Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Places to eat lunch or dinner in Toronto

Some places I like to eat, when I'm not eating brunch. (updated August 26, 2013)

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Toronto brunch

Consider this an ever-evolving post to fulfill your most pressing brunch needs.  Last-visited dates for each location will be in brackets. Frankly, after the original Hoof Cafe closed, brunch died a little for me, look at the dates below and see how long ago it's been since I went for brunch! (updated November 20, 2013)

Friday, November 05, 2010

The Beastly Birthday

Mmm Beast. It's a pretty perfect neighbourhood restaurant. Cozy and friendly with interesting menu options. Ever since I first went there for brunch I've liked it a lot. I also remembered hearing that you have the option of having an entire dinner that revolves around a single animal. And what better excuse for such a meal than a birthday?  I present to you....The Rabbit Throwdown!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Travel guide: Chicago

Last visited:  July 2011 (4 days)

Places to stay: 

You'll most likely wind up either on the Magnificent Mile or in the Loop if you're staying in a hotel.  Both areas are great, you can easily get around by transit or walking and a lot of the main tourist attractions are nearby.  Unlike other cities, where staying in a main tourist area kind of sucks (ahem, NYC Times Square), staying in this area is actually really nice in Chicago.  The lake, river and Grant Park are all within a few minutes walk, at most, so it's pretty awesome.  Alternatively, you could stay in a bed and breakfast in one of the other neighbourhoods where it's a bit more residential.  My pick for a residential area would probably be Wicker Park, it's a nice contrast to the Magnificent Mile / Loop area.  If you need a cheap place to stay, the HI Chicago is by far one of the nicest hostels I've ever stayed at.  For a fraction of the cost, you're getting a location which is better than many hotels (the hostel is basically across the street from Grant Park). It's clean, they have cheap or free tours, tons of discounts, good security.  Shockingly good really.

How to get around:  

Pretty basic, just take the L (elevated trains - although, they do occasionally dip underground).  Both Midway and O'Hare airports have an L line stop but if you want to take a taxi, FYI Midway is way closer to downtown than O'Hare.  The only tricky thing about the L is that the various lines will often have stops with the same name.  So, for example, the Kedzie-green stop is nowhere near the Kedzie-orange stop.  Buses are also straightforward and I found that the CTA employees were all pretty helpful in giving directions.

Taxis aren't too pricey and are useful for getting around since Chicago is a bit spread out.  A car can also be helpful depending on where you're going. 

Things to see:

Museums - The Chicago Museum Campus is ridiculously good.  I loved visiting as a kid and on my more recent visits always wished I had more time in the city to explore.  In that area you have: the Shedd Aquarium; the Field Museum and Adler Planetarium.  Right at Grant Park you have the Chicago Art Institute (Love Ferris Bueller's Day Off?  Want to try and recreate it?  You're not the only one!).  There's a lot more museums, but these should get you off to a good start.

Navy Pier - This is so cheesy and crowded, but it can be fun. Especially if you're with friends and rent a bike car thingie.

Boat rides - Oh man, you have to do this!  There's like a million of them, just go with whatever, they're all pretty much the same.  You just want an excuse to get on the river (bonus if your tour gets you onto the lake too).  If you don't see Chicago from the River then you don't deserve to be in Chicago.  I went to the Chicago Visitor Center and they have a ridiculous amount of information, including information on like, every single boat tour in town. 

Grant Park / Millennium Park - You'll be here at some point or else you haven't actually been to Chicago (seriously, you may actually be in a different city, you should check).  Not only do they have an array of events running year-round, they have ridiculously awesome art installations.  If an art installation was my best friend, it'd be the big silver bean (don't worry, you'll find it, it's kind of hard to miss).

Tall buildings - Here's a sneaky trick we discovered by accident.  Go up to the lounge in the John Hancock building and go to the bathrooms.  Best views ever!  And obviously, if you're recreating Ferris Bueller's Day Off, a stop at the Sears Tower is obligatory.

Sports - Hell, even if you're just walking past Wrigley Field it's pretty cool to see it.  For a schedule of sporting events, why don't you try googling, hmm?

Got the blues? 

Kingston Mines - This place is awesome, two stages and a blues band always on.

Green Mill - Al Capone's old speakeasy, the space is great and they're serious about jazz.  Like, "no talking while the band is on" serious.

There's a ton of places to go out at night in Chicago.  Blues, jazz, comedy, miles of bars - you name it, it's there.  And it's fun!  Be prepared to stay out late.  My nights in Chicago always seem to run longer and get more out of hand than anywhere else (Well, the company I keep is partially to blame ;) but everywhere I've gone has always been fun.  We even wound up on a posh rooftop bar that was packed and it was still fun and not obnoxious.

If you want a good drink, head over to the Violet Hour.  Possibly the best pseudo-speakeasy in North America (Is it bad that this is something I feel qualified to judge?).  I'm not going to tell you exactly where it is, you can figure it out for yourself.  Great drinks, super friendly bartenders and doormen and unlike most pseudo-speakeasies, the interior is actually quite pleasant and spacious. Beer drinkers, check out the Map Room; the beer list here drove my friend to making happy squeaky noises.

Deep-dish and more: 

Chicago is an amazing food city.  I'm going to ignore deep dish because I'm not really a fan.  The alternatives are so much better.  Italian beef sandwiches are amazing (I think I went to Al's for mine).  Chicago-style hot dogs are ridiculous (I don't know where The Wieners Circle is but when it's 3:30am and you're confused, tell the taxi driver to come here, he'll know where to go).  Hot Doug's is....Mecca for encased meats?  Read more about it hereAnd Mexican food in Chicago is really good.

For high end, the obvious choices would be Alinea or Next (if you can get a reservation).  Aiming a bit lower, any of Rick Bayless's places are worth a try. I went to Mexique for brunch and liked it better than the brunch at Frontera though. Schwa is fantastic! Highly recommended if you can get a reservation, I still think about dinner there...rabbit and strawberries?! (this is an awesome Schwa-related article)  General consensus also points to Paul Kahan's restaurants as being very good.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Tess's guide to the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)

I first went to TIFF over 10 years ago, it was pretty much the first thing I did when I moved to Toronto.  Not on purpose, but I noticed it was happening and I was a bit of a film geek so I went to two screenings.  I saw Waking Ned Devine and I Woke Up Early the Day I Died.  I'm moderately surprised that I Woke Up Early has been seen by people outside of the festival circuit.  I mean really - it's a movie with no dialogue based on an unfinished Ed Wood script.  Strange, to say the least.  Anyway, for those of you who want to see movies at TIFF and don't know where to start, I am here to help!  Sort of.

OMG tickets are all sold out!  No they're not.  There are about a million ways to do this and I'm not going to get into them because someone else has, read all about it here (this website is awesome in general for TIFF info).

Oooo but tickets are so expensive!  Then go volunteer and get vouchers that you can trade for tickets.  Note, the volunteer process has gotten increasingly obnoxious over the years and it looks like now you have to fill out an "application form" and do it in kinda far in advance.  There's lots of ways to not pay full price though.  You can sometimes find tickets under face value on Craigslist/Kijiji, there's lots of ticket giveaways, random discounted tickets (sometimes via corporate discounts), and sometimes if you're standing in a rush line people will just give you tickets.

I just wanna see famous people!  Where are the famous people?!  Everywhere.  Roy Thomson Hall is the favourite area of most celebrity stalkers and if there's a red carpet at a venue, it's pretty obvious.  Just wander around the city until you find large groups of excited people with cameras near a theatre.  Princess of Wales is also good for this. 

What movie should I see??  I'm not doing all the work for you, go do your own research.  The TIFF website will have a description of all the films and when they're scheduled to play beginning about two weeks before the festival.  Can't wait that long?  Don't want to navigate their shitty website?  Keep an eye on the press releases or try this website which has descriptions and some reviews. (p.s., best scheduling method? )

But there are so many movieeeeees!  Help meeeeee!  Okay, I'll give you a general overview of the categories.  General rule of thumb is that the Gala screenings at Roy Thomson Hall (RTH) are your big name films with big name stars.  Special Presentations are a bit of a toss-up, they can also be pretty big films but may be a bit less mainstream.  If you really have no clue what to watch, I've always found Special Presentations to be pretty reliable.  Reel to Reel are documentaries.  Try them out sometime, maybe you'll learn something.  Midnight Madness (MM) is kind of exactly what it sounds like.  If you don't know what Army of Darkness is, maybe this is not for you (note: check the Vanguards programme for this type of stuff also).  I have no idea what Wavelengths really is, but I went to a screening the first year the programme was added and watched a series of short films that were like, just a square.  Or just a ladder.  I would be wary of any Wavelength films.  There's other categories, but they all become a bit more of a jumble.

Ummm I don't want to watch a square for five minutes.  How do I pick something non-crappy?  Research.  Or find someone with similar taste and just follow them around.  Even if I told you what I'm planning to watch, there's about a 90% chance that you won't want to see the same things.  Trailers will be available for many of the films and you can also look for certain key words that you like or want to exclude.  If you don't want to read a million film descriptions, stick to the bigger venues, you should be pretty safe with RTH, the Elgin or Ryerson (unless it's MM), they tend to have more 'normal' movies (overall, if I was going to totally blind-pick a random TIFF movie at the $20 price which most people would be ok watching I'd opt for something showing at the Elgin).  Oh yeah, and be careful of the words "avant-garde" especially if it's connected to Wavelengths.

I don't like this, it's too hard!  Don't get discouraged!  It's not hard at all!  Forget everything I said above, if you've never been to TIFF but are curious about it, just wander over to one of the box offices after they start selling single tickets to the public (about a week before the festival) or even during the festival.  You'll see a big board with all the movies and when they're scheduled.  Some of the movies will be crossed out, so the box office can't sell you a ticket, but just pick a day and time you like and go from there (this is actually exactly how I started).  Doing all the research can help you if you want to see several things or are super picky about what you see, but if you just want to have a peek, then it's easy!  It's like going to a regular movie, but you'll see something that you might not normally see, it'll be fun!

Yes, I know that TIFF is a big, confusing jumble.  But just keep in mind that if you want to see a movie and aren't too picky, it's actually quite easy and not too different than seeing a regular movie :)

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Travel guide: Rio de Janeiro

Last visited:  February 2010 (4 days)

Places to stay:

When I visited, I stayed in the Arpoador B&B.  It's a very small place, only two rooms - I stayed in a twin room, bathroom in the hallway (but not shared) while the other room had an ensuite bathroom and a Queen-sized bed.  I had a pretty good experience here, the location is excellent and the area quite safe.  But you would have to try and ensure that you're in the main B&B because I met some people who were staying close by in a different apartment who didn't seem to like it as much.  Arpoador is between Ipanema and Copacabana, so it's pretty ideal.  Maybe five minutes in any direction and you'll hit one of the beaches.  Plus you're super close to Arpoador beach which is quite nice and a bit hidden.  I think this is the area where sufers go.

While staying in Arpoador was fine, if I were to return to Rio I would almost definitely stay elsewhere, I think Botafogo might be ideal for me.  Botafogo seemed to be in the middle of all the different areas I visited.  The samba bars seemed more concentrated over in Lapa / Santa Teresa, but that area is a bit more dodgy and transit a bit less convenient.  But Botafogo is a quick taxi ride from either there or Ipanema / Copacabana.  Basically, it seemed to me like Botafogo has places to eat, stuff to do, was pretty safe and is convenient to the more popular areas.  Haven't actually stayed there though, so can't say for sure.

You could stay in Santa Teresa, but getting around seems a bit annoying if you want to get out of Santa Teresa.  And you can actually stay in a favela - the Maze Inn is well-established and quite popular.  I don't think I'd recommend it for a first visit because Rio is massive and it's nice to be centrally located to get your bearings, but I would totally want to stay here on a future visit.

How to get around:

You can get around quite easily and effectively by using the subway system.  Buses and mini-vans are a bit more complex but dirt-cheap and depending on where you're going can be convenient.  Taxis aren't very expensive - probably your best option when going out at night.

We didn't have any trouble with any of the transit options when we visited.  Once we hopped on a bus going in the right direction but we didn't have an actual destination, we were just going to ride until we saw something we felt like stopping for - but the conductor and driver were really nice and kept checking on us to make sure we hadn't missed our stop.  Also, everywhere I went, either by myself or with my friend, people were quite happy to call a taxi for us and talk to the driver to make sure they took us to the right place.  We never actually asked them to call the taxi for us, but the guidebooks do indicate that radio taxis are safer than hailing a taxi on the street.

Oh and take the bonde (tram) up or down Santa Teresa, just because it's awesome.  I guess this can be classified as "things to see" also.  If you haven't seen Black Orpheus yet, it's worth watching - plus, you can actually go into the bonde museum and see some of the old trams like they had in the movie (up in Santa Teresa).  Umm, again, I guess this is actually "things to see."

Things to see:

Cristo Redentor - ride the little train up all the way to the top.  Sit on the right-hand side (away from the mountain) for a better view.  Take entertaining photos with the big Jesus.

Sugarloaf - I wound up going twice.  First time up, the clouds covered everything but then started parting to show ridiculously awesome views of Rio.  Then I went up again, but only halfway, and it was a clear day and the views were again ridiculously awesome.  Sometimes, in the summer, they have parties or movies up here.

Helicopter ride - This is the reason I was halfway up Sugarloaf.  I was by myself and needed at least two more people to get on the helicopter ride and the Sugarloaf heliport is the busiest.  THIS IS TOTALLY WORTH THE MONEY.  Even just going on the shortest ride is worth it.  I also got stuck with the crappy middle back seat with no window and it was still worth it.  That photo above?  Yep, taken from the helicopter.  Seriously, this is one of the most awesome things I've ever done.  Best seats are either next to the pilot or behind the pilot.  Behind the pilot is probably best if you want photos (at least on my flight, that's how he circled Cristo Redentor).  And my seat was actually better than the person sitting to my right (back seat, away from the pilot) because the lady sitting there barely got to see Cristo Redentor lol.

Hang gliding - I didn't do this but there are lots of options for it, just google.  If I had more time, I probably would have tried it.  And fyi, I thought that you get to hang glide around Cristo Redentor, but that is not at all true, you are actually pretty far.

Favela tour - Up to you to decide the relative merits of this, just do some googling to make sure you're going with an organization who are actually working to improve things instead of just setting up a tourist trap.  Zezinho is a good guy.

Shopping - Shoes!  Shoes in Brazil are reasonably priced and amazing!  Well, for girls at least.  Not sure for guys.  And you can get custom-made Havaianas also, you pick the colour of the shoe base and the part for your toes and can also pick pins to stick on it.

Football - This was so awesome!  I went on a football tour my first night with Robert Shaw (brazsoc @ hotmail dot com) and it was fabulous!  He's a British ex-pat football journalist and gives you not just background on the teams and players but also gives you a mini-tour around Rio.  HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  You can go to the matches by yourself pretty easily but it's a lot more fun going on this tour because you get so much info.  Just email Robert to see if he's running a tour when you want to go.

Places to eat:

I can't remember where we ate.  Which is unfortunate because we ate somewhere really good in Ipanema, it's just off the main street, on a corner, halfway through Ipanema (or slightly closer to Arpoador) and had a bunch of different salads and stuff you could pick.  Anyway.

You can eat at "por kilo" places - choose, weigh, pay, eat.  And you can eat at rodizios - all you can eat meat or all you can eat sushi.  Or you can eat at small places that serve a variety of dishes on the menu.  WARNING - after a while in Brazil, I noticed that a lot of dishes are meant to be shared.  So like, you might pick something from a menu and it's a giant plate of fish nuggests.  Knowing Portuguese will help you avoid this.

YOU MUST EAT ACAI.  Acai is everywhere.  But you must pick the frozen acai.  And then select delicious toppings such as granola or bananas for it.  And if you see a street vendor selling it, go up and just nod to all the toppings.  I miss acai.  Eat as much of it as you can before leaving the country.

Love the nightlife? Got to boogie?

Be prepared to stay up late.  Like, until dawn.  I went to the Carnival winners parade and it started at 9pm and went until 6am.  Pretty much what you'd expect, people eat late and go out even later.  Google is your friend for event listings but you can also find flyers and booklets while you're there.  Samba is amazing, go find a good club and park yourself in there one night.  There are other options too, but I'm not sure what because we pretty much just kept going to samba clubs (well and it was right after Carnival so there was Carnival stuff too).


It comes up as a big issue when reading guidebooks and stuff about Brazil, but we didn't have any issues.  As mentioned before, I found that people actually went out of their way to help us get to our destinations safely.  Just use some common sense and you should be fine.  We didn't have an SLR, so that's the only thing you might want to be careful of since they're kind of gigantic and obvious.  I think maybe someone tried to pickpocket my friend once in the metro, but I don't remember if that was in Rio or Sao Paulo.  He didn't lose anything.  I was with a friend half the time and spent the last few days by myself, no issues either way.


Learn some Portuguese (I mean really, I would argue that it's a bit rude going to any place if you don't learn to at least say hello and thank you).  Spanish can help you squeak by.  If you're only in town a week or less you should be fine even with mostly English since you'll likely be in well-touristed areas.  Rio is really big.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Travel guide: New York City

Last visited:  November 2013

Places to stay:

Umm, usually I stay with friends or family.  But once I stayed at a Marriott in Brooklyn, it was right by the bridge so it's a pretty good location and cheaper than staying in Manhattan.  The cheaper B&B / hostel options all seem to be up by Harlem or Columbia University, but it's not the most convenient area so if it's your first visit, you'd probably want to be more central.  Anywhere on the south side of Central Park is basically fine for getting around to tourist places.

How to get around:

The subway is handy and gets you to most places quite well.  Just remember to check the signs to see if you're heading uptown or downtown, and also to check if you're on an express or local train.  Note also that if you overshoot your destination and want to ride back the other way on the subway, you can't do that for free at all the stations - for some of them, the entrance to the train going the opposite direction requires and extra fare.  Lots of automatic vending machines for the swipey subway cards but if you're paying with a credit card, it'll ask you for your zip code - not sure how this would work for foreign cards.  There's also a max amount of change the machines will give you, so you might need to get smaller bills.

Taxis are also pretty cheap in NYC, especially compared to Toronto.  To get from St. Marks up to Columbia is less than US$30, I think.  So if you're feeling lazy, just take a taxi.  But for getting to/from the airports, you can get to La Guardia, JFK and Newark by public transit or by airport shuttle bus - lots of info on these if you google.

Things to see:

I'm not going to bother listing all the tourist stuff, you should be able to figure that out yourself.  But keep an eye out for reduced or free admission (e.g., MoMA is free on Friday nights).  And keep an eye out for "suggested" admission prices (e.g., the Met admission is suggested, you can actually pay whatever you want).
The photo above was taken from Governors Island, they have miscellaneous events throughout the year and it's also just a fun place to hang out.  Free ferry leaves from the building next to the Staten Island ferry building.  The High Line can be fun too, although I got bored with it pretty quickly and wandered into Chelsea Market instead (mmm food).  Note - if you're walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, the subway entrances are actually a bit of a walk from the entrance to the bridge walkway itself.  Umm, I dunno, just wander around NYC, you'll find stuff to do.

Places to eat:

Oh man, where to start?  Hmm let's start with high-end.  There's lots of places to choose from, but if you want a blow-out dinner and don't have a particular preference, I like Eleven Madison.  NYC also has a ridiculous number of options for high-end dining at bargain prices, especially if you're free for a weekday lunch.  If you want to test out how you feel about high-end dining, I'd pick Jean Georges for lunch.  If you know you want high-end but don't want to pay dinner prices, then I'd pick Eleven Madison for lunch.

On the lower end of things, I'm pretty obsessed with the tater tots at Crif Dogs.  My favourite is getting a deep-fried bacon-wrapped Crif Dog and pairing it with a dipping sauce from Pommes Frites down the street.  The tater tots are a large portion, so you'll probably want to share.  There's nothing particularly special about them except for the fact that they're deep fried and therefore awesome.  There's about a zillion places to eat in the city and most of them are really quite good, so just poke around and you'll find something good.

If you feel like venturing out and exploring, eat your way along the 7 train. Trust me. 

Love the nightlife? Got to boogie?

Again, about a million options here.  For drinks, I spend most of my time bouncing between the faux-speakeasies because I like cocktails and the random entrances make me laugh.  They all have pretty different atmospheres, so just do a search and pick one you like.  Flatiron Lounge is by far the easiest one to find.  PDT is probably one of the harder ones to get into because of the size, but it has the most entertaining entrance.

Note that a lot of the museums have bars and parties, just dig through some NYC listings and they should pop up if there are any when you're going.  I'm pretty clueless when it comes to NYC clubs, the only one I've been to was years ago and my friend brought me there.  As usual, google is your friend.  If you're looking for something quirky though, look up Dances of Vice.

The best ice cream in Toronto

Date:  August 2, 2010

I love ice cream!  And gelato, ice cream cakes, ice cream sandwiches, get the idea.  And I think I have now found Toronto's best ice cream.  I have, in fact, undergone extensive testing of this product to try and ensure that my conclusion is correct.  Let's do a run-down of frozen dessert options.

Dutch Dreams

You can see it in the above photo.  Ironically, this is probably one of the worst ice cream places you can go to.  Great for kids, fun if you want to drown your ice cream in toppings, but if you're actually eating the ice cream, it ranges from "okay" to "gross."  Most recent visit was a couple weeks ago and the two sorbets we tried were definitely on the gross end of the spectrum.  Dutch Dreams is by St. Clair W. station.  Fun for kids. 

A perennial contender, I have a soft spot for Greg's.  I went to school at UofT while Greg's was still in it's old, subterranean location on Bloor.  Greg's is great for having a wide range of flavours but as the years have passed, I find that their ice cream is lacking some richness to it.  Definitely worth going if you're a fan of their flavours such as roasted marshmallow, malt ball crunch, etc, but in terms of actual ice cream quality, I think maybe it's above average, but we are looking for the best here.  Greg's current location is near Spadina station.


I haven't been to Summer's in years, but I'm guessing my memories are correct (my years-old memory of Dutch Dreams was spot-on, so I'm assuming that ice cream quality doesn't vary as much as food quality can).  Summer's isn't bad, but I don't remember ever thinking it was particularly special.  Living at UofT, I mostly went to Greg's with occasional side-trips to Summer's.  I don't think Summer's had the range of fun flavours that Greg's had and I feel like the quality was pretty average.  Summer's is in Yorkville.

Baskin Robbins

If you think Baskin Robbins is the best ice cream in Toronto, you need to live a little more.  Next!

Dairy Queen

Yeah, I know this isn't ice cream but I don't care.  Blizzards are awesome!  Um, but I digress.

Dolce Gelato

Um, ok, yeah, not ice cream either.  But gelato is basically ice cream to me.  I like Dolce, they have a good range of flavours without being ridiculous.  A solid option.  Dolce is on College St., in Little Italy.

La Paloma

Ridiculous range of flavours, pretty good quality.  I don't really know how to gauge gelato quality actually, I use the pistachio test (i.e., eat the pistachio flavour - if it blows my mind, the gelato is good - unfortunately, my favourite pistachio in town was at the now-defunct Solfereti by the Financial District, so I'm a bit s.o.l.).  La Paloma has too many flavours, I like Dolce better because it's more manageable.  La Paloma is on St. Clair W. by Earlscourt Park.


Brutal.  I don't know if I ordered the wrong thing, but I tried a couple of flavours and settled on a chocolate - while it was good, there was something a bit odd about it.  Like, not as creamy as ice cream, almost more fudge-y?  Not bad and I'd happy to go back and work my way through some other flavours in the interest of research, but I'm not sure about Xococava, even though I know they're supposed to be some of the city's best ice cream.

Hoof Cafe

Sneaking this one in.  Okay, you can't get scoops of ice cream but the best single ice cream I've probably ever had is the malted ice cream (made in-house) which comes as part of the Malteaser.

Sicilian Ice Cream

Does this place even serve ice cream?  I think I usually got tartufo because it was more intriguing.  If you want straight-up ice cream, go to Dolce Gelato instead (well, I guess that should be "if you want frozen dessert in a cup or cone" instead of a sundae or other, more complex, dessert, go to Dolce instead).  Haven't been back for years because I switched to Dolce after they opened.  Little Italy.

The Big Chill

I used to live a block from here, this place is cute!  You used to get a mini-Oreo on top of your ice cream.  But ice cream quality was just average from what I remember.  They've expanded into a bigger space it seems, Little Italy @ College/Manning.  Fun for kids.

Ed's Real Scoop

I've only been here once, a couple years ago, and don't remember being overly impressed by the ice cream.  I remember thinking it was pretty good but not worth going out of my way for.  In the interest of research, I might make another venture over to see what it's like compared to my pick for best ice cream.  In the Beaches. 

Soma Chocolate

Ooo now we're getting close to the best.  Soma's already probably my current pick for Toronto's best hot chocolate and they're also pretty damn close to my pick for best ice cream also.  Rich, creamy and oh-so-delicious.


Which brings us to my pick for best ice cream in Toronto.  I loooooove Delight.  There's a small range of organic ice cream flavours, generally around six each time I've gone.  Chocolate seems to be a stand-by while others, such as Blueberry Cheesecake and Niagara Apricot change seasonally based on what's available.  My current favourite is Mint Chocolate Chunk - the flavour of the real mint ice cream with the soft chocolate chunks is killer.  Topped with a piece of milk or dark in-house chocolate, this place is awesome.  BUT WAIT.  I haven't gotten to the best part.  Delight has a non-dairy chocolate ice cream which is fantastic.  It's made with coconut milk and having done a head-to-head comparison, it's actually even better than their regular chocolate ice cream.  The dairy-free is like...fudge in ice cream form, it's so rich.  Two locations, one in the Junction, one by Trinity-Bellwoods.  Although the selection of flavours is small and it's not the cheapest place in town, Delight is great quality and had something that everyone can eat, so what's not to like?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The best pork ever?

Could this be the best pork ever?

That's pretty high praise coming from me.  After all, I literally live off eating pork.  And for those of you like me, perhaps you owe it to yourself to try this delicious pork.  Many of you have tried it (some of you who have would probably agree that this is maybe the best pork ever).  Some of you may not know you've tried it but after reading this will recall a vague memory of eating some really delicious pork.

I've been hunting this pork down for years.  We've had a pretty long relationship, me and the summer pork.  It's the summer pork because that's mostly when I can find it.  It started years ago at Taste of Little Italy, where I stumbled across the delicious pork and grew into a minor obsession over the years.  I'm quite good at hunting down the summer pork now - last year I managed to eat so much that I had pretty much managed to satisfy my summer pork craving by the end of summer.

There are a few key elements to the summer pork combo you see above.  First, there is the delicious pork itself.  I think it's Ecuadorian?  I really have no idea.  You'll see it in a large cauldron, bubbling happily away in juicy delicious sauce.  The orange-y stuff on top is an oh-so-tasty salsa, I recommend putting on as much as possible.  Frankly, I'd eat it by the spoonful.  On the side is an unassuming but surprisingly pleasant salad with it's nicely marinated onions.  Hiding underneath the pork is some rice and beans.  

And that big yellow circle?  THAT IS THE POTATO.  The delicious potato.  I love this potato.  Not as much as I love the summer pork, but in some ways very close.  Maybe it is the best potato ever?  It's kind of like mashed potato, which they pan fry on two sides so it's sort of both crispy and soft.

The summer pork combo can be found at summer festivals all over Toronto.  This is where I have always found the summer pork.  Prices vary at each festival, I've paid as much as $8 for the combo or as little as $5.  The $5 combo is the best because it's also the easiest to find - Nathan Phillips Square, Tasty Thursdays.  Get there before noon or you'll be waiting the better part of an hour to get some summer pork (overheard in line: "I've been waiting a year for this!" as a businessman happily orders his summer pork and his friend nods, beaming, while ordering his own summer pork).

I guess I should tell you the name of the summer pork place.  It's La Fiesta.  But that's not really necessary because once you get acquainted with the pork, you'll just know it's the right pork.  They have an actual restaurant, but it's closed right now for renovations.  I've never been there, but I asked out of curiosity.

There doesn't seem to have been much written about the summer pork.  After encountering it a few times, I finally resorted to asking about it on Chowhound after not finding info on Google, but even on Chowhound there are only a few mentions of the summer pork.  But I think lots of people know about it.  Certainly, almost every time I've found the summer pork there is a very long line for it.  

What I always think is funny though, is when people order the beef or the chicken.  These are always the two other options you can get at the tent, and I'm sure that they are tasty, but OMG CAN'T YOU SEE THE PORK BUBBLING AWAY AND LOOKING DELICIOUS?  Lol, dear people who did not order the pork: I am giggling behind your back.  Overheard in line, customer talking to cashier: "Umm what should I order? What's your favourite?" / "The Pork!" .

The summer pork: it will put a smile on your face :)

Deli Duel

Let's cut right to the chase - whose smoked meat reigns supreme in Toronto?  Thanks to The Stop, we had the perfect chance to find out at the Deli Duel.

Goldin's?  The only place I'm aware of where you can order a Goldin's smoked meat sandwich is Free Times Cafe.  Otherwise, I think they mainly sell whole briskets.

The Stockyards?  Rowena and I dropped in for brunch right before the Deli Duel but assiduously avoided ordering smoked meat.  Our assumption was that considering the restaurant's proximity to the Deli Duel venue, we'd be getting a pretty consistent product.

Caplansky's?  The juggernaut of the three competitors, Rowena and I had both been to Caplansky's before, but I actually hadn't had their sandwich since I was there for brunch.

Rowena's take on our crazy brunch vs ice cream vs meat vs meat vs meat day:

The main event of the day was Deli Duel at Wychwood Barns.  I was excited as I wasn't able to eat some Schwartz's smoked meat during a recent trip to Montreal (sacrilegious to a foodie...I know!).  Tastings were $3, iced tea or lemonade $3, and beer from Steam Whistle $5. All proceeds from the event went to The Stop Community Food Centre and they were reported to have raised $10,000!  

Tess and I started off with Goldin's smoked meat.  It came on rye bread, mustard, with a side of pickle.  The meat was moist, fatty and full of flavour.  It was a great way to start off the duel.  We washed the sandwich down with some refreshing lemonade.  

The crowds started to pick up and we split up to stand in line at The Stockyards and Caplansky's.  The line up at The Stockyards was shorter and we actually ate it while standing in line for Caplansky's.  The Stockyards smoked meat was quite dry, and I did not enjoy the spices they used on it (and no pickle).  So far, between Stockyards and Goldin's...Goldin's, by far!

We finally got to the front of the line at Caplansky's and were given the choice between regular and spicy mustard.  Spicy (of course) and bonus pickle!  We sat down to eat Caplansky's sandwich and thought that the meat was far better than Stockyards, but ranked close to the meat we had at Goldin's.  As we were sitting, we overheard that Goldin's had run out of meat and saw that Stockyards had also run out of meat.  I later found out through Twitter that it happened at least twice during the day! 

In the end, we both voted Goldin's to be the winner based on flavour, fattiness of the meat, and moisture content.  The Overall Winner of the Day turned out to be Caplansky's.       
What a foodie filled Sunday with brunch, ice cream and smoked meat!  I ate so much that day, that I didn't even eat dinner!  Is this what it's like to join Tess on her foodie adventures??? If so, sign me up!
My take: 
It's interesting because when I was uploading the photos to the blog, I realized that you can really see the difference in the meats.  The touch of fattiness of Goldin's vs the different texture of Caplansky's.  We were torn between these two because we agreed that Goldin's had the right texture and fattiness but was a touch salty and could have used more flavour, while Caplansky's had good flavour but was lacking the texture and fattiness.  Even though Caplansky's won, general consensus on Chowhound seems to be almost overwhemlingly in favour of Goldin's.

This was a fun day!  Luckily, Rowena and I arrived quite early to the Deli Duel because we didn't have to wait too long and were able to get our sandwiches before the first batch of meat ran out.

Lol and yes, eating a lot of delicious food is generally a cornerstone of my adventures ;)

One last look at the Deli Duel (as I drift away to check on the Schwartz's brisket I'm hiding in the know, for emergencies...)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


I like Black Hoof (938 Dundas St. W.) and I like Hoof Cafe (923 Dundas St. W.).  I'll randomly update this post if I eat at either for dinner. 


July 11, 2010: Fried chicken dinner at Hoof Cafe.  $25 gets you four biscuits, homemade gravy and hot sauce, coleslaw and half a chicken, cut up and fried.  This also makes for delicious leftovers.  I think the hot sauce was my favourite part.  The fried chicken isn't on the chalkboard menu, it's one of the specials, available Sundays and Mondays.

February 1, 2011: Goodbye Hoof Cafe! Closing at the end of the month for a revamp and reinvention. Goodbye crispy pork pita, malteaser, jesus bacon brunch, crispy beans and chickpeas, numerous iterations of suckling belly! Goodbye menu of delicious drinks, fried chicken with house-made hot sauce, apple toffee dessert thingie I had this weekend! While this may bode well for my arteries and wallet, I am sad to see you go.

Oh I was at Black Hoof this weekend also. The Lamb Tongue/Eggplant Ragu was pretty bowl-lickingly delicious. Pig Head Tacos also got a thumbs up from our table. There's also a yuzu drink on the menu and I am a mega-yuzu fan so another thumbs up.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010


503 College Street

Last visited:  July 7, 2010

Wednesday night at Grace Upstairs: $8 for the bbq (pulled pork sandwich or lamb sausage) / $12 for bbq + a beer / $20 for the lobster boil.
The pulled pork sandwich was on coco bread and had a side of coleslaw.  I liked this!  I lived in the southern U.S. for many years and I haven't really liked most of the pulled pork or bbq that I've tried in Toronto (to the point where I pretty much stopped eating it here).  But I liked this!  It had a very smokey flavour.  And I like the softness of coco bread.  Coleslaw was pretty good - not the best ever, but not bad.

The lamb sausage had sauce on it and a side of potato salad.  I liked the sausage ok.  The flavour was quite strong, so it was a touch gamey for me.  The potato salad was nice!  It had hard-boiled egg in it.

And then we also shared the lobster!  Because it's fun being excessive!  Pretty straightforward, they boil the lobster, crack it for you and serve with butter and chili oil to dip in.  Mmm lobster in butter - what's not to like?

This was the third bbq of the summer, I'm not sure how many they'll be having.  It was a lot of fun, I would go back.  Everyone working there was really friendly.  The place was pretty full by around 8:00 - the bbq starts at 6:00.  FYI, it's not outdoors, you go to Grace Upstairs (the little door beside Grace on College St.), order at the bar and find a seat where they'll serve you whatever you ordered.  There's a door onto the roof where they bbq but you sit inside Grace Upstairs.

Thursday, July 01, 2010


Hot dogs - the new gourmet burger?

I'm pretty sure this is where things are headed.  Although Toronto continues to have more and more gourmet burger places opening up each minute, we are generally a bit behind the times.  I'm pretty sure encased meat is where it's at.

Don't get me wrong, my love of burgers is pure and true.  But lately I've been having a bit of a love affair with the oh-so-enticing wonders of deep-fried bacon-wrapped hot dogs and Rosemary and Garlic Smoked Chicken Sausage with Sweet Chili-Garlic Mustard and Cheese-Stuffed Marinated Hot Peppers (yes, you read that correctly; feel free to re-read, it took me a few times to process the amazingness of those words).  Here, have a look at it:

Let's start with Toronto.  I'd say our street meat is actually pretty good, it's nice that they grill the hot dogs and sausages and we get a wide variety of toppings.  Today I went to The Counter and noticed they have a foot-long hot dog on the menu.  Toppings weren't particularly exciting (not compared to what I'm going to show you) but it's a start: for example, grilled onions/mushrooms/swiss cheese and bacon.  But like I said, we tend to be a bit behind the times.

Let's head on to NYC and Chicago.  While NYC has somehow become famous for street meat, I've never been much of a fan of dirty water dogs.  I mean seriously?  Dirty water dogs over grilled?  Not likely.  Anyway, maybe it all started with Gray's Papaya for me.  Gray's is a classic but I wasn't wowed when I went.  It's cheap and I hadn't had a hot dog with sauerkraut on it so it was a bit of a novelty but didn't make much of an impression.  However, NYC is home to Crif Dogs, which I love love love.  My favourite is the classic house dog, wrapped in bacon, but I certainly wouldn't turn down a Spicy Red Neck: a house dog, bacon-wrapped, with chili, coleslaw and jalapenos.

By luck I had back-to-back trips to NYC and Chicago (the journey of encased meats?) so had an interesting comparison.  Although people may talk about NYC when they talk about hot dogs, Chicago takes the crown on this one (Yet oddly, people talk about Chicago pizza and I'd say NYC pizza is way better.  Go figure).  Here's a pretty standard Chicago dog:

Think about this.  This is standard.  This is like, boring.  I assume you're now starting to see the awesomeness of Chicago dogs over NYC dogs.  But I haven't gotten to the best part yet.  Remember Ferris Bueller's Day Off?  Abe Froman, the Sausage King of Chicago?  He's like, real!  Well, sort of.  His name is Doug Sohn, owner of Hot Doug's.  While tastes vary, I'm pretty sure that whoever you are, you will likely find the Jesus encased meat of your choice at Hot Doug's (Doug is also really nice!  He works the counter!).

That is the Bacon and Cheddar Elk Sausage with Bacon-Garlic Mayonnaise and Black Mountain Garlic-White Wine Cheese.  Although I could only try two sausages on my visit to Hot Doug's, this one blew my mind.  Each component was soooo delicious!  And together they were an explosion of deliciousness!  Love love love!

But getting back to my original point (I did sort of have one) - I think that hot dogs may be the new gourmet burgers.  Case in point - I stumbled across the Eleven Madison Park bar menu online and noticed the Petite Hot Dog: bacon, gruyère cheese, celery relish and black truffles.

If this really is the next food trend, then maybe we'll get a decent equivalent in Toronto (eyeballs Hoof Cafe hopefully).

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


There's eating food and then there's a dining experience.  I've been to EMP twice in the past, once for lunch and once for brunch; both times before the current chef (Daniel Humm) took over.  I've had a soft spot for EMP since I first went there. 

Tucked away, you almost wouldn't notice it's there.

Welcomed inside, you'll find yourself in a beautiful art deco room.  A part of me hesitated to come to EMP for dinner because it is absolutely stunning in daylight.  Cue a 5:30pm reservation in summer to get the best of both worlds.

But another dilemma presented itself.  After having been to EMP a few times, I wanted to go all out.  Coming on the heels of a four-star review in the New York Times, a Michelin star and a James Beard award to Daniel Humm as NYC's best chef, I wanted to see what the full EMP experience was like.  But no one wanted to come with me.

Not too surprising at the price point I was looking at, but I was faced with the question of whether I scale back or gamble on being to tolerate my own company for several hours.  I gambled.  Let me present - the Eleven:

Gougeres to start.  According to Wikipedia, "A gougère, in French cuisine, is a savory choux pastry with cheese."  According to me, it is THE BEST CHEESE PUFF ON EARTH.  I had read about these but had never eaten one and had no clue what people were going on about.  It's not flaky like puff pastry, but it's very light - kind of hollow.  The outer layer is solid and the inner layer is soft.  I tried not to eat all of them because I knew I hadn't actually started into my eleven "real" courses, but I scarfed them down in about 30 seconds.  Later I was looking around and...I think this serving is normally for two people.  This will come into play later.

Hors d'oeuvres.  From left to right: carrot marshmallow; big eye tuna; asparagus and foie gras; morel tart; sweetbreads.  I think that's approximately correct.  Standout item for me was the sweetbreads.  I didn't think I'd like them because sometimes I don't like offal but wow.  It was like the best wonton ever (I know that sounds ridiculous but really, if you eat it, it makes sense).

Pretty, yes?  But no alcohol for me tonight, I knew how much food was coming.  Umm I totally forget what this drink was - it was second in the Soft Cocktails section and may have had a funny name.  Some who know me will realize the Herculean effort involved in me staying away from the cocktail list.  Difficult though it was, it won't be a problem - I'm already plotting to drop by EMP again at some point.

This was the first "real" course of my Eleven.  Sterling royal caviar with buckwheat and quail egg.  Mmm this was lovely.  Ok, let's count them down...

(Ten) Santa Barbara sea urchin custard with sterling royal caviar, green apple and shellfish ragout.  I didn't know sea urchin would be on the menu.  I think it's kind of icky.  I liked this dish, but I still thought the sea urchin texture was icky.  Note, service at EMP is phenomenal.  It's hard to express how good this service is; it's sort of like a friendlier, more casual version of a formal high end dinner service.  We'll get to more of this later.

(Nine) When I'm at a restaurant that claims to be in the upper-echelons of dining, I expect moments of greatness.  I expect to taste something transcendent.  I don't expect it from every dish, but once we get into high-end tasting menu territory, I want to be surprised and awed.  This... It's just a taboule right?  Seems a bit meh?  Taboule salad with spring crudites and wild herbs to be exact.  But do you see the two tomatoes?  They were two of the most amazing things I've ever had in my life.
I noticed the table next to me asked about the tomatoes also, so it wasn't just me.  Pretty straightforward, they roasted them a bit to get the skin off and cooked them lightly in olive oil.  But dear God, the flavour was unbelievable.  I wonder if I could order just a bowl of tomatoes?  The dish was very good overall but those tomatoes are like...the best food ever?
(Eight) Organic rabbit rillettes with foie gras, cherries and pistachio bread.  There was a lot going on here and it was all good.  Oddly, my favourite bit were the two candied pistachios - I think because I didn't realize they were there.  Oh and see the round ball in the back?  With a little stem?  It's a hollow pistachio ball filled with a liquid cherry centre.

Remember how I mentioned amazing service earlier?  I had called a few days before my reservation to mention that I didn't want any dishes which had a lot of foie gras in it (more than a few bites is too rich for me) and at the start of my meal my captain for the evening noted my concern and indicated that the night's foie gras dish only used the foie gras as almost a garnish and that the focus was really more on the rabbit - leaving me the choice about whether it would be too rich for me.  I like rabbit, so I said bring it on.

You know you're in a classy place when they stamp their logo in the butter and provide you with two types of butter.  Goat milk on the left, cow milk on the right.  I'm not a huge fan of goat milk, but I was all over that cow milk butter.  Umm this butter is really really good.  They gave me a little baguette and a little rosemary/olive oil bun and I wasn't going to eat it all because I knew it would make me full...but I needed to use it as a butter delivery service so I wound up eating all of it.

(Seven) This was probably my favourite overall dish of the evening.  Atlantic halibut slow cooked with artichoke and tomatoes.  There are the world's best tomatoes again!  And the artichoke puree was deeeeeeeeeelicious.  The only part I liked less were the fava beans, but only because I am somewhat anti-bean in general (texture).  Oh and that's a mussel on top (breaded and fried).

This made me laugh.  The captain appeared with a silver bowl with grass growing out of it and this lollipop "growing" amidst the grass.  Yes, I should have photographed it but I was too busy being puzzled about whether my next dish was something that looked like grass but couldnt really be grass.  Anyway, this is my carrot lollipop.  I liked it much better than the carrot marshmallow!  It was chilled so it was like a frozen lollipop!

(Six) Nova Scotia lobster lasagna with lemon verbena and heirloom squash.  I was told that this is a new item for EMP.  The giant piece of lobster was delicious!  But I was a bit distracted because the sauce was a bit salty for me and it was a bit difficult deciding how to cut things up so that each mouthful would be full of a delicious mix of food (I wish this was as difficult as life gets).

Next drink - forgot what this was called but it was cherry/mint.  Tasty!  And see those three thin books to the right?  Early in the evening, my captain popped by and dropped off three magazines in case I wanted to look at them.  Did I ever!  EMP produces its own in-house magazines written by staff and sometimes by patrons.  There was one about chicken, one about wine and one about cocktails.  Very entertaining.  Ok, still with me?  We have more to eat, we're only halfway through!

(Five)  Earth and Ocean - slow cooked poussin with Hawaiian blue prawns and seaweed.  Having the EMP magazines was awesome because it taught me what poussin (young chicken) was before this dish appeared.  I liked this one a lot!  Somewhat Asian-flavoured because of the seaweed and there was nori tucked in with the chicken.  I was sad because I only noticed towards the end of this dish that the garnish sprinkle on top was something spicy that made each bite even more awesome.

You're unimpressed right now.  I sense it.  I've shown you all sorts of pretty, colourful things and now you're bored.  BUT WAIT.  This is my special dish.  We'll call it 4.5 - braised duck leg with foie gras mousse.

When I made the foie gras call, I also asked about the duck.  EMP's duck is supposed to be amazing and I LOVE DUCK.  It's also not something I get to eat too often, so I checked into the possibility of having the duck with my tasting menu.  But the duck is for two.  It's an entire duck.  I figured I should cut my losses - I didn't want to wind up paying the duck supplement and only eating one bite of the duck, so I decided to pass and just go with a "basic" Eleven (note - my captain went back and forth with the kitchen a few times to suss out my options - again, amazing service).

But suddenly, 4.5 appeared.  They had indulged duck-obsessed me by sending over a special duck course.  The braised duck is at the bottom of the bowl and it's covered in foie gras mousse.  At first it was a bit salty but after mixing everything up it was yum!  Mmmm duck.  I'd read a lot about EMP's service going in so I knew it was supposed to be stellar but

(Four)  Colorado lamb, herb roasted with sucrine lettuce, garden peas and Oregon morels.  Um so remember the gougeres?  And the bread service?  This is where I hit the wall.  When the lamb dish appeared, I was getting to be so-very-full.  Look close enough and you'll notice this dish looks a bit off because I started eating and forgot to take a photo first.  Brain cells and motor skills had slowed down significantly.

There was a lamb sausage, the lamb you see in front and under the peas, there is lamb cooked a different way.  Ummm I'm not sure how it was cooked but the lamb under the peas was my favourite.  It was almost like...pulled lamb inside?  But the outside was all ummm seared?  I have no idea.  Oh and there was a lamb-filled pasta also.  I was so full after this.  I think this is when I started getting up a lot more and eating much more slowly.

(Three)  The cheese course.  Ohhh man I was dying by this point.  I was actually going to pass on the cheese course but the captain and I both figured "awww just a little bit."  It was interesting, they roll up the cheese cart and you can tell them types of cheese you like / dislike if you have no clue which cheese you want.  This is when I discovered that the cheese cart selection is created by the Maitre de Fromage.  THEY HAVE A MAITRE DE FROMAGE.  I feel so uncouth.

Umm the first cheese pairing was my favourite.  I forgot that I don't like goat cheese so the first two are goat and the last (right-side) is cow.  But the goat cheese paired with "squishy orangey stuff" was my favourite.  Even though these were only slivers, I admitted defeat after eating most of it.  This also came with some warm bread which I immediately had a bite of until I remembered that continuing on that track would make me pass out on the comfy couch.  Decidedly uncouth.

(Two)  Almost there!  This is "Milk and Honey" - it's sort of like an ice cream ball filled with honey with crunchy meringue bits on top.  I successfully ate it all.

(One)  In hindsight, I realized that I could have packed up some of this instead of eating it all but that's not nearly as fun.  This is bittersweet chocolate cremeux with black sesame, carmaelized banana and yuzu.  I love yuzu!  This was good but I only ate 3/4 of it because I didn't want my stomach to explode (very uncouth).  Of course, although this is the last of the Eleven, you didn't think we were done yet, did you?

Macaroons.  I don't remember what these were because by this time I had eaten so much I couldn't hear.  There were actually more choices than this, I think maybe eight types in total?  I pointed at the pink one (strawberry basil?) and asked for chocolate ones (the next two) and was also served peanut butter and jelly and the last white one which was the chef's favourite.  I managed to eat the PB&J macaroon but boxed up the rest.

But wait!  Although we're done with the evening's dining, the fun continues...

This is what I left the restaurant with.  And no, I didn't steal any of it, they gave it to me!  We have the three magazines, a folder with a copy of my menu in it (although I think a few of the dishes aren't quite right, I adjusted some descriptions based on the online menu), my box of macaroons, a box of fruit jellies and a bottle of olive oil.
Final verdict?  So. very. awesome.