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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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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 Some good news (non-political)

My very talented husband has won first place in the Recreation category of the Grand River photography contest. It even came with a cash prize! This was the winning photo:

He walks on water!

Refer to the Grand River Conservation authority’s website, Facebook, Twitter, or Flicker accounts in the coming days for more information.

Earlier in the year another photo of his was selected for inclusion in an advertisement about Waterloo Region that ran in Moneysense magazine. That would be this one:

Milling about the Park

Cork restaurant in Elora also asked to use one of his photos on their website, a few years ago.

(And sometimes he just finds his photos used on websites, by people who didn’t bother to ask.)

He’s won so many photo prizes from his canoe club that they had to change the rules to spread the wealth around more. I can’t include all those here, but I personally liked this one so much I added it to my collection of desktop photos on my work laptop, even though I wasn’t on this trip with him.


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Live and on the CBC

I did watch The Tragically Hip show on CBC television last night. It seemed the thing to do, and I was interested enough. I’m of the age where their music formed the soundtrack of my life, whether I realized it or not. I own only two Tragically Hip albums (Up to Here and Road Apples), yet I knew the chorus of almost every song they played last night.

For any non-Canadians who stumble on this: The Tragically Hip’s lead singer and songwriter Gord Downie has incurable brain cancer. He’s in remission, and the band has done a cross-country tour, ending in their hometown of Kingston last night. National broadcaster CBC interrupted their Olympic coverage to bring the concert to everyone, commercial-free.

There’s been a lot of great writing about this band, and this tour, in Maclean’s, the Globe and Mail, The Washington Post, The New Yorker. I can’t compete. It’s not only that I’m not as good a music writer—though that is true—but also that, familiarity with choruses notwithstanding, I’m not a big enough fan. I could observe that the band were quite good, that they mostly pumped through the songs without a lot banter with the audience (hard to know what to say, one thinks), that Gord Downie restricted his talking to thank you’s and a comment on First Nations people up north, that they did three encores, that the show was about three hours long.

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Gord Downie from an earlier Toronto show as, in a very strange decision, the promoter would not allow official photographers at the Kingston show

But I couldn’t truly get into the emotion of it. I’m not sure why, in all these years, their songs have never really touched my soul. They’re catchy, they’re in a genre I like, the lyrics are smart and highly original.

Maybe it’s simply that, until last night, I had never seen this band live.


Friday night Jean and I went to our first-ever CD release party. No, not our CD (heavens!); Alysha Brilla’s. Alysha Brilla is a local artist with some (not Tragically Hip level) national fame.

She once lived in LA, and was signed to a big recording contract. But she couldn’t fit into that little commercial box they wanted to put her in.

“They wanted me to write songs about going to the club. And picking up guys.” she commented on Friday. “And I’m like, but I don’t go to clubs. I don’t pick up guys.”

So she scampered away from that contract, and set up as an independent artist in Canada. And the only reason most of us have heard of her is the CBC Radio often plays her songs. (See her public love letter to CBC Radio.)

Her music has always been a kind of fusion of jazz / world sounds with a touch of pop, but the latest album, Human, has more Indian influences than her past work. I listened to it on Google Music (and yes, heard a couple tracks on CBC Radio) before picking it up on Friday, but I wasn’t sure about it. It has a lot of spiritual themes (one song is actually called “Spiritual”), it’s all peace and love and changing the world (another song is literally called “Changing the World”).

It’s very granola, you know?

img_7653_smaller_1024x1024

Music, singer, songwriter, producer, artist Alysha Brilla

But after having seen her perform several tracks live, I’m kind of digging it. For one thing, she’s just such a charmer live—gets you in her corner right from the opening, and keeps you there. She was playing the Jazz Room, which has an unfortunate rectangular shape that is not ideal for live music, and was very full, and pretty hot, and during the 1.5 hour or so wait before she started, we actually pondered leaving.

But I’m glad we didn’t; the show was interactive and so fun. We got the stories behind some of the new songs: “Gender Rollz” was inspired by her time in LA, and the strict modes of behaviour expected of both men and women in the big music industry. “Ahimsa” (which means peace) came to her while on vacation in Kenya. The “Bigger Than That” singalong has great lyrics. And her cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie” was awesome.(“Until Amy Winehouse came along”, she said, “I thought, ‘What hope is there for an olive-skinned weirdo like me?’”) It’s not on the album, but it is on YouTube.

And here’s some more:

Introducing Alysha Brilla (Soundcloud)

 


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Maison Louis Jadot at The Berlin

I can’t stop writing about Berlin! But this time I mean the restaurant in Kitchener, Ontario, and not the city in Germany. They are now holding the following events:

The Berlin is excited to announce our new dining series “Upstairs at The Berlin” in our second floor gallery. Each dinner we will focus on the unique aspects of wine/beer and food culture to celebrate and be led by the community of chefs, farmers, foragers/producers, wine and beer makers/ambassadors/sommeliers, writers and epicureans who contribute to our ever growing culinary scene here in Kitchener-Waterloo/Ontario/Canada.

Arrival Reception/Meet and Greet to begin at 6:00 p.m, with our casual, fun and interactive dinner to start at 7:00 p.m, where guests will be seated at communal tables for maximum mingling.
Beer Dinners – $85 – 4 courses, 4 Beers
Wine Dinners – $105 – 4 courses, 4 Wines

We signed up for one featuring wines from France’s Louis Jadot winery.

On entry to the upstairs, we were greeted and offered a glass of either the 2014 Chardonnay from Macon Village or the 2014 Gamay / Pinot Noir blend. We split the difference and got to try both—very pleasant wines.

There was also a welcome spread of amazing Raspberry point oysters, goat cheese, and a cut of meat slow-braised to pâté-like consistency. Everyone was just milling about, and we got into a nice conversation with someone I worked with a couple companies and quite few years ago—good memory for faces (on his part, not mine)!

(And we had been hoping that the upstairs would be a little quieter than downstairs, but it wasn’t, so much. So everyone had to speak up.)

We then selected spots at two long communal tables. We hadn’t previously met any of the people we ended up sitting with, but some had interesting ties to the food and wine being served (farmers or fathers of wine reps), others had visited the region of France being featured (which we haven’t), and everyone was quite interesting.

The first pour was a Pouilly-Fussé, which I don’t think of as my favourite wine, but this was a very nice, fresh example. We heard briefly from The Berlin’s sommelier, than the representative from Louis Jadot explained the region, the history of the company, and the particularities of this wine. (Including that it’s actually a Chardonnay. Did you know that? I hadn’t known that.) This particular one is not branded as Louis Jadot, because while they bought this small winery, they decided to leave the original branding and management in place. It traditionally and still has a woman who does the wine-making,

One terrific Poully Fuisse

The first course served with it were bay scallops seasoned with dried apricot, cucumber, mustard seed, and hazelnut yogourt. Chef Jonathan Gushu came out to explain that he used the smaller bay scallops instead of the usual showy sea scallops, because they had a more true seafood flavor this time of year. And that was correct. Lovely dish with sharp flavors.

Bay Scallops, Dried Apricot, Mustard Seed

Bay scallops and friends

At this point I should mention that Jean and I chose to take the iXpress bus to the restaurant and a taxi back. So that while it would have been possible to stick with the modest initial pourings of each wine, taste everything, and still be fine to drive home, we were glad that our not driving meant could enjoy the wine top-ups generously provided.

Speaking of which, next on offer was the 2013 Marsannay Clos Du Roy, which is a Pinot Noir, and of the lighter, dry style that is common with this grape. This one also had nice complexity, and I could see it suiting a wide variety of food.

Marsannay (Beaune -Pinot Noire)

What we got was a classic Pinor Noir  pairing of duck—specifically, duck pâté en croute with shallot jam. Jean declared it the best dish of its type ever, and I also can’t recall a better one.

This is the Best Canard en Croute ever! EVER!!

The next wine was the same grape from the same house—except that it could have been from another planet, it was that different from the previous wine. The wine rep explained that, yes, this was what so typical and mystifying about this wine region: That mere kilometres apart, wines could be so very different. And also that some of the plots (like the Beaune ones) are tiny and specialize in the one thing they do best. This was our special wine of the evening, the 2007 (great year in France) Beaune Close Des Ursules Pinot Noir. Rich, delicious, stunning… And yes, we got refills. (It’s not available at LCBO, of course, but the Beaune wines they do have start at $90. I think the $105 for this dinner was a pretty good deal.)

Blow your socks off Pinot Noire ... Yes! that good.

No leftovers of this one

We also got food with this. 🙂 That would be the smoked beef strip loin, courtesy of the farmers opposite us, who raise in them in the best possible conditions, all grass fed and whatnot. Served with leek and shallot puree. And while beef will never be my favourite item, the smoking made it more interesting, and it was nice cut of meat.

Keeping her eye on the prize while Jonathan talks!

Chef Jonathan Gushu behind me. His cooking philosophy is to work wih the best ingredients and allow their own character through.

For dessert we got to stretch, as they laid out a buffet of various cheeses along with sweets such as creme brulée, macaroons, strawberries, and caramel popcorn. Both the savoury fan (Jean) and the sweet fan (me of course; for who is sweeter than I? 🙂 were pleased with our options. The creme caramel was, in Gushu style, just perfect texture cream, sugar, and eggs, with no exotic flavors to mess with that basis. And the macaroons and popcorn… I had to go back for more of both.

Too Much of Everything ... but particularly cheese :)

We loaded up but still needed refills

Our wine with that was the Chateau des Jacques 2011 Moulin a Vent, which is a Gamay, and is available from LCBO (for about $34).

All in all a lovely evening. I hope this series continues.


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Rebel music: Tanya Tagaq and the KW Symphony

I wasn’t prepared for Tanya Tagaq.

Oh, I had my concert tickets, which is good, because both her shows were complete sellouts. And I knew she was an Inuit singer who had her own take on traditional throat singing. I remembered her winning the Polaris prize in 2014.

But I hadn’t listened to any of her music in advance.

And thank goodness for that! Because you can only hear Tanya Tagaq for the very first time once in your life, and what better way than seeing her live, from just a few feet away? (We were in the second row.)

The problem is, I have no idea how to describe her sound and performance to you. I’ve never heard anyone else do anything like what she does. As we were revelling in her show afterward, Jean made an attempt: “It’s like she took you on a journey through a whole lifetime of dreams.”

This is traditional throat singing:

The adorable 11-year-old Inuit girls throat-singing at Justin Trudeau’s swearing-in ceremony

Tagaq does use this technique, but—in own words—in a completely punk way. She plays with pitch, vocal styling, breathing, making no literal sense but clearly conveying emotion. And she puts her whole body into it, swaying, gesturing, sinking to the floor. It’s just mesmerizing.

spotify:album:2MiUUnuUmi24pJKJ1xjeHz

Tanya Tagaq’s Animism album on Spotify

And how does that work with the symphony? Well, first they prepared us to hear some unusual sounds by presenting the works of two Canadian composers (both in attendance, both women), along with a version of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” that was so rockin’ it rivaled The Who’s take on the same.

They then let Tanya Tagaq do her thing on her own, totally improvised.

Next was a work by another Canadian composer, Rodney Sharman, (“I texted with him today,” said Tagaq. “He seems nice.”), and she improvised over that soundtrack.

Finally, Tagaq and orchestra came together on a chamber music piece written for her, called “Cercle du Nord III”. Ms. Tagaq said that the fuller sound provided by the larger symphony (vs. original string quartet) gave the piece another dimension.

(Her personality is quite charming, by the way. For example, she was taken aback at having to come back and acknowledge the rapturous applause she was receiving. She was unsure to do, she said. What does she normally do? “I go out for dinner,” she answered. She then told us, mock sternly: “OK, I’m leaving now. Don’t make me come back out again!”)

A few years ago, Edwin Outwater, Musical Director of the KWS and this concert’s conductor, gave a Ted Talk in which he argued that rock / pop music wasn’t the music of rebels anymore. That classical music was.

I think he has a point. Much as I still love rock music, there isn’t much danger or innovation in it anymore, is there? What is more choreographed, corporate, and scripted than a big, modern rock show? Who can improvise when everyone has to play to same click track?

Whereas tonight’s Tanya Tagaq concert could be a whole different experience than last night’s.

And this is following on two other KW Symphony shows we saw recently, in which they:

  1. Completely reconceived German opera Die Fleidermaus with local references, a hilarious narration absent in the original, and even a special guest spot for a former mayor.
  2. Along with the Art of Time, presented the Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper not just orchestrated, but truly rearranged such that every song was both familiar and strange (though wonderfully so, in my opinion).

As rock retreats to safety, the traditional symphony is taking it to the edge. Don’t let the strings and horns fool you: today, this is punk.

 


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White rabbit

Based on a positive review in the Waterloo Region Record, we decided go out with a couple friends to Waterloo’s White Rabbit bar and restaurant.

White Rabbit isn’t huge and doesn’t take reservations, so we thought a Tuesday night would be a safer bet than, say, a Friday. We were surprised just how busy it was on a Tuesday, but we were able to get a table at the back of the room.

Between the number of people and the soundtrack, it seemed rather loud. We feared conversation might prove impossible. At the back it wasn’t as bad as that, though. We did have to speak up, but not yell at each other. (Not a place for a quiet, romantic dinner, though.)

white-rabbit-heather-davidson

Photo by Heather Davidson of the table we sat at

As the place does specialize in cocktails and such, I took the unusual step of ordering one: the Rabbit Black Dog, which mixes bourbon, lemon juice, simple syrup, and blueberries. It was nice—blueberry tasting, not too sweet. One of our friends went with a Scotch flight, complete with written tasting notes for each, which he enjoyed. They offer similar flights of bourbon, cocktails, and wine.

On the food front, Jean and I started with their cheese plate. It was really excellent. Five very good cheese, two from Ontario, two from Quebec, and one French. They were served with preserves, crackers, and grapes. Jean ordered a bottle (didn’t come by the glass, this one) of Oregon Pinot Noir to have with that.

As mains, two of us, including me, had the goat cheese agnolotti. I thought it was quite nice. Jean had the hangar steak. He said the meat was fine, but was especially impressed with the collard green side dish. It was similar for the friend who had the lobster roll: Protein was fine, but she found the side coleslaw outstanding.

We were all too full for the one homemade dessert on offer, though it did sound interesting. And we were a bit surprised to find they did not sell any tea or coffee. But we were happy they offered us the leftover bottle of wine to take home, even though they had decanted it. They just re-bottled and re-corked it for us.

No photographic proof, I’m afraid, but it was a fun place to go with friends.