Cultureguru's Weblog

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


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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?

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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.

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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.)

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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.


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Giving homage to Homage (and some other restaurants)

We recently visited a new-to-us restaurant in Cambridge, Homage. It’s a relatively small place in a heritage building, with a wood decor, and a fairly casual, slightly hipster atmosphere. It mission statement is food that is “rooted in classic techniques, sourced from the community of farms around the area, served with respect and care”.

Homage interior

Homage interior. Not our photo; this is from their website.

We—or at least I—had been hoping to try their five-course tasting menu, but it turns out they now offer that only “upon advance request”. What they had instead was a small printed menu, supplemented with some chalkboard specials.

The menu was so small, in fact, that we all ended up getting the same entree: the vegetarian gnocchi. The other options were beef or sausage focused, which none of us were big on, or roast chicken, which we like, but which didn’t seem special enough.

We almost all had the same appetizer, too—a sweet pea soup. But then I decided to veer off into the sausage and asparagus flatbread.

Every item was very well prepared, quite flavorful, and the waiter was able to give us the farm origin of all key ingredients. Serving sizes were modest, so we had room for dessert. Two of us had the lovely chocolate parfait, another the strawberry marquis. And the bill was also modest: about $135 for the three of us, including a bottle of wine and some coffee.

And the restaurant–while admittedly not packed full–was blessedly quiet. No need to shout out our conversation.


While I’m on restaurants, I’ll mention that Huffpost Canada recently posted their Best Restaurants in Kitchener-Waterloo list.

They have a number that are also on my list:

  • Public Kitchen and Bar
  • Bhima’s Warung
  • Cameron Seafood Restaurant
  • Northern Thai Restaurant
  • Watami Sushi and Sake Bar

And they don’t disqualify any for being too noisy, so both Nick and Nat’s Uptown 21 and The Bauer Kitchen are also there.

They also have a number of places that I’ve also enjoyed, but didn’t include because I haven’t been there recently enough: Ellison’s Bistro, Janet Lynn’s Bistro, Borealis Grille & Bar, Masala Bay, and Red House. (I should really get back to some of these…)

Chef Elvis Ellison at his bistro

The charming Elvis Ellison, owner and chef at Ellison’s bistro. Also not our photo; this one is from Huffpost Canada.

And, they have a few more that I’m now curious about:

  • Bread Heads: “My vote for best pizza in the region”, it says.
  • The Belmont Bistro. I liked their previous incarnation as the Village Creperie, and the new menu sounds good.
  • Rainbow Caribbean Kitchen. “The top place in town for Jamaican fare”. That would be different, for a casual meal.
  • Timeless Cafe and Bar: With a “unique atmosphere” and “regularly changing menu” of delicious food.
  • The Guanaquita Restaurant, with El Salvadoran food, and dancing, apparently? Hmm.

Then a number that I’m not interested in, because they’re just not my kind of place:

  • The Bent Elbow, “A place of beer worship” where “food is secondary”. (Basically the definition of “not my kind of place”.)
  • Lancaster Smokehouse: Cause it’s all about the ribs, which I don’t eat.
  • Del’s Enoteca (formerly Del Dente). Pizza. But why go here if Bread Heads has the best pizza?
  • Rana Doner Kebabs
  • Holy Guacamole. Isn’t this a chain? (Though it is useful to know that it offers decent Mexican.)
  • Kinkaku Izakaya. I don’t care if it’s better than most all you can eat sushi. It’s still all you can eat sushi.

Then these are the ones that I gave love to, but Huffpost didn’t: Gilt, Bloom restaurant, Sole, Aqua (at the Crowne Plaza—apparently only now “officially” launched), Niko Niko Sushi Roll, along the coffee shops, Death Valley’s Little Brother, Princess Cafe, and Cafe Pyrus.

And their list is strictly KW, so anything far afield, like Langdon Hall or the Easy Pour Wine Bar, is also not there.


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A feast of festivals

In Canada, weather dictates that outdoor festival is pretty short. That’s why I found that timing and programming of Kitchener’s Summer Lights Festival pretty smart. This night of “exploration and discovery” in downtown Kitchener, ran from 8 pm to 1 am, which meant that it started right after the Multicultural Festival in nearby Victoria Park ended. And, it was held in coordination with the Open Ears Festival of Music and Sound and the Our World Festival of Music.

Not only a clever way of allowing people to attend many festivals at once, but it also made the one event much more big and interesting than any of them would have been alone.

They blocked off part of King Street in Kitchener, so you ended up exploring it in that way. (I got suddenly curious about Fritsch Fragrances, Inc., which looks like it’s about 100 years old. Does it really only sell fragrances? Is that a viable business model?) A number of the restaurants and stores were open. Food carts and trucks were on the streets, as were installations such as:

  • The community couch (sit and talk to strangers—which I didn’t)
  • The black light post (get painted and glow)
  • Painters of the night (artists painting on the street, that is)
  • Board game zone
  • Henna tatoo station

Etc. The public buildings were also transformed—the KW Symphony building became a 90s house dance club (pretty dead one at first, but it did liven up later); the inside of City Hall an old-time arcade and Rock Band performance site; and The Museum a live concert venue (featuring a Very! Loud! rock band when we walked in), with an “alternative” market.

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Lighting up the City Hall fountain at the Summer Lights Festival

The range of music and sound on the streets was quite astonishing. Open Ears brought in the weird but cool experimental stuff: the art installation featuring percussion instruments the public could bash away on; the arrangement of different musicians and styles all around the city hall fountain; the classical musicians providing a live soundtrack to a silent French surrealistic movie.

Then there was the AcaBellas, doing their best Pitch Perfect mash-up of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” with, well, two other songs that I’m sure are really famous and popular… And the jazz group performing ‘”What a Wonderful World” in front of a dance floor. (Jean refused to shake his groove thing, though, citing improper footwear and a dislike of rhumba.) Along with the more expected folk guitarists and bands doing classic rock covers.

Kitchener, Ontario, Canada

The lovely Alysha Brilla

The definite highlight for us, though, was the performance by the woman who convinced us to get out there past by our bedtime in the first place: Alysha Brilla. Her style of music is mix of jazz, pop, and Latin. We know of her mainly because CBC—even the news channel—plays her music a lot (for which she thanked them during her performance). We started watching her from afar, then got closer, until I, at least, couldn’t resist joining the crowd dancing right in front of the stage. She was terrific at egging us all on.

Kitchener, Ontario, Canada

Dance party in Kitchener!

I did not, however, volunteer to go up and dance on stage. Those who did, had some serious skills!

All in all, one of the funnest concerts we’ve been to in a while. We really got lifted.

Alysha Brilla – LIfted, live (Toronto performance)

Alysha Brilla, Two Shots – official music video


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Guide to dining in Waterloo region

I’ve been doing “web stuff” a long time, and some of my old pages come up shockingly high in Google search results. For example, when searching on the best places to eat in Kitchener Waterloo, my page was sometimes on that first page of results. Despite the contents being increasingly out of date.

So I finally decided to write a new one, and post it here: Guide to dining in Waterloo region

It includes only independent restaurants and is based on my personal opinion that:

  • Quality beats quantity
  • Conversation is an important part of the dining experience
  • So is wine (often)

It’s a longish page, but includes original photography, and the opportunity to find out:

  • Where coffee and scotch come together at last, in a place that’s way too cool for me (but I go anyway)
  • Which restaurants have lost my business for being too bloody noisy
  • Which place’s sandwiches make me swoon (and I don’t even like sandwiches)
  • Where to get good sushi (rather than all you can eat sushi)
  • Why it’s sometimes worth the drive to Cambridge—or even Singhampton

And finally—RIP, Marisol. We’ll miss you.

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But we look forward to hearing about chef Jeff Ward’s upcoming new venture in downtown Kitchener.