Cultureguru's Weblog

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


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Taking the vax pass for a spin

After categorically stating (and repeating) that there was no way, no how that Ontario would require proof of vaccination to access certain public spaces, Premier Doug Ford announced that Ontarians would be required to show proof of vaccination to access certain public spaces. The change of heart itself was no surprise to most Ontarians, who’d by now witnessed many similar policy pivots, but its timing was: early September. That is, before the COVID case count was terrible and inevitably about to get worse before it could get better.

Ontarians were then surprised again to find that from roughly that point on—before the policy actually took effect, and despite the start of school—case numbers have improved. Just slightly improved, and still not as good as last summer, but definitely on a downward. Something that it not happening everywhere in Canada.

The avg. of daily COVID-19 cases has fallen from early September
And locally, the numbers have been a little better than the provincial average (after our “fun” Delta spike in June).

So Jean and I have been getting out there. A little.

I wanted to see the new Marvel movie, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings—mainly because I was a fan of the lead actor, Simu Liu, from Kim’s Convenience. But I also liked that it was an origin story, so it wouldn’t matter that I wasn’t versed in all the intricate details of the Marvel universe. That it was both a critical and box office hit also seemed promising.

I figured that seeing it at the Cineplex VIP theatre would be good, because then we could get an actual meal. Made it quite manageable to go there after work for the early evening showing, even though the VIP theatre is kind of across town from where we live.

COVID protocols in place when we went: They checked for vaccination proof (and mask wearing) at the entrance to the building. Then at the entrance to the VIP theatre, they did contact tracing. Each theatre was limited to 50% capacity; when we bought our tickets in advance, we selected our seats, and the system then blocked off the ones to either side of us so we knew no one would be sitting there.

Mind, the movie had been out for about four weeks by then, and it was week day, so though the 50% capacity of that rooms was 35 people, I think there were only about 10 there? And nobody else in our row.

So we felt pretty OK about unmasking to eat our dinner. We don’t get to the VIP theatre often. I still love the novelty of ordering food and wine (!) at my extra-comfortable, reclining seat. My edamame, fish taco, and Kim Crawford Sauvignon were all quite fine. Jean also liked the edamame and his Malbec, but was a little less impressed with the pulled pork.

As for the movie, I found it really fun. Jean complained about how many fight scenes it had. He’s right—so many fight scenes! Normally, this would bore me. But I thought these were quite well-choreographed fight scenes that did move the plot along. It was too bad Simu Liu didn’t get more funny lines—Awkwafina (who was great!) got most of those. But he looked good. I was diverted. Nice night out.

The following Monday, we went to see a different sort of film at a different sort of theatre (but with basically the same COVID protocols to follow): I’m Your Man, at the local art cinema, The Princess. The premise of that one is a woman scientist tasked with testing a humanoid robot designed to be the perfect partner for her.

Tom, the robot, is endowed with artificial intelligence that causes him to adapt to whatever his “partner” wants, though in case he has a partner who’s skeptical of the whole idea and trying to maintain objectivity. As he dials down the romantic gestures and ramps up the practical assistance he can provide, she gives him more mind, and then more heart…. It was quite engaging and thought-provoking and—though Jean thought they could have done even more with the premise—we both enjoyed it.

Then later in the week, we decided to try some more indoor dining, back at S&V Uptown. It’s our third time there since they moved to uptown Waterloo, and again we were really impressed. In terms of consistent food quality, I think it’s the closest we’ve come to Verses—the only issue is the tendency to sometimes over-salt the sauce, at least to our taste. But even that never ruins a dish, because nothing is ever drowning in sauce.

They had just launched their Fall five-course menu, and that’s what we had, again with shared paired wines (1.5 oz each per serving). Fried oysters, halibut with mushrooms, beef cheek, sponge cake…

(I also finally got to wear my new pantsuit.)

Meanwhile, in another bout of optimism, I’ve acquired tickets to a number of events at Centre in the Square for the coming months:

  • Blue Rodeo (in December)
  • Letterkenny Live (in February)
  • Billy Joel’s The Stranger by Classic Albums Live (in April)

These all depend on lifted capacity restrictions—which the government has just announced (albeit not yet for restaurants and gyms). So we’ll see how that goes.

What’s next?

I will mention that the rapid testing program that I blogged about previously has been shut down by the Ontario government. Not entirely—it can still be used by the small businesses it was originally intended for. But Communitech’s extension to community groups and individuals was making the province look bad, I guess, so they put a halt to it.

Meanwhile, there is some opinion that wider deployment of rapid tests are key to ending the pandemic. Until the Ontario government comes to agree with that, here are a few options for getting them:

  • The tests are available free to businesses, who can then make them available to their employees. So talk to your company about it. (If you own a business, get some on that basis.)
  • The Canadian Shield now sells them. About $10 each, so not exactly cheap, but better than the $40 each at Shoppers Drug Mart.
  • Travel to a place like the UK or Nova Scotia, where they’re widely available and cheap (though I have no idea if it’s just as easy for tourists to acquire them)?
Play safe going out (rapid tests) and going in (condoms)
Nova Scotia public health campaign

Now for a bit of trivia: What would you guess is the most highly vaccinated age group in Waterloo region? The over 80s, perhaps?

Nope. It’s the 18 to 29s. Followed not far by the 30 to 39s. (Frankly, my age group are a bit slackers here, at possibly the lowest rate of “at least one dose”?)

Percent vaccination coverage for WR Residents by Age Group
Source: Waterloo Region COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Task Force

The kids are all right—and they’ve earned their way into bars, restaurants, gyms, and concert halls.


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Fancy takeout

At the red level that Waterloo region is currently categorized as, indoor dining is still allowed, but with each table restricted to four people and the entire restaurant to ten. Those places that choose to stay open under these restrictions are generally offering takeout as well.

Loloan Lobby Bar has a really interesting approach to this, in offering 3-course dinner boxes of mostly prepared items that you heat up and assemble yourself at home. They have a new combination each day. We tried it earlier this month.

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Local patio

Loloan Lobby Bar was not one of those restaurants that offered takeout during the shutdown, so we did prick up our ears when we heard that it would reopen once patios were allowed. In this, they were aided by City of Waterloo deciding to block off Princess Street for pedestrian use.

Our experience with Loloan in the past has been a bit of mixed bag. We’ve never had a bad meal there, but have had a number where the food didn’t seem quite outstanding enough for the price. On the other hand, we were fairly blown away by their New Year’s Eve dinner. As that was a fixed menu, Jean suggested that maybe we weren’t good at picking the right things at Loloan.

Their online patio menu had a fairly minimal number of items, but they looked good. They were not taking reservations, so we decided to just head there right after work on a not-rainy Wednesday.

The first surprise was their notice that they weren’t taking any credit cards, just debit or cash. Interesting choice.

The second was that the cutlery we received, once seated, was distinctly… plastic (and wooden, for the chopsticks). The glasses, however, were glass.

And the menus were literally hot off the presses: we had to wait for them to be printed (not excessively long, or anything). We didn’t have trouble choosing items of interest from the short array. We went with pork satay and pork / vegetable dumpling appetizers, lemongrass cod with rice and cucumber salad as the main, and the only dessert, which combined a variety of tropical ingredients. We shared everything.

The list of wines by the glass was modest, and Jean asked which one might work best with the variety of food we’d selected. The waiter returned with a Chenin Blanc that wasn’t even on the menu, but was fantastic. Later, when I’d finished a kir, they returned with an off-dry Semillon/Sauvignon blend that we also really enjoyed, and that was also not on the list. Nice touch.

The two appetizers were very delicious, though also served in more “disposable” containers. The waiter at one point commented that a lot of their dishes were still in storage… The mains and dessert came on actual plates, though, which we were very excited about. Even better, they were also delicious! This time, we did feel we got value for the money.

The side dish part of the main course (with my main dish, Jean)
Dessert included coconut sorbet, mango gel, and lychee gelee

I’d had the impression that Princess Street was supposed to shared by several restaurants, but Loloan seemed to be the only one operating this day, and they had quite a few tables available. I noticed they did some of the cooking outside the restaurant, on a barbecue, and that all the staff were wearing masks.


Speaking of masks, I had recently tweeted this tidbit:

I know it could just be correlation, and not causation, but it was still great to have three days of 0 new cases locally this past week.

I haven’t done a ton of shopping, but for what I have, I am finding that almost all customers are respecting the mask bylaw. What confounds me a bit are places where the salespeople are not. For me that’s only been two places, but others report…

What do you do about that? Because I feel like something should be done. I’m good with not confronting another customer who’s not wearing a mask. But the staff? I realize they could claim the same “medical exemptions” that customers do, but hey, how about wearing a face shield then (as I saw one grocery worker do, and I’m cool with that).

And, I also appreciate that it’s a lot harder to for them to wear a mask for a whole work shift than it is for me on my short shopping trip. Some masks are more comfortable than others, and would be nice if employers (or the government?) supplied those.

But before we can come up with solutions, we have to draw attention to the fact that there’s a problem. And I don’t know how to do that.


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Eating out (in)

In the Before Times, early March, the day after I got my hair cut and coloured, I popped over to Starbucks for my free birthday latte. And that night I went out for dinner with my husband.

None of that seemed particularly remarkable at the time, of course. We had a dinner at King Street Trio. It was a Tuesday, so not especially busy, but a number of tables filled. The service was attentive. The food was not highly memorable, but it was well prepared. Nice night out.

During the “It’s starting to get weird now” time, mid-March, I experienced the most crazed grocery shopping trip of my life, as it seemed that all my neighbours were there, preparing for the apocalypse. I did not yet know that this would be my last “crowd” experience for some time. I wasn’t yet freaked out by being packed in there with so many people. But there was no mistaking the strangeness of this frenzy of buying. I even took a photo.

The first but not last time that the grocery store TP shelf looked like this…

I had changed my mind about my original plans for that weekend, which had been to try to get last-minute lottery tickets to Hamilton in Toronto. Once I read that Broadway in New York went dark, somehow seeing a play in Toronto no longer seemed like a good idea. (And I was right! The Saturday matinee performance we were going to attempt to get tickets for was destined to become the first of the cancelled Hamilton performances.)

We went ahead with our backup plans of visiting some local museums: the Homer Watson Gallery (a bit disappointing), the Ken Seiling Museum (very good!). We felt quite safe doing that, as in both cases, we were practically the only people there. And then we went out for lunch, at Cameron Seafood Restaurant. Normally a very popular dim sum spot, we were their lone customers for most of the meal (which was very good, and service very attentive!).

Sunday, we went for a interesting local hike, on the GeoTime trail, and were not particularly concerned about how many other people were doing the same.

Then on Monday, the museums and restaurants were closed, and I was working from home full time, and you all know the rest.


In the After Times, food-wise, it was the lattes that I missed the most, at first.

I was used to a weekly walk to my local Starbucks for one, the occasional weekend latte with Jean or with friends, and supplementing those with the mediocre-but-it’s-still-a-latte latte from the office coffee machines.

The Starbucks app briefly offered free delivery, before declaring that I now lived too far from the nearest outlet still open. I wasn’t about to do their drive-through thing—really don’t like drive-throughs (though I appreciate how handy they are to have now). For Jean’s birthday, we got takeout lattes and two “Benwiches” from Kitchener’s Cafe Pyrus. That was nice, but not convenient enough to do frequently.

So I started researching espresso machines—devices I’d resisted earlier exactly because I liked going out for lattes! Loops and lattes. Meeting friends for coffee. Polishing off a nice dinner out with out a cappuccino.

Sigh.

Pandemic-inspired purchase: Breville The Infuser, from Wayfair

(It’s some consolation that it does make really good lattes. Very handily, I have a husband who loves making them for me.)

As for restaurant dining (which I also miss, but not as acutely), the only option now, obviously, is takeout. Jean and I essentially never did takeout before—never even got pizza delivered or whatever. But if we want any of the local restaurants to survive this, we needed to start.

So after Cafe Pyrus, we tried Grand Trunk Saloon. They make absolutely delicious fried chicken, but when at the restaurant, ordering the “bucket of chicken” always seemed absurd: way too much food! Even for two. But as takeout? Yay, leftovers!

So we picked that up, and found that it was good. Including the leftovers.

Then inspired by a Globe and Mail article about virtual dinner parties, I suggested to some friends that we have virtual takeout night. We each ordered and picked up dinners from Swine and Vine, who’ve been coming up with new takeout menus weekly. Then we Zoom-connected with them while we each our dinner.

It was fun! (Even despite a few Zoom challenges.) And the Swine and Vine food was just delicious, from starter to dessert.

Next up, we’re taking a couple of days off, even though we can’t really go anywhere or do very much. But at least we can still get takeout! I think our target will be The White Rabbit. Might even splurge and get one of their bottles of wine…

I will leave you with this Google Map link to area restaurant, cafes, and food shops that are offering curb side pick-up or delivery during the COVID-19 pandemic.


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Cheap Trick

As I kept telling people, Cheap Trick was not a band I’d go out of my way to see in concert.

But Kitchener’s Centre in the Square is only a 15-minute drive away. So when I heard that Cheap Trick was playing there, on a night I didn’t have anything else booked, I figured, why not?

I was somewhat into Cheap Trick back in the day. I owned the At Budokan and Dream Police albums. I knew all the words to “The Flame”. I thought that Robin Zander and Tom Petersson were babes and hung their pictures on my wall.

But it wasn’t a band I’d particularly kept up with lo these many years. Still, when it’s easy, and I could score 4th row centre seats at a reasonable price, why not go?

Initially Jean thought that he couldn’t join me, but his work schedule changed such that he could. I was pleased to have company, and he ended up pleased to be at the show.

My goodness, they were entertaining! 30 seconds in, and Robin Zander made it clear that he had lost none of his vocal power.

He also still looks pretty good…

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Swine and Vine

Swine and Vine is relatively new restaurant in Kitchener, located in the space vacated by Public. After a pretty positive review in the Waterloo Region Record, we decided to try it for ourselves.

The focus here is on wine and charcuterie. We were told that they change the wine list monthly.  All the menu items are intended to be shared between two people (so not a great place for solo dinners, I guess) and the advice was that ordering one starter, and one charcuterie board, generally provided enough food.

The place is small, and was not overly busy on this Saturday. We liked the musical soundtrack, but even more the fact that it wasn’t too loud; no need to yell at our dining companions to be understood.

And (hurray!) we really enjoyed the food.

To start, we shared the Peking duck crepes. These did feature some vegetables Jean isn’t overly fond of, but the duck itself was delicious, and he was able to eat around the onions and cucumber. I had a glass of Spanish Syrah / Grenache with that, while Jean had a lovely French rose.

An appetizer built for two

Our friends ordered six oysters to start, but were only able to get five—the kitchen ran out. That also meant that we weren’t able to get the oysters normally included on the “Octopus’s Garden” seafood-focused charcuterie board that we ordered. We were able to substitute any other option, and went with chicken liver paté. Our friends selected the classic OG board.

mde

Two boards, one land, one sea

The seafood one included ceviche, lemongrass curried PEI mussels, sous vide octopus, trout pâté, gravalax, and fish cakes, which were served with breads, chips, and vegetables. Every item, truly, was very good (though the ceviche again included the cucumber / onion less favored by my dining companion), and as you can see, you get a generous amount of food. And our friends were just as happy with their choice.

With that, I drank a glass of Ontario Reisling, while Jean went with an Austrian Grüner Veltliner.

The restaurant wisely offers small-size desserts—small enough that you wouldn’t necessarily have to share them. But each couple did, all of us going with the lightest-sounding option on the menu, the lemon soufflé. It was a lovely custard, served in two hollowed-out lemons.

lemon-dessert

Jean might not be happy that I cropped his photo here, but I was kind of tired of pictures of me

This was the best seafood dinner we’ve had in this town for a long time. We will be back!


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The Mike and Micky Show (they were The Monkees)

smith: We have another dirty little secret. A Monkees song.

depp: Oh, “Daydream Believer.” It’s a great song. I don’t care what anyone says.

smith: “Daydream Believer” came on the radio when we were driving to the set. It was a moment of total happiness. It’s a pure, happy little song. What bad thing can you say about it?

depp: I know, I know. It’s O.K. to like “Daydream Believer.” There’s nothing wrong with a guilty pleasure from time to time. Know what I mean? It’s “Daydream Believer.” I’m justifying my own flag.

— Patti Smith and Johnny Depp (The Crowded Mind of Johnny Depp, Vanity Fair, 2010)

People were a bit bemused when we said we were going to The Monkees concert. “The ‘Hey, hey we’re The Monkees’ guys? They’re still around?”

They’re actually not all still around, Davy Jones having died in 2012. Peter Tork is still active in the music business—too active to go on this particular nostalgia tour. Leaving Micky Dolenz and Mike Nesmith to perform in what was dubbed “The Monkees Presents: The Mike and Micky Show”.

Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, and band: The Mike and Micky Show

The show was to feature the hits, along with some “deep album tracks.” Or from my perspective, songs I know along with songs I don’t know.

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Loloan-ing for a dining experience

More on this later, but we’re back from a vacation that was a success, particularly from a culinary perspective. From tiny Picton (population 5000) to romantic Québec City to Canada’s capital of Ottawa, we had no bad dinners and at least four outstanding ones.

Back at home, I’m feeling a little deprived on that front. Now, I can feel my friends from Northern Ontario rolling their eyes at that comment, and will admit that we do have places where you can get a well-prepared meal (like Solé, Janet Lynn’s Bistro, Gilt, Belmont Bistro, TWH Social, and so on. And if you’re willing to drop the big bucks, Langdon Hall.)

But ever since Verses closed, it’s just been a challenge finding that One Wonderful Place where the food is always amazing and everybody knows your name. Marisol came closest for a while, but then that closed. And The Berlin’s been closest of late, but guess what? They’re closing May 15, and reopening two weeks later under a new name and new menu: a tavern replacing the fine dining. Sigh.

(And again, Picton, population 5000, has two excellent restaurants. I guess KW just doesn’t get enough tourists?)

Anyway. This is all to explain why were so excited to hear about the new Loloan Lobby Bar restaurant. This is a second venture by the owner of Bhima’s Warung, another of Waterloo’s better restaurants. Since we heard about it, me and my friends have been anticipating it: When will it open? How will it be?

Earlier in April, after it had been open about a month, we went to find out.

Situated in the lobby of a condo building, it’s a lovely room, half of it devoted to bar space, the other to a sit-down restaurant. Service was attentive and eager to explain the menu, which featured some unusual ingredients. Food was served with a certain amount of ceremony:

It's Pouring Soup!

Pouring out the lobster bisque

Seafood Terrine

Seafood terrine with accompaniments

That was all very nice. And the food? Well, it was fine. Nothing really special, but fine. The only problem with that being, it was priced at a level that you’d expect something more than just fine. It should have been special.

I don’t think we’ve found The Place.

Altbough… Dinner did end on a high note. We ordered the petit fours assortment for dessert, and those were actually… Really amazing. Along with the delicious (decaf) French press coffee, served with timer to ensure I didn’t drink it too soon.

Dessert

All these little desserts were excellent

So, you can at least count on a lovely coffee and dessert experience here. It will have to do as I continue my quest.


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Where to eat in Canada: The Berlin

The new Where to Eat in Canada is out, and The Berlin has made the cut for the first time, as a two-star restaurant. We happened to dine at The Berlin this weekend, and the reaction of the staff upon being told the restaurant was listed in the guide now, was basically:

We’re in the what now?

Which likely shows the diminishing influence of a publication that remains strictly print based (save this tiny website). There’s no app. Where To Eat recommendations aren’t included as part of Google searches. Heck, you can’t even get it as an ebook.

The author, Anne Hardy, literally still works on a typewriter, sending an occasional email to her contributors only with great reluctance (and some assistance from her editor).

So why would anyone under 30 know about it, even if working in the higher-end food industry?


Where to Eat in Canada is meant to be a kind of Michelin Guide for Canada—list only good restaurants, with ratings from no to 3 stars. Very hard to be a three-star restaurant—Cambridge’s Langdon Hall just made it back after a few years downgraded to two. But a difference with the Michelin (apart from them being quite web-enabled now) is that all reviews have the personal touch and style of Anne Hardy herself.

This makes it a fun look-over whenever the new edition arrives, and it can be handy when planning a visit to a particular Canadian city or town.

cof

Post-its for possible future travels

But it’s also always been organized a bit strangely, alphabetically by city name. There are maps, but only to indicate where each city / town is, not where the restaurants are in each locality (for how would that fit a in a physical book?). Each listing does include an address, but usually doesn’t say what part of town it’s in. I generally have to sit there book in one hand, Google Maps in the other, to figure out if a listing is anywhere near where my hotel is.

And as an intended traveler’s guide, it does lack some portability. Do you want to cart a 332-page paperback with you as you trek around town as a tourist? Or would you rather just check the TripAdvisor restaurant listings on your phone?


As for our Berlin dinner, they did quite a good job, despite it being a busy Saturday—A full restaurant plus a wedding party in the room upstairs—and having some key players away that day, including chef Jonathan Gushue.

Although the fixed four-course menu was pretty tempting, we went with assembling our own four-course dinner. Jean had the oysters in grapefruit dressing, I the roasted asparagus with lemon and pecorino. I had a really good gruner veltliner with that, Jean a very interesting sparkling.

The_Berlin-0010of0073-20170624-2-HDR

As an appetizer Jean went with a terrine of foie gras and pork while I had a tomato salad with fennel, avocado, and prawns.

The_Berlin-0038of0073-20170624-HDR

Then we both had the goose confit with a broccoli salad and white bean ragout.

The_Berlin-0052of0073-20170624-HDR

And we shared the strawberries and vanilla ice cream with fennel meringue, which was very interesting).

The_Berlin-0065of0073-20170624-HDR

The only hiccup in the service was a longer-than-ideal delay in getting our second glass of wine, a Tuscany rose for me, an intriguing muscat blend for Jean. Possibly because of that—or because I mentioned I’m a “food blogger”?—we were credited for some items on our bill.


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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.