though not unusually, this year) warm weather, which must have pleased these residents:

Things you don't expect in Toronto!

“New to us” elephant street art in Toronto

But people were still able to skate:

Things you do expect in Toronto

Isn’t this photo gorgeous?

And we enjoyed dinner at Ki Restaurant again—with the same great waitress as last time.

Tai with truffle oil and cranberry ponzu

Tai with truflle oil and cranberry ponzu


Last weekend we were away for Jean’s company party. They always do an amazing job of this, not only offering dinner and dancing, but putting everyone up in a hotel. This was a big anniversary year, so we also had an Olympian (Gold medal winner, from Canada’s women’s hockey team) give an inspiring talk, anda  live band playing jazz. That gave us an opportunity to do practice some tango, jive, and quick step—with plenty of room, as we were the only ones on the dance floor! (Bit intimidating, really….)


For once, Jean is in the picture


Last night was supposed to be dinner out at the Naked Oyster with a friend, but he had to cancel due to illness. So, we took ourselves to Kitchener’s Berlin restaurant instead. Still a bit louder than we find ideal, but we had an excellent waiter (formerly of Langdon Hall) and the food was exquisite. Though Jean complained that I ordered the “better” option at every turn… Grilled squid over cheese appetizer, and then:

Roasted Duck Breast with Smoked Beets :)

Roast duck breask with smoked beets

over baked blue fish with duck confit gizzards; and then:

Hazelnut Puff Pastry like no other :D

Hazelnut puff pastry (so amazing)

over fruit crepe with cream.

But hey, it’s not a competition. (Even if I totally won.)

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Kinky Boots on Halloween weekend

October 19 wasn’t only Election day, but was supposed to be the day I saw The Who in concert. Said concert had to be postponed until March due to Roger Daltrey coming down with a nasty case of viral meningitis. As it turns out, I was glad to be able to watch the election coverage instead.

But, we were planning to also take in the Mirvish play Kinky Boots when in Toronto for the concert, and that show will not be continuing until March [correction; It’s just been extended til March 6. But that wasn’t true until recently.] So when its tickets went on sale, we decided to do a weekend in Toronto built around just that play.

We often go to Toronto in February, so I kept getting thrown off by the unseasonably warm fall weather. I kept bundling up to go out then getting pleasantly surprised. It was quite the nice weekend.

Winston Churchill statue in Toronto

October 31 also happened to be the day that a J.M.W. Turner exhibit was opening at the Art Gallery of Ontario. This is a painter Jean is interested in, so we went there on Saturday. We started with a slightly extravagant brunch at their restaurant, Frank.

Lunch at Frank

I had a hankering for sparkling wine, which inspired Jean to order the same (Henry of Pelham’s Cuvee Catherine)…

Then some friends joined us for the actual exhibit, which was handy, as their being members meant we got in free. It was an interesting collection of Turner work—watercolours with an “evocative use of light” that foreshadowed Impressionism,

Dinner was supposed to be at an Italian restaurant called Aria, but they called us Friday with the mysterious news that their building had to be evacuated by 8:00 that night, which might not give us enough time to finish dinner. Though offered reservations at their sister restaurant, it was quite the hike to get to, so we decided to book with Ki Restaurant instead.

We’ve been to Ki a number of times—It’s kind of our go-to before rock concerts at the Air Canada Centre, in fact. But this was our nicest dinner there ever. It was much quieter than usual (I think it’s just more popular during the week), and the waitress was very helpful at steering us toward the best dishes on the menu: Items like maple-tamari Binnaga with pine nuts and wasabi crème fraiche, roasted Cauliflower with sesame tare and shiso gremolata, and Tai with truffle oil and cranberry ponzu. Lovely balance of flavours.

Tuna with maple

One of the amazing Ki dishes

It being a Halloween night of mild temperature, we decided to then go check out the Church Street Halloween party! We were not ourselves in costume, so were merely attending as gawkers. We weren’t entirely sure at which intersection it occurred, and it did turn out to be a substantial enough walk, but there were some pretty creative get-ups. And the crowd seemed to be in a very good mood.

Halloween party on Church Street

A photo of the event by someone else…

We walked back to the hotel on Yonge Street. This featured more of the club-going Halloween crowd, who weren’t quite as cheery as they waited in line to get in.

Sunday, after an overpriced hotel breakfast, we had some delicious dim sum with my sister before our matinee performance of Kinky Boots. Which was a fun musical.

Though I have seen the movie, that was long enough ago that I can’t tell you what was different about the play—apart from the fact that the movie is not a musical. And that both are built around the story of a struggling shoe factory that finds new life in making, essentially, boots for men who like to dress as women. It’s a good cast, particularly the star, Alan Mingo Jr. as Lola, and KW’s own AJ Bridel as the luminous Lauren. It moves along well, driven by the songs written by none other than Cyndi Lauper.

Jean commented, and I agreed, that Charles’ second act outburst, that creates a rift between him and Lola, isn’t entirely believable. It goes a bit too far. Ultimately, though, that doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of the whole thing. Something has to set up the triumphant ending.

Halloween 2015

Finally, apropos of nothing, Jean did dress up for a Halloween party earlier in the week


Toronto in pictures

Our annual “weekend in Toronto in winter because Jean has a conference” wasn’t terribly eventful—we drove back before da big storm really hit—but it did provide some photographic opportunities.

We visited the very crowded, kind of expensive, but still pretty neat Ripley’s Aquarium.

Ripley's Aquarium, Toronto, Ontario

The big draw seemed to be sharks swimming overhead.

Ripley's Aquarium, Toronto, Ontario

But there were other interesting critters, too

Ripley's Aquarium, Toronto, Ontario

Hello moray

We had some trouble getting dinner reservations Saturday due to (I assume) Winterlicious being on. But we managed to get in at Frank, at the AGO. Jean had their Winterlicious items while I ordered from the main menu.

Frank's at the Art Gallery of Ontario

This was the mussel appetizer.

I had a roasted squash salad. For mains, we each had a tuna entree, but prepared different ways—both good.

Frank's at the Art Gallery of Ontario

This was the Winterlicious entree.

For wine, we had a bottle of a Spanish white, an albarino, that was on special. Quite nice, and appeared to be low in alcohol.

For dessert, Jean’s had rum raisin crème brulée. Yum.

Frank's at the Art Gallery of Ontario

I had the Tres Leches Cake—not too shaby, either.

For January, the weather wasn’t too bad. It was partly sunny on Saturday, and not that cold, especially when not in the wind. So we did do some walking around, and Jean took some photos.

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Toronto City Hall

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Skating rink at Nathan Phillips Square

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View from our hotel

Sunday we had some delicious dim sum (no photos), then visited the Douglas Coupland exhibit at the ROM. It was more to my taste than Jean’s. Therefore, you must now prepare for a precipitous decline in photo quality, because the following ones are mine.

If you look at the next image through the camera of your cell phone, they’ll look quite different than they do with the naked eye. It’s really weird. (And if you actually take the cell phone picture, you lose the effect.)


I don’t know what you do if you’re looking at this post on your cell phone.

The exhibit was very pop art-like. One set of paintings was of QR codes that bring up phrases like “Sworn to fun, loyal to none” and “I wait and I wait and I wait for God to appear”, that you can then text to your friends to confuse them. Another was a large installation of found objects, arranged to represent the four quadrants of the brain, and the cerebellum.

The following photos might help you judge how interested you might find all this. How many of these coloured squares do you want to read?



I read them all.

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Who’s Next at Massey Hall

So, let’s talk about Massey Hall.

It’s a historic, downtown Toronto performing arts theatre, seating about 3000, beloved by many Canadian artists, such as Gordon Lightfoot and Lowest of the Low. I’ve seen some fine performances there, by Ray Davies, Jon Stewart, and Classic Albums Live performing Queen’s A Night at the Opera.

Massey Hall exterior

But I’ve always found it amusing that the cheaper seats—the ones higher and further back from the stage—are literally worse seats: they don’t have any cushions. That is, in the orchestra area, the chairs themselves are actually better, as though improved sightlines were not sufficient motivation for charging more for tickets. One also gains added comfort.

I could find that an amusing quirk, because I’d personally always managed to get seats in the center orchestra area.

Until this weekend.

Though I didn’t dawdle in getting tickets for Classic Albums Live: Who’s Next, I had to wait until after the subscribers and members were done until I could get my own. At that point, only Left and not Centre Orchestra was offered up as Best Available.

Now, left orchestra seats do have cushions. What they lack, however, is width. Seriously. They are super-narrow seats. You might think economy airline seats are bad, but these are worse.

This was a bit of a problem for my broad-shouldered husband, who had to spend the whole show sitting awkwardly askew, yet still spilling over into my seat and feeling he had to apologize to the woman on his other side.

But he was still better off than men in some other rows, where several large guys were seated next to each other. I’m not even sure how they managed.

So if ever wondering why the people in side orchestra seats at Massey Hall are so quick and frequent in providing standing ovations: It’s not they are particularly appreciative of the performance. It’s because they need to stretch!

Now hey, on with the show…

Who's Next album cover

I was very excited that the Classic Albums Live group was tacking Who’s Next, my favorite Who album, even if it required a trip to Toronto. Only 10 songs long, Who’s Next contains no filler. It starts with “Baba O’Riley” (Teenage Wasteland) and contains both the song erroneously considered to be their best, “We Won’t Get Fooled Again”, and the one that actually is, “Behind Blue Eyes”.

Live, “Baba” was a stunning opener (just as it is for The Who), with the insane ending rendered amazingly by a cellist and the Moon-like drummer. This cellist was to demonstrate her musical chops all evening, as she moved between trumpet, keyboards, and vocals. That’s range, folks!

On “Bargain”, I was especially struck by the three guys who came out to do a clapping sequence, because:

a) I’d never noticed the clapping sequence in the original

b) I thought it was cool you could get a job in music just clapping

On point b), however, I was soon disavowed of that notion, as the three guys joined the cellist on horns for “My Wife”.

Clearly, the band size varied based on needs, but were always larger in number than the four members of The Who. Apart from the musicians already mentioned, we had another keyboardist (who just stuck to that instrument, covering all the synthesizer bits), an acoustic guitarist, an electric guitarist, a bass player, another background vocalist, and a lead singer. He was the same person who did The Queen show, and while he doesn’t sound like Freddie Mercury or Roger Daltrey, he has the range and power to do both justice, and that’s what matters—even though he does tend to mess up the lyrics at times.

And, we got one more special guest on “Won’t Get Fooled Again”: A second lead vocalist—the guy who sings at their Led Zeppelin shows—was brought out to make The Scream as epic as it needed to be.

A compilation of Roger Daltrey screams for YGFA

(And that is the sort of special extra thing you get in the Toronto performances of Classic Albums Live that you usually don’t in the touring productions.)

So overall, it was a superlative job by the band. The only problem had nothing to do with them, but with the guy beside me (not Jean), who insisted on singing along—really badly—with a number of the songs. This completely ruined for me what should have been the highlight of the whole show, the lovely vocal harmonies at the beginning of “Behind Blue Eyes”.

Honestly. I now kind of understand why The Who themselves played so loud!

The second half featured a variety of other Who songs—including 5:15, The Real Me, The Seeker, Pinball Wizard, You Better You Bet, Love Reign O’er Me (and thank God, with no overdubbed vocals from my tone-deaf seat-mate) and Who Are You.

And for the true Who geeks in the audience, they also did the extended, 10-minute version of “My Generation” from Live at Leeds, (which segues into various bits of Tommy, etc.), performing it very honestly, with only the same number of musicians as the original: Just four. It was really very cool, the faithful reproduction of something originally completely improvised. I have to wonder how many in the audience knew what that was?

Regardless. We in the side aisles were all happy to give it a standing ovation! 🙂

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Toronto weekend

A conference Jean was attending happened to fall on my birthday weekend; hence, we went to Toronto for my birthday. Jean had to be there Friday morning. He didn’t find the prospect of driving himself in too appealing, but train service from Kitchener has gone from bad to worse. So he took the Greyhound. I did the same after work. It went well for both of us (though mine had the inevitable rush hour clog at points), and return bus tickets for two was likely less than parking and gas would have been.

We had fun texting each other on my bus ride over, until his phone died at an inopportune time; just as we were trying to meet at the station. Happily we managed to find each other before too long, even without the tech.

Jean was staying at the conference, the Metropolitan, which has a well-regarded restaurant: Lai Wah Heen. So we just ate there the first night. Basically, they offer high-end Chinese food: It’s a beautiful room with white linens, with a menu of stir-fries, soups, dumplings, and fried rice. So there isn’t a whole lot of creativity in the dishes, per se, but everything is impeccably prepared, and the service is very good. And you can get a few premium ingredients, such as foie gras and duck in the fried rice.

Scallops stir-fry from Lai Wah Heen

Nicely prepared scallops, with glass of Cave Spring Riesling

Jean had to continue conferencing the next morning, so after a Starbucks breakfast, I walked over to the St Lawrence Market. Similar idea to the Waterloo one, really, but more international. I came back with some olive oil, cheese, and blackcurrant honey.

After a quickie Thai lunch, we did some more walking around Toronto, including the near-mandatory stop at Mountain Equipment Coop. I bought a dress (since I can’t seem to resist buying dresses…).

Cow from financial district

Financial district of Toronto

Dinner reservations that night were for Nota Bene, which seems to be a bit of trendy place right now. It was busy, but we were seated in a reasonably quiet spot. We found the food a bit uneven. Jean’s appetizer of venison pate, while my lobster salad certainly wasn’t bad, but wasn’t greatly flavorful.

Lobster salad at Nota Bene

Lobster salad at Nota Bene

But my main course of rabbit mushroom pasta was really quite delicious, and I ate every bite. Jean, on the other hand, found that his scallops were overdone.

Scallops at Nota Bene

Must say the scallops *look* good, though

For dessert, most unusually, I didn’t particularly feel like the sweet stuff, and I suggested the cheese plate! Neither of us had complaints about that course.

Cheese plate at Nota Bene

Cheese platter

Sunday we breakfasted at the hotel (expensive but quite good), then headed to the AGO. They didn’t have any particular special exhibits on; just some photography by Patti Smith—small Polaroids that didn’t really impress Jean. But it’s always nice to look at the Canadian collection.



We met up with my sister and brother-and-law there for lunch (or brunch) at Frank Restaurant. We all enjoyed that meal, and did some catching up.

Then back home together on the bus, which also went quite well.

Full gallery of photos

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More Toronto bits

Though the trip to Toronto was some time ago now (late November), I still wanted to add a few bits about it.

Dining at the legislature

Though I’ve had the full tour of Ottawa’s Parliament buildings before, I’m not sure I’d actually been to the Ontario Legislature before, but that’s where I met my sister for lunch. It’s a pretty quiet place these days, as a result of the controversial prorogation, but a very attractive old building—well worth seeing. We ate at the In Camera dining room, which has fairly luxurious atmosphere, and a varying menu with, appropriately, emphasis on local foods. All quite good at pretty reasonable prices.

Dining at Ki

Ki Restaurant has become my destination of choice for pre-concert dining, because of its highly convenient location (close to both Air Canada and Sony Centres), reliably delicious food, and excellent service. It does have a downside, though, in its large bar area being a destination of choice for the young and beautiful professionals to meet after work. It doesn’t bother us that we’re therefore seated at the back to not bring down the atmosphere, but it does make for pretty noisy dining. Something that bothers Jean in particular.

Still, at least the eating itself remained enjoyable. At Ki you order five or six small plates (for two people, that is). A bit of a challenge to pick all that out from the fairly sizable menu, but with practice we’re getting better at it. (And the wait staff are always helpful.) I no longer remember everything we had, but I do know that the seared fresh scallop with mushrooms and edamame was one of the highlights.

Me, wine, and scallops

We also had a number of sushi and tempura inspired items, including the tempura butterfish of Alaskan king crab, salmon, butterfish, avocado, cucumber + tobiko with a tempura crust.

Me with tempura and sushi

But the highlight, unpictured, was the creamy miso chowder drizzled with truffle oil. Just an astonishing combination of flavors.

Toronto sights

The predicted weather for this trip was terrible, but the actuality was much better: less cold, less rain than anticipated. Only late Saturday did it get pretty unpleasant, with a temperature and wind. (So then we went went home. 🙂 )

Before, though, we did have some time to amble and get some photos.

Christmas tree in Toronto

We got the above photo on the walk back from The Who concert.

And while our supposed 4-star “official Grey Cup” hotel wasn’t particularly spectacular, we were way up high and did have a beautiful view of the city outside. I love this shot.

Toronto at night